by Emma Foehringer Merchant
March 02, 2020

Since taking office last year, Maine Governor Janet Mills has worked aggressively to pivot the state's renewables market, with help from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Last June, the Northeastern state passed a number of bills centered on renewables and climate change. At the time, Mills, a Democrat — and one of numerous recently-elected state executives who campaigned on pro-renewables platforms — said the state was “ushering in a new era of clean energy and climate leadership.”

Maine is now working toward an 80 percent by 2030 renewable portfolio standard and planning at least 375 megawatts of distributed generation in the next several years. Lawmakers also re-introduced net metering and adopted an alternative bill credit that eases the way for cities and schools to install renewables projects.

“The interconnection queue that utilities manage for projects was a pretty sleepy place a year ago,” said Dylan Voorhees, the climate and clean energy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “Now there [are] almost 1,500 megawatts' [worth] of projects…in the interconnection queues. [...] Very dramatic development.”

Until now, Maine’s solar industry has cobbled together only about 60 megawatts of installations, putting it in the bottom 10 among states, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. In the next five years, however, Maine is expected to add 849 megawatts.

With utility interconnection queues growing, local developers and a rush of newcomers are grappling with the market's swift changes — and determining how to get it all done.

Moving past "Frankenstein" net metering

Much of the “dramatic development” Voorhees describes will be concentrated in commercial and community solar markets, a shift from Maine’s historic focus on residential installations.

The residential rooftop market "has been the solar market for five years,” explained Voorhees.

Even that market saw a few stumbles in recent years; in 2017 Maine adopted a “gross metering” regime under then-Governor Paul LePage, who was often at odds with the renewables industry and issued a moratorium on onshore wind permits. State Representative Seth Berry describes gross metering as “a kind of Frankenstein monster version” of net metering. It required an additional meter to measure generation and charged customers fees for the power they produced and consumed.

In April, Gov. Mills signed a Berry-introduced bill that shifted the state back to net metering, followed by the cascade of pro-clean energy policies passed in June. 

Gross metering hit commercial installations as well. But one of the pieces of legislation passed in June, LD 1711, established programs for distributed generation, supporting both community solar and commercial projects. The law expands net metering by raising the cap on project size and increasing the number of subscribers allowed for community solar projects. It also created an alternative bill credit that increases compensation for non-residential projects.

In February, the state's Public Utilities Commission released its procurement announcement for the first “block” of DG projects, in search of 25 megawatts of commercial and industrial projects and 50 megawatts of community solar. But even before then, the legislation had already fostered a great deal of interest: The state's largest investor-owned utility, Central Maine Power, told the PUC that interconnection requests received through October 2019 had increased about 4,000 percent over the same period in 2018. Maine's other IOU, Emera Maine, saw an increase of more than 3,000 percent.   

Already signs of overheating?

For local installers who’ve worked in the state for years, like ReVision Energy, the changes brought mixed feelings.  

“Like many things in life, it’s both a blessing and a curse,” ReVision cofounder Phil Coupe said of the new distributed generation legislation. “The new policy is going to unleash a huge wave of solar deployment that’s never before been seen in the state of Maine, which is a great outcome in terms of achieving the state’s long-term clean energy goals."

"On the downside, we’re suddenly finding that companies from Pennsylvania and all the way up the Eastern Seaboard find Maine to be an extremely attractive place to expand.”

That means increased competition for developers like ReVision that have been in Maine for some time. The company also works in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont.

Since the legislative changes, developers have already filled Maine's interconnection queues with more than 1.5 gigawatts' worth of solar and storage projects. The majority is distributed generation. Though not all of those projects will go on to be constructed, analysts at Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables say the volume nearly assures the program’s initial 375 megawatts will be gobbled up quickly. Commercial and community solar developers such as Borrego Solar, based in California, and Greenskies Renewable Energy, with headquarters in Connecticut and California, told Greentech Media they’re eyeing new options in the Maine market. 

Similar rushes have overtaken community solar programs in states such as Illinois and Massachusetts. Despite the rush, developers said Maine seems aware of the challenges that tested other states and seems to be learning from them. In November the state adopted emergency interconnection rules to stanch struggles before they begin; regulators are requiring developers to show legal control of a site and pay an interconnection application fee of $3,000, among other stipulations. The PUC is also working on a formal proceeding for interconnection rules.  

Bids for the first block of projects officially opens in July. But demand is so great that developers are already hungry for more.  

“It’s not clear when Blocks 2 through 7 will occur, so we’re really interested and eager to understand what the timing of those blocks are,” said Kathryn Cox-Arslan, director of interconnection policy at Borrego Solar. "Of course, they impact the development of projects in the pipeline."

Maine's new renewable portfolio standard

Under the RPS law Gov. Mills also signed in June, Maine’s Public Utilities Commission is tasked with procuring renewable energy — which may come with storage attached — or renewable energy credits equating to 14 percent of the state’s 2018 retail electricity sales. This month, regulators opened the first request for proposals on that provision, accounting for 7 to 10 percent of that 14 percent total. Bids are due in April.

Chosen developers will sign 20-year contracts with the state’s IOUs, Emera Maine and Avangrid subsidiary Central Maine Power. Despite Avangrid's leadership in the overall U.S. renewables market, the state's utilities historically have garnered criticism from developers and advocates for opposing some pro-solar policies. Central Maine Power told Greentech Media it's "actively engaged" in efforts to meet the renewable energy goals and is working with developers to refine interconnection rules.

ReVision's Phil Coupe said the state still has work to do "to get the utilities to fully embrace society’s desire for a 100 percent clean energy transition." Last year Rep. Berry introduced a bill that would create a consumer-owned utility that would own and operate all transmission and distribution in the state.

Maine is already well on its way to reaching its renewable goals: In 2018, the state got 21 percent of its electricity from wind and 31 percent from hydro, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Less than 1 percent of the state’s electricity currently comes from solar, according to SEIA. 

By 2050, Maine aims to reach 100 percent renewable energy, though current legislation does not mandate it.

Shortage of electricians

In the midst of sorting out utility cooperation, interconnection procedures and siting, stakeholders are already staring down longer-term questions about the overall feasibility of increasingly ambitious renewables goals.

“The next challenge we have, regionwide, quite frankly, and not specific to Maine, is how...we get all of this constructed,” said Borrego’s Cox-Arslan.

Maine’s legislation includes financial penalties for utilities if they don’t meet state targets. But stakeholders pointed to concerns about cost, labor shortages and politics that may threaten Maine's policies as well as those of other states pursuing high rates of renewables.

Rep. Berry emphasized the importance of controlling the costs of the energy transition as much as possible and making sure renewable energy is accessible to all in the state.

Coupe pointed to employee constraints: The developer recently opened a training center in South Portland to make sure it’s got the staff to build its pipeline.

“Before this new solar landscape opened up before us, there was already pretty stiff competition for licensed electricians in the area,” said Coupe. “We’re wondering how some developers are going to be able to fulfill their commitments.”

And because Maine’s market is riding a wave of favorable policy, advocates also worry the tide could turn quickly if a conservative administration is elected and upends the current status quo.

“Within a year, they [would] have a relatively aggressive plan in place,” said Jeff Hintzke, vice president of policy and new markets at Greenskies. “If the administration changes over…the whole thing could come apart again.”

Rep. Berry, a Democrat who has served six terms in the state’s House of Representatives, recognizes the political challenges. But he also asserts that ambitious state goals hold more weight than they did in the past.  

“It does depend on politics, for better or for worse. People do need to stay engaged at the statehouse here in Augusta and at statehouses around the country if they want to see us decarbonize rapidly,” said Berry. “The states matter now more than ever because the federal administration is so absent, or even oppositional, in this process.”