Gov. Janet Mills (right) swears in Public Advocate William Harwood on Jan. 26, 2022, in her Cabinet Room at the Maine State House in Augusta. Credit: Courtesy of the governor's office

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From the high-stakes fight over a controversial hydropower corridor to fallout from a 2019 solar policy overhaul and the upcoming referendum over the future of the state’s major utilities, Maine sits at a crossroads on energy policy.

Arguments on the subject are among the more important going on in the State House today, but they are also some of the most arcane. The person tasked with translating them for Mainers is Public Advocate William Harwood, the ratepayer watchdog who is now agitating for major solar policy changes.

As a result, he is finding himself firmly in the crosshairs of the industry.

The numbers: Harwood has been outspoken recently about costs closing in as a result of the changes four years ago that prompted a solar energy boom. The subsidies under Maine’s community solar program are paid for by ratepayers who do not subscribe to those projects. Energy prices have risen since then, leading the expected costs of the program to go up.

Costs are expected to begin hitting ratepayers this summer before adding up to $220 million per year by 2025, Harwood told lawmakers last month. That averages out to $275 per ratepayer based on data filed by the major utilities with the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

In a rare move, the Coalition for Community Solar Access, a national group, assailed Harwood in a Tuesday statement that accused him of spreading “misinformation” about costs.

Solar interests in Maine have argued that Harwood’s estimates are high because they assume that too many of the proposed solar projects will be built and come online. They have also argued that the economic output of the solar industry should be considered.

Big ideas: This comes as the Legislature considers more tweaks after two different rounds of changes aimed at reducing future costs. Harwood wrote a Portland Press Herald column on Wednesday laying out his proposal, which would pare the program down to smaller projects and allow the utilities commission to reduce compensation to developers to allow “fair” but lower profits, something he calls a balanced solution for ratepayers and the industry.

“I think it’s crazy,” Fortunat Mueller, president of the solar installation company ReVision Energy, said of Harwood’s proposal. “The idea that Maine can, should unilaterally tear up existing, long-term contracts with hundreds of counterparties and still be considered a viable place to do business, I think it does incredible damage to Maine’s reputation.”

Harwood, who will hold a news conference with allies in Augusta on Thursday to respond to the solar industry’s criticisms, responded by saying he is confident both in the data on costs and that his policies will allow the industry to operate in Maine. He was “not at all surprised” by the solar group’s stance on the issue given the major subsidies at stake.

“They will be fighting tooth and nail against me on this proposal, and I will be pushing back on behalf of all the ratepayers of Maine,” Harwood said.

What’s next: The public advocate said he was optimistic that the Legislature would pass changes to the program aimed at costs, but the environment remains uncertain. Democrats controlling the Legislature along with Gov. Janet Mills have preferred minor shaves, and a wide stakeholder group proposed a set of consensus recommendations last year.

Big changes would be a legislative admission that the program had major unintended consequences, yet another round of major utility rate hikes would leave Mainers pointing to Augusta. There is a lot to consider here.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...