- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2016

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - A pro-solar group of rural business owners, environmentalists and a Belfast city official on Thursday asked the state utilities commission to protect a net metering policy providing owners with credits for unused solar power.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage in April vetoed a consensus bill that would have moved away from traditional net metering - which allows homeowners, solar developers and municipal governments to sell excess power they generate back to the electrical grid in exchange for credit - and required the state to increase solar capacity through long-term contracts. LePage insisted the bill must protect ratepayers by instituting a price cap that solar advocates argued would tank the market.

But at a news conference Thursday, solar owners and advocates asked the Public Utilities Commission to maintain current net-metering rules during an upcoming review of such rules.

The group argued changing the rules could disrupt legislative efforts to provide much-needed modernizations to the decades-old policy and hurt the struggling solar market by discouraging prospective owners and penalizing those who own panels.

Caitlin Frame, who co-owns a creamery called The Milkhouse in Monmouth, said dairy farming and processing is so “energy-intensive” that it makes financial sense to go solar. But she said her business can’t buy the panels until it knows what the net metering policy will be.

Solar generates up to 20 percent of Belfast’s municipal electricity bill, said the city’s assistant planner, Sadie Lloyd.

The city installed its first solar system in December 2014 and last December added a landfill array that provides $20,000 worth of annual electricity.

“Without net metering, the city of Belfast would not have installed solar,” she said.

Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said the evidence - including a state commission’s 2015 study - shows that net-metering financially benefits all ratepayers.

He said the commission would likely start the process of review and public comments this month.

Legislators in the spring failed to override LePage’s veto, but advocates say lawmakers have indicated they’ll consider the issue again next session. Last year’s bill, which would have given solar owners bill credits tied to a rate in a 20-year guaranteed contract, was supported by state Public Advocate Tim Schneider, a LePage appointee.

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