The Maine House of Representatives narrowly sustained Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill that would have placed solar power incentives into state law while regulators study a replacement.

The bill also would have raised the cap on solar plants with shared ownership, or community solar, allowing 100 utility customers to share the net metering benefits, up from the current cap of 10.

Maine’s Senate voted to override the veto 28-6. The House voted 88-48, with 14 members absent, falling three votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to enact the law over LePage’s objections.

The vote leaves intact changes the Maine Public Utilities Commission made to the state’s net metering policy, gradually drawing down incentives under that plan and leaving a bigger fight over the net metering to the future.

The commission’s decision calls for regulators to again revisit net metering when solar capacity hits 3 percent of any utility’s peak demand, which could happen as early as 2018 based on current growth.

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Net metering allows customers with solar panels to get credits for the times they generate more power than they consume, using those credits for up to a year to reduce their power bills.

Those customers get credits worth the full electricity charges and the transmission and distribution charges, which critics of the policy say subsidizes what those customers pay to use the grid, putting their fixed costs onto others.

While supporters and opponents of the bill agree net metering is a rudimentary way to compensate small solar generators, they disagree about whether other customers are getting a raw deal.

Supporters argue that small-scale distributed solar helps to lower peak power demand, particularly on the hottest summer days, and that allows utilities to defer big transmission and distribution upgrades for which all electricity customers pay.

Eight House Republicans who initially voted for the bill sided with LePage to kill it Wednesday after Rep. Richard Malaby, R-Hancock, raised new constitutional concerns about net metering, calling it a tax. As a tax, he argued, the bill should have originated in the House, which has the sole authority to raise new revenue from Maine citizens.

The Republican representatives who changed their votes from yes to no on the bill were: Rep. Karleton Ward, of Dedham; Rep. Rich Cebra, of Naples; Chad Grignon, of Athens; Jonathan Kinney, of Limington; Carol McElwee, of Caribou; Heidi Sampson, of Alfred; H. Stedman Seavey, of Kennebunkport; Thomas Skolfield, of Weld; and Nathan Wadsworth, of Hiram.

Eight Republican members were also absent for the vote, as were six Democrats.

It’s unclear whether Malaby’s argument tipped the scale for other members of his delegation, whether they were convinced by LePage’s veto letter that called the bill “poor policy,” or whether lobbying swayed their opinion.

Lawmakers felt the pressure from both sides on the bill, with Maine solar installers and environmental groups pushing for lawmakers to override LePage’s veto of LD 1504.

That was evident in testimony during the final House vote Wednesday. Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, read portions of an article by Central Maine Power Co. President and CEO Sara Burns before the vote. Burns argued in favor of a veto in a July commentary in the Portland Press Herald, calling regulators’ rules an “equitable transition away from the net metering subsidy.”

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John Carroll, a CMP spokesman, said Wednesday in a telephone interview that the company also worried that the bill would enshrine into law a policy that should be replaced sooner rather than later.

That, Carroll said, could more easily be done if the policy stays in the hands of regulators.

“One of the big issues for us is this is basically around rate design and utility regulation,” Carroll said. “It belongs with the regulators and not with the Legislature.”

Carroll said the utility felt it’s both harder to change policies that make it into law — rather than regulatory rules — and that would become particularly more difficult as solar power continues to grow.

“There’s going to be a huge constituency to try and keep it embedded in law,” Carroll said, noting the expansion of community solar would push that growth even faster. “The commission’s rules protect customers who have already installed private solar systems, but they start to rein in unfair costs that are shifted to customers who do not have private systems,” he said after the vote.

Solar advocates disagreed and accused CMP of moving the goalposts on the bill during last-minute negotiations Monday. Vaughan Woodruff, owner of the Pittsfield-based Insource Renewables, said on Twitter that representatives were at the table and offered amendments to the bill that CMP rejected.

Fortunat Mueller, a partner in the solar installer ReVision Energy, criticized CMP’s lobbying on the issue in a tweet before the vote.

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, and chairman of the Legislature’s energy committee, said Wednesday he thinks the ongoing battle will have ramifications at the ballot box.

“There will be an increasing groundswell of support for the restoration of solar net metering,” Berry said. “I anticipate in the upcoming election year that his will be a major issue from the governor’s race on down.”

The Conservation Law Foundation, Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Industrial Energy Consumers’ Group have also challenged the PUC rules, appealing the decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in May. The case is still pending.

BDN State House Bureau Chief Chris Cousins contributed to this report.

Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.