Some Maine homeowners looking to set up solar panels are having their requests denied by their electric utilities, who say there is too much demand to connect to an aging grid that is running out of capacity.

Solar panels are more affordable now than ever before, decreasing in price by more than 70 percent over the past decade, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The panels can also earn homeowners a federal tax credit to reduce their federal income tax bill.

But as more Mainers have been taking advantage of the now-competitive pricing and incentives, they are sometimes encountering a problem: There is not always room on the wires to hook them up.

When homeowners are interested in residential solar, they will typically call a solar installation company. The company determines whether the location is suitable for rooftop or ground-mounted solar panels, and will figure out what system will meet the homeowner’s energy needs.

Then, the company applies to a utility company, such as Versant Power or Central Maine Power Co., for their customer to connect to the grid. The utilities are responsible for the system of poles, wires, substations and other equipment that make it possible to deliver electricity. The solar installation company’s application includes details such as the number of panels needed and the kilowatts of electricity the homeowner’s system is anticipated to generate.

But recently some Mainers have had their applications denied due to a lack of capacity on the electric grid. One was Matt Quinn of Trenton, whose rooftop solar application was denied by Versant on Dec. 7.

“The fact that we would own our solar panels and essentially reduce our electric bill by 80 percent was very impactful for us,” Quinn said. He said the state’s goal to be carbon neutral and to electrify is important, but to him “the policies don’t jive with reality.”

Danny Piper, the owner of Sundog Solar in Searsport, a company that installs residential solar systems, said he has recently seen three other customers, in addition to Quinn, have their applications to connect to the grid denied.

Versant, which serves 159,000 customer accounts in northern and eastern Maine, did not provide an alternative or suggest modifications to help Quinn connect, Quinn said. The utility’s emailed response to him said it was denying his application because the level of generation would cause high voltage with the existing system. Versant also said the project designed for Quinn’s residence was beyond the scope of a minor modification.

Connecting a specific project can affect the voltage on the larger system or the power quality, both of which have to be maintained within certain limits, said David Littell, an energy and environmental lawyer, and a former commissioner of the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

“It’s certainly an issue,” he said. “It is really about the level of the grid to accommodate the energy and the voltage variation.”

Otherwise voltage variations can damage equipment within the homeowner’s house or others’ homes on the grid. He dealt with the issue last year when a voltage variation led to a power surge and fried his electric car charger, he said.

The Public Utilities Commission mandates utility companies, the largest of which are Versant and Central Maine Power, to maintain adequate power levels to avoid issues such as voltage variation and power failures.

“When people are generating lots of solar energy and using only a fraction of it, they’re pushing out a whole bunch of energy onto the grid for other nearby customers to use,” said Judy Long, the manager of communications at Versant. “And when they aren’t generating enough solar energy, they’re pulling in power from us.”

The electric grid wasn’t built to have a lot of power sources on the distribution system or to facilitate a two-way flow of energy, Long said. In addition, utilities do not have discretion and are not allowed to save room for rooftop solar programs.

“We feel for these customers,” she said. “But we take them on a first-come, first-serve basis, and we have to study them to make sure they’re safe and reliable.”

Granting residential solar connection requests was never a substantial problem in the past, she said. But with incentives to develop larger community solar projects, the demand to connect to the grid has increased, and the utilities are facing a larger issue.

“There’s only so much room on distribution lines, and with all the demand to interconnect larger projects, we’re running out of room for all projects without the necessary expensive upgrades needed to maintain the safety and reliability of the system,” Long said.

In Maine, there are more requests to connect to the grid than ever before.

“There are more requests to connect to the grid, megawatts-wise, than we actually even have demand for electricity,” Long said. “So if we interconnected all these projects, we would be making more energy than we use.”

The Public Utilities Commission does not track how many residential solar projects are being denied statewide, but its chairman, Phil Bartlett, said he does not believe there are more rejections than approvals.

“It could happen in some places if someone is on a circuit that has very limited capacity for new solar, but that’s certainly not the norm,” Bartlett said.

Central Maine Power declined to say how many applications it has rejected, but it is seeing a greater demand to connect rooftop solar to the electric grid, according to spokesperson Catharine Hartnett. It has hooked up 1,663 new rooftop solar customers this year, more than any previous year.

Versant, meanwhile, started tracking the issue recently when it was unable to connect 10 rooftop solar projects due to a lack of capacity, Long said. It has connected 485 rooftop solar installations since 2020.

Connecting to the grid is one of the biggest issues facing renewable energy development not just in Maine but nationwide, said Littell, a lawyer who represents utilities and renewable energy developers. He believes the lack of capacity will require upgrades to the electric grid.

“But that really requires everyone to work together to efficiently resolve these issues,” he said.

The average cost in Maine this year to install solar panels producing 5 kilowatts of power was between $14,238 and $19,262, according to EnergySage, an online marketplace where people can shop for local solar installers. It estimates that, for an average-sized system paid for upfront, a homeowner can expect to save $22,693 over 20 years.

Mehr Sher is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for this reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.

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Mehr Sher

Mehr Sher reports on the Maine environment. She is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for her reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.