Op-ed by Tobey Williamson, of Warren who runs two small businesses in the midcoast. From 2003 to 2012, he was a consultant on environmental, community and economic development issues across Maine, with a focus on the development of renewable energy.
Imagine that, on the way into the supermarket in the spring, you noticed a shiny, new scale by the door. It was rumored that the owner of the market had been allowed to require that we weigh the fruits and vegetables we grew ourselves. No one knew why exactly, but unbelievably, further rumors suggested that the grocery chain meant to charge us for them.
By the end of the summer, the rumors were proven true. Maine people were actually now required to pay for the fruits of their own labor planting, weeding, watering and harvesting their dooryard gardens.
Sound farfetched? This is analogous to what the Public Utilities Commission has allowed Central Maine Power and Emera Maine to do to our state’s newest small generators of clean, renewable electricity.
Early in 2018, the new “gross metering” rules went into effect, requiring new solar power projects to measure exactly how much power they generate. Previously, only the difference between electrons generated and used on site was tracked. This was called “net metering,” and it allowed people to harvest some sunlight for their own use entirely separate from their utility bills. Under the new rules, the utilities now claim ownership of the portion of harvested sunlight we use immediately to power our homes – energy that never touches the utility distribution lines.
The “gross meter” and its associated complex equations developed by the utilities and blessed by the PUC result in the need to buy power from the grid to replace some subtracted sun-generated kilowatt-hour credits. So far, these lost credits amount to at least a 10 percent tax on the output of my panels. Other solar projects are likely facing similar, impossible-to-have-foreseen charges that completely change the calculations used to secure financing.
The old net metering rules were working just fine. Now those of us who took a risk on the new rules are struggling not only with unanticipated electric bills on top of our loan payments, but also with pages of poorly developed and confusing spreadsheets that are often riddled with mistakes. As the recent CMP billing controversies have proven, electric bills were already hard to understand and customer service was already lacking when customers call to sort out problems. Gross metering makes it exponentially worse for those of us stepping up to slow climate change and support the Maine economy by generating clean electricity.
It is also important to note that gross metering was implemented despite strong public opposition. The new rule was enforced only by Gov. LePage’s veto of bipartisan legislation that would have negated it. The veto came within just three votes of being overridden.
This corporate giveaway of citizen-generated electricity is not popular. But it could continue for the 25-year life span of all of the newest solar projects unless the law is changed. Worse, it could spread to other states, slowing hard-won progress against climate change and energy independence.
Rep. Seth Berry, who co-chairs the Energy and Utilities Committee, understands these issues. In fact, he was the first to mention the supermarket analogy I used above. He has introduced L.D. 91, An Act To Eliminate Gross Metering, to stop this practice, which is taking away the right of Maine people to collect and use renewable energy freely on their own land while saddling us with unjust costs and unnecessary billing complications.
Please join this effort to support renewable-energy development by resolving the injustice of gross metering. Call your state senator and representative and encourage them to vote “yes” on L.D. 91 to make gross metering explicitly illegal. Our children, our economy and our climate will be better off if investment in renewable energy is encouraged rather than taxed.