In the world of energy policy, not every law can be a flashy renewable portfolio standard.
Though there’s been plenty of those in 2019 — Washington state, Puerto Rico and New Mexico all recently set 100 percent clean energy or renewables targets, and New York looks poised to follow suit with a zero-carbon requirement — recent weeks have also brought a spate of humbler net-metering policies along the Eastern seaboard as many legislative sessions wind down.
The industry says many of them will boost solar in states where the market has faced serious distress.
Maine passed several landmark clean energy bills in recent weeks. One has that RPS flash: it requires 80 percent renewable electricity by 2030 and 100 percent by mid-century. Another, laying out clean energy apprenticeships, has the “Green New Deal” brand name. But advocates say a wonkier bill, LD1711, will help build back the solar market in a state where it’s struggled.
LD1711 requires the state acquire 125 megawatts of distributed solar for commercial and industrial customers and 250 megawatts of shared distributed solar by 2024. It also establishes a net energy billing program for commercial customers and loosens community solar restrictions. According to the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the bill’s expansion of net-metering will mean hundreds more megawatts of solar.
Taken together, the bills help reverse course on restrictive clean energy policies set out under former Governor Paul LePage. While in office, LePage put a moratorium on wind development and instituted “gross metering” for solar projects, which required additional meters to measure output and charged a “delivery fee” for solar power, even if a customer consumed what they produced on their own property.
In April, the new Democratic governor, Janet Mills, signed a bill to reestablish net-metering. While a big win for solar advocates, one solar installer called the move a “re-correction,” rather than a significant boost to the market.
Now, the new laws have the solar industry cheering. "After an eight-year drought, the floodgates are about to swing wide open for Maine's solar industry,” said Phil Coupe, co-founder of New England solar developer ReVision Energy, in a statement.
Ilan Gutherz, a vice president at Borrego Solar, called the new laws “a shot of adrenaline into Maine’s clean energy economy.”
Gov. Mills has already signed some of the bills, like Maine’s Green New Deal, and is expected to sign others. She campaigned on subverting LePage’s anti-clean energy initiatives.
Earlier this month, Connecticut extended net metering through 2021 and raised its credit cap from $10 million to $20 million. Like many recent clean energy policies, Connecticut’s includes a jobs component. It requires state agencies to publish a “Green Jobs Career Ladder” on their websites that describes clean energy careers, degree programs and available jobs. The bill also mandates distributed energy resources studies.
The final bill left out some changes environmentalists advocated for, like mandating 100 percent carbon-free energy and nixing the net-metering cap altogether. But the law buoys solar in a market that analysts previously expected to crater, after passage of a 2018 law (again signed by a previous governor) that would phase out net metering.
Anne Hoskins, Sunrun’s chief policy officer, called the win there an “important signal” to utilities that customer demand for solar is sticking around.
“A year ago, utilities had pushed to have net metering eliminated and they won,” said Hoskins. “We were able to come back to the Connecticut legislators, work with some other stakeholders and help Connecticut see if they went ahead … the market would die, just like it had in Nevada a few years back.”
Governor Ned Lamont didn’t respond to Greentech Media’s request for comment on whether he’ll approve the legislation, but advocates expect his signature.
Both houses of South Carolina’s legislature unanimously approved legislation eliminating the state’s net metering cap and extending its program for two years, while the Public Service Commission devises a new program. In mid-May, Republican Governor Henry McMaster inked his approval.
The victory in that southern state, Sunrun’s Hoskins said, reflects the bipartisan swell of support for pro-solar policies.
“It was led by Republicans and also driven by conservative philosophy of … why people want distributed solar and storage: wanting control of their own energy, not wanting to be beholden to a monopoly, wanting to have some energy freedom,” said Hoskins.
The previous policy restricted utilities to net metering just 2 percent of all solar in their service territory. Duke Energy, which has about 760,000 customers in South Carolina, hit the cap on net metering in July of last year. South Carolina Electric & Gas was nearing the limit this year.
The change, according to analysis from Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables, means significant growth potential in a state that already numbers fifth in the firm’s Q1 2019 installation rankings. Residential solar blossomed in South Carolina after 2014 legislation established net metering, but the cap threatened to constrain growth.
“It was a very big deal when South Carolina was opened a few years ago. It was really the only place in the Southeast that has really embraced competitive alternatives and third-party ownership,” said Hoskins. “For that market to close I think would have been extremely damaging.”
The wins may mark a new chapter in what the industry has dubbed the “solar wars,” over pro-solar policies.
Solar boosters like Hoskins said the utility-solar relationship seems less adversarial as of late.
“We, in the last year, have seen the utilities sort of realize that customers want this,” said Hoskins. “I don’t feel like we’re facing quite the same kind of aggressive, anti-solar advocacy from the utilities right now.”
That’s not to say the industry’s battles are over: Just this month, New Hampshire’s governor, Republican Chris Sununu, rejected a bill raising the state’s net metering cap — for the second year in a row. The legislature may override his veto.
If cooperation between solar companies and utility partners grows, it should ease the passage of future solar bills that benefit the industry. Utilities have been a notorious stumbling block in moving forward legislation the industry favors. That hasn't entirely changed, but Hoskins said utilities appear more open to the resource.
“While they’re still trying to push us away, what they’re also spending energy on is to argue for authority to get to do it themselves,” she said. “The next important debate is going to be: what really should the role of the utility be?”