Solar panels are shown at the DTE O'Shea Solar Park in Detroit, Nov. 16, 2022. Maine is in a prolonged fight over solar incentives, which have been in the spotlight amid rising electricity rates from the state's major power companies. Credit: Paul Sancya / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — The fight over changes to Maine’s generous solar incentives is coming down to two rival bills and moneyed interests making their cases either by targeting Democratic lawmakers or invoking the era of former Gov. Paul LePage.

The complex debate is not fully partisan. Public Advocate William Harwood, who was appointed by Gov. Janet Mills in 2022 to represent utility customers and once served as an energy advisor to the governor, is supporting a Republican bill that could sharply rein in the incentives. The bill is vying with a more restrained proposal from Mills and other Democrats.

Either would mark the third time that the Legislature has reined in the 2019 policy that prompted a solar boom in Maine but also is leading to increased rates due to fixed-price contracts for power that have risen alongside global energy prices. The stakes are high for any reform with an estimated $135.7 million  in annual rate hikes driven by the policies set to hit July 1.

The debate over the policy, known as net energy billing, is pitting Harwood, Republicans and manufacturers against Mills, Democrats and the solar industry. After the public advocate laid out the estimated costs to ratepayers from the subsidies this spring, a regional solar group hammered Harwood and said his analysis was based on incorrect assumptions from utilities.

A 30-second video from an offshoot of the Coalition for Community Solar Access was posted online Tuesday and urges citizens to ask lawmakers to support the Democratic bill, saying the Harwood-backed one would “move us back to the erratic, destructive anti-renewable, pro-natural gas policies” of LePage, a Republican who opposed similar solar policies.

On the opposite side, the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, a coalition of manufacturers and other large power users led in Augusta by Democratic lobbyist Tony Buxton, also used digital resources to pressure lawmakers to back the other proposal from Rep. Steven Foster, R-Dexter.

“They don’t discuss the facts,” Buxton, a Mills ally, complained of the material from solar interests. “They call [Harwood] and us names. They say we’re Paul LePage.”

Republicans generally want to end the solar subsidies, as Foster’s bill initially aimed to do. But his amended version would allow the Maine Public Utilities Commission to periodically review the incentives and propose adjustments that would be “fair to both solar developers and ratepayers.” The Legislature would then be able to approve them.

Harwood said that lets the state “secure as much competitively priced solar energy as needed to meet Maine’s climate goals,” although Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, said it could lead to abrupt changes that scare away energy firms that would otherwise invest in Maine and lead to loan defaults.

“Is the compensation structure going to stay predictable, or is it going to change any time of the year?” Payne asked.

The solar industry and the governor’s office support the other bill from Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-Eliot, that would rein in the program only slightly. The state could seek federal funds to fuel continued growth of the industry and let firms choose whether to accept state subsidies.

While Payne said this would shave costs while allowing the industry to keep growing, Harwood said Lawrence’s bill would not solve the affordability and sustainability issues of the net energy billing program.

“I don’t know why a rational solar developer would be willing to make any sort of meaningful reduction in the subsidy if they don’t have to,” Harwood said.

The key player here could be Mills, whose energy office testified in support of Lawrence’s bill by saying it would “position Maine well to compete for federal funds and continue to advance the deployment of beneficial distributed generation and grow our clean energy economy.” That position still stands, a spokesperson for the office said Wednesday.

Harwood pushed back on the solar industry describing Foster’s proposal as the “Republican bill” by noting two Democrats on the energy panel support it. Lawrence’s bill had no Republican backers and the two Democrats who backed Foster’s proposal also supported the other one.

“We should be asking ourselves what is best for the ratepayers, not what is best for the Democratic Party or Republican Party,” Harwood said.

Billy Kobin is a politics reporter who joined the Bangor Daily News in 2023. He grew up in Wisconsin and previously worked at The Indianapolis Star and The Courier Journal (Louisville, Ky.) after graduating...