Thirty tracker solar panels, which tilt based on the sun's position, are located on land of the former Loring Air Force Base. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Democratic-led Maine House of Representatives on Friday passed a bill to pare back Maine’s generous solar incentives amid increasing utility rates, an issue that has pitted the solar industry against the state’s public advocate.

The bill from Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-Eliot, won House approval in a tight 69-65 vote after also passing the Senate in a mostly party-line vote Thursday, with Sen. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, the lone Democrat to join all Republicans in opposing it.

On Friday, seven House Democrats joined Republicans in opposing Lawrence’s bill, which faces further votes in each chamber before going to Gov. Janet Mills.

Mills, a Democrat, and solar interests support Lawrence’s bill to tweak Maine’s net energy billing program, which allows customers to offset electricity bills using the output from small renewable generators. Lawrence’s bill would allow Maine to seek federal dollars to fuel continued growth of the industry and let firms choose whether to accept state subsidies.

Manufacturers and Public Advocate William Harwood, whom Mills appointed in 2022 to represent the state’s utility customers, oppose Lawrence’s bill and instead back a proposal from Rep. Steven Foster, R-Dexter, that would direct the Maine Public Utilities Commission to periodically review solar subsidies and propose adjustments.

“We’re all tired and disappointed,” Harwood said Friday in regard to Lawrence’s bill passing.

The focus on energy issues comes as Mainers face rising utility costs. The utilities commission approved this month an estimated $135.7 million in annual rate hikes from July 1 through mid-2024 driven by the policies.

Foster’s bill has not received a vote in the House, with lawmakers trying to finish work and approve a budget before the July 1 start of the next fiscal year.

The fight over the dueling bills has been messy, with the solar industry invoking former Gov. Paul LePage’s legacy of opposing solar projects in ads and attacking Harwood after he estimated in April that subsidies dating back to 2019 could cost $220 million a year by 2025 and that increase could continue for two decades.

Democrats who support Lawrence’s bill, such as Rep. Stanley Paige Zeigler, D-Montville, said while manufacturers claimed the proposal will only help “fat cats from Wall Street,” small, local developers in their districts would benefit from it.

Foster said solar industry lobbyists were working the State House hallways again Friday but that their preferred bill ignores Mainers who are “being hurt extremely hard by increased rates on electricity.”

Manufacturers and Foster said the solar industry has deflected questions on how much Lawrence’s bill would save, or only suggested it could cut the estimated $220 million in increased rate costs by 10 percent over the next 20 years. The manufacturing coalition argued Foster’s bill could decrease costs for ratepayers by at least 20 percent.

But Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association and a lobbyist, said both sides are “guessing” on the true cost savings and that Foster’s bill could cause sudden subsidy changes that result in loan defaults and dissuade investment.

“The worst-case scenario would be no changes are made to this program,” he 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...