Solar panels are prepared for installation on a home in Orono, Aug. 22, 2017. Credit: Gabor Degre

It would be a gross understatement to say that Maine’s relatively new rules for solar power generation and billing have not been well received, particularly by the solar industry, environmental groups and the Maine people turning to this source of renewable energy.

For years, Maine homeowners and others have received credits when they use alternative generation to produce electricity on their property and sell the excess into the power grid. The system, known as “net metering,” has helped promote the development of renewable energy, particularly solar.

But a problematic new approach to the system, known as “gross metering,” assess fees and requires a costly second meter to measure the amount of energy generated, not just used, on properties employing solar or other on-site generation. Gross metering was developed by the Maine Public Utility Commission, supported by former Gov. Paul LePage’s administration, and adopted in 2017.

The gross metering fee for the transmission and distribution of that energy is charged even on power that never leaves the home or business where it is generated. And in order to collect the charge, utilities have had to update their billing systems along with adding the new meters — with those costs passed on to all utility ratepayers, not just those using solar and other alternative energy sources.

Gross metering pairs back the incentives offered to solar generators, hampering development of an important renewable resource at time when we must reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

In December, the utilities commission essentially acknowledged the shortcomings of its gross metering rule by rolling it back for medium and large scale solar installations. That decision came after Pittsfield-based InSource Renewables argued the cost of the new metering equipment and requirements far exceeded savings for ratepayers.

The Legislature now has an opportunity to address the very predictable problems of gross metering by extending that rollback to residential and small-business solar producers as well.

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, co-chairs the Committee on Energy Utilities and Technology and has introduced LD 91 to eliminate gross metering with what amounts to a reset to previous net billing. LD 91’s move away from gross metering certainly is needed and can set the stage for a broader solar reform bill that proved illusive in past sessions.

The Legislature has repeatedly looked poised to improve Maine solar policy in recent years, only to meet resistance from LePage, who argued in one veto message that the previous net metering system of compensating small power generators “subsidizes the cost of solar panels at the expense of the elderly and poor.” The commission, however, has found otherwise.

With Gov. Janet Mills in the Blaine House — and also looking to add solar panels to the residence — the chances of advancing good solar policy seem to have improved dramatically.

Mills spokesman Scott Ogden said that the governor “supports lifting the cap on community solar and the establishment of a net-metering policy that gives appropriate incentives for rooftop solar users who feed electricity back into the grid and help spur the growth of an industry in Maine that attracts young workers back to our state.”

Ogden also said Mills hopes the Legislature will work on a comprehensive solar proposal, including consideration of Berry’s bill.

This isn’t necessarily a partisan issue. Berry’s bill has several Republican cosponsors, including his energy committee co-chair Sen. David Woodsome of Waterboro, who has also been a leader on solar policy.

A separate solar bill from Republican Rep. Beth O’Connor of Berwick came before the energy committee this week. That legislation, LD 41, takes a different approach by attempting to craft a market-based credit system for solar. But like Berry’s bill, O’Connor’s would get rid of gross metering requirements. Clearly, there is at least some bipartisan agreement to be had on this issue.

Even testimony from the utility companies this week — which neither supported nor opposed the bills from Berry and O’Connor — recognized the role that solar can and should play in Maine’s energy future.

The multi-million dollar question continues to be: How to we promote solar growth and fairly compensate and encourage alternative energy without piling costs on other electric ratepayers?

While there undoubtedly are diverging opinions on what the future of solar regulation in Maine should look like — lawmakers should be deliberate in shaping that future — both sides of the aisle should unite around a common starting point: the gross metering experiment has been a failure, and it’s time to end it.