To deliver on solar potential, Maine’s leaders must hold utilities accountable
By Tyler Adkins
After growing up in Piscataquis County, I left Maine to pursue a career in renewable energy. For more than a decade, I’ve been on the frontlines of the clean energy revolution in locales ranging from New York to Sweden, Zimbabwe to the Philippines. I’ve worked with businesses, governments, and utilities to develop effective policies and deploy money-saving, clean energy projects.
My ticket home came in 2019, when Gov. Janet Mills and a bipartisan Legislature repealed arbitrary restrictions on commercial and community solar development in Maine. These policies proved successful beyond expectation, prompting a pipeline of more than $5 billion of potential investment in Maine. In contrast to previous policies that largely benefited out-of-state energy users, these new policies promote community-scale projects with a modest footprint — usually rooftops or up to 25 acres — and generate energy for customers of Maine’s two largest utilities.
Finally, I’d have the opportunity to use my skills and knowledge for the benefit of communities right here in Maine.
Or so I thought.
From day one, Central Maine Power and Versant have fought efforts to connect solar projects to the grid. In other states, projects within this size range are approved within 90 days. In Maine, many applications submitted in 2019 are still awaiting study 18 months later. Those of us in the solar industry are expected to navigate a consistent flow of misleading and inaccurate information from the utilities. We’re supposed to accept retroactive changes to executed contracts, and coordinate with counterparties that rarely meet their commitments. Our utilities are not partners, or even negotiating in good faith.
The embarrassment I shoulder as a Mainer is a direct result of our leaders’ failure to hold the utilities accountable. Customers have spent tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to get the Public Utilities Commission to enforce the rules as written. When interpreting rules, the commission often defers to CMP — the same CMP that fails to keep the lights on, spends millions on PR campaigns for lucrative side projects for out-of-state consumers and whose parent company recently failed to disclose to regulators in New Mexico more than $25 million in fines and penalties for failing to follow the rules in Maine, Connecticut and other states.
The public advocate’s office has done no better. CMP has consistently denied access to data that would allow solar companies to verify actual savings on customers’ monthly bills. They have designed bills for solar customers that are nearly impossible to decipher, providing an opening for bad actors to mislead and overcharge customers. Despite repeated pleas from my company and others to the public advocate’s office, they’ve been silent on the issue. I’m glad Mills has a chance to appoint new leadership in this office and hope she chooses someone who takes the role of consumer protection seriously.
Between the brazenness of our utilities, the complicity of regulators, and legislative consideration of retroactive policy changes that would strand projects designed to provide cost savings to schools, businesses, and residents across the state, Maine is reinforcing its reputation as an unreliable place to do business. The complete dysfunction rivals anything I’ve experienced across the globe.
We have the opportunity to live up to the motto on our flag, but our leaders must meet the needs of the moment. Beyond strongly worded statements, the publishing of reports and promises of investigations lies difficult work, including rigorous enforcement of existing regulations and protecting the rights of Mainers to build solar systems that offset their energy usage without delays and prohibitive costs imposed by the utilities.
Addressing climate change is an incredible opportunity to modernize our grid, create thousands of good-paying jobs and reduce our electricity costs. To do so, our leaders must lead from the front, with our shared interests in mind, not those looking to protect the status quo and their bottom line.
Adkins is chief revenue officer for UGE International, a leading developer of commercial and community solar projects. He grew up and currently lives in Monson.