Lincoln County’s second community-owned solar farm, located at The Morris Farm in Wiscasset, went online Thursday, March 31. The installation, owned by the Morris Farm Community Solar Association, is generating renewable energy for the grid as the Maine Legislature enters the final stages of debate on a bill that could have a significant impact on Maine’s solar energy industry.
More than a dozen community members gathered at The Morris Farm on Saturday, April 2 to celebrate the completion of the solar installation first proposed in September 2015, learn about the advances in renewable energy technology driven by Maine companies, and hear about the legislative debate that could either positively or negatively affect current and future investors in solar installations.
“I represent the future of Maine,” Jen Albee, of ReVision Energy, said. Jen Albee, originally of Jefferson, and husband Hans Albee, originally of Wiscasset, returned to Maine after pursuing their education out of state. Both work for ReVision Energy, a company which began in Liberty as two guys in a minivan and has grown into one of the leading installers of solar power systems in New England, Jen Albee said.
ReVision Energy is a certified benefit corporation, a standard that binds the company to practices that benefit employees, customers, and the broader community. In addition to providing a product that reduces carbon emissions and dependency on fossil fuels, ReVision Energy pays middle class wages that Maine needs to see more of, Jen Albee said.
The company has allowed the Albees to not only pursue a professional career in Maine, but also raise their family, she said.
The solar array ReVision Energy installed at The Morris Farm is the second community-owned solar farm established in Lincoln County. The array is owned by the Morris Farm Community Solar Association, a group of investors who paid for the construction of the 152-panel solar array, which is projected to produce 60,000 kilowatt-hours of energy per year.
Members of the association purchased shares to cover the cost of the array, which was about $180,000. Through net metering, where renewable energy producers receive a credit on their electric bills for energy produced, association members are projected to see a return on their investment in 10 to 12 years.
Marty Welt, an association member, weighed all options before purchasing a share in the association. Welt invested in the association “because it was the right thing to do,” he said. The world will not end from global warming in 10 or 20 years, but it might in 200 years, he said.
“I want to show my grandkids that I care about the world, and that I did my little part,” he said.
The current net-metering system in Maine, however, is in the midst of dramatic revision, Hans Albee said. The current law governing net metering directs the Public Utilities Commission to review net metering once 1 percent of “peak demand” for electricity, or the most electrical usage statewide in a day, is produced by solar energy.
Solar energy production crossed that threshold one day last summer, Hans Albee said.
In anticipation of the Public Utilities Commission’s review of the net-metering system, An Act to Modernize Maine’s Solar Power Policy and Encourage Economic Development, also known as LD 1649, was introduced to the Legislature.
The legislation is an effort to create a new framework for grid-tied solar installations that will replace net metering, Hans Albee said, and give solar producers the option to sell the energy produced for the grid or use the energy to offset their energy consumption.
Current solar farm owners would be given the option to maintain net metering or enter into a more advantageous economic arrangement by selling the energy produced, Hans Albee said. As a result of the legislation, 800 solar energy jobs would be added to the Maine economy, he said.
While the bill, which recently emerged from committee, is a compromise that utility companies, solar energy companies, and the Maine Office of the Public Advocate support, Gov. Paul LePage has already said he will veto it, Hans Albee said.
It does not look likely the bill will have enough support to override a veto, he said. Rep. Larry Dunphy, I-Embden, and Rep. Nathan Wadsworth, R-Hiram, leading opponents of the bill on the energy committee, argued other ratepayers are subsidizing solar energy producers, who do not share the cost of maintenance for the grid.
According to a press release from Maine House Republicans, the legislation sets solar generation targets, to be met by 2022, which “would significantly increase Maine’s solar output, while paying no attention to its economic viability.”
“In order to meet such ambitious goals, ratepayers will be asked to essentially subsidize these projects with generous incentives for those who decide to install solar panels,” the Republicans said in a press release.
If the bill does not become law, the Public Utilities Commission will move forward with its review of Maine’s net-metering policy, according to Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Without specific parameters established by the Legislature, the three appointed members of the Public Utilities Commission will have the authority to determine the future of net metering, Hans Albee said.
While speculative, there is concern among solar groups that the commission will attempt to phase out net metering for both current and future customers, as Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission did, Voorhees said, a decision which is dismantling Nevada’s solar energy industry.
“That’s the worst-case scenario, but it’s troubling for the solar industry,” Voorhees said. “Maine already has the lowest number of solar jobs in New England and there’s huge growth around us.” If LD 1649 fails, “the PUC will have control over our solar future,” he said.
The Legislature is expected to vote on LD 1649 by the end of April and reconvene to vote on vetoed bills in May, Voorhees said.