Maine utility regulators have announced the results of the state’s largest renewables procurement to date, with solar developers coming away with the majority of winning bids.

Solar will account for about 482 megawatts of the 546 megawatts of projects approved Tuesday by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Maine now has about 90 megawatts of solar installed, putting it in the bottom 10 states in the country, according to rankings from Wood Mackenzie and the Solar Energy Industries Association. However, the state is slated to add more than 800 megawatts in the coming years.

The 17 projects approved this week also include onshore wind, hydro and biomass. They were the first to get the go-ahead after Maine increased its renewable portfolio standard (RPS) to 80 percent by 2030 as part of a suite of climate and clean energy laws signed last year. Maine also set a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. In a statement, Governor Janet Mills called Tuesday's decision a "historic step" toward getting there.

The state already gets 80 percent of its electricity from renewables, according to 2019 data from U.S. Energy Information Administration, but hydropower and biomass dominate that total. The RPS legislation that Gov. Mills signed in 2019 (while standing in front of a solar installation) requires the state to rely more heavily on new renewable resources and mandates the public utility commission conduct yearly competitive solicitations for new projects with long-term contracts.

Solar developers with a history of focusing on projects in New England and the mid-Atlantic, including New York’s Walden Renewables and Glenvale Solar, secured many of the winning project bids for the first of those solicitations. Boston-based Swift Current Energy will develop the largest solar project in the group, at 100 megawatts. Irish developer BNRG Renewables will work on two installations with local developer Dirigo Solar, part of a larger portfolio of projects the two are building together in the state.

Average winning contract rates were 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to reporting from the Portland Press Herald. That price is competitive with incumbent power sources in the region, Maine PUC Chair Philip Bartlett II told the newspaper. 

In addition to increasing the state’s RPS, last year's climate and clean energy legislation provided incentives for at least 375 megawatts of new distributed generation — expected to be largely solar — and created a climate council charged with leading initiatives on drawing down Maine’s greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by midcentury.

The legislation also reinstated net metering, a change from the gross metering policy established in 2016 under then-Governor Paul LePage. That policy had imposed added expenses for solar customers by requiring a second meter to measure all power produced by a rooftop installation, whether or not it was consumed onsite, and it paid a lower than retail rate for solar generation. 

Since Mills took office, distributed solar has already seen a significant boost in Maine, with more than 1.5 gigawatts entering the state’s interconnection queue. Results of the recent request for proposals indicate that the same glow is now settling on large-scale projects.

Regulators are set to consider another tranche of project proposals this winter. Commissioners must select enough projects to add up to 14 percent of Maine’s total electricity demand in 2018.