Senate Republicans discuss state’s looming Net Energy Billing crisis

Sen. Matt Harrington, R-York, talks about the need for the Legislature to address an issue that Maine Public Advocate William Harwood brought up months ago – the looming crisis of Maine’s Net Energy Billing program. (photo courtesy of Senate Republican Office/Mike Fern)

AUGUSTA – During a press briefing on Tuesday, Senate Republicans discussed the recent testimony by Maine Public Advocate William Harwood that alarmed some lawmakers when he disclosed Maine ratepayers were on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars per year in solar subsidies.

According to Harwood, who testified before the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee last Thursday, Maine ratepayers will have to shoulder the burden of about $220 million per year in stranded costs due to the state’s Net Energy Billing (NEB) program. The cost recovery, which will be passed on to Maine ratepayers through the state’s power distribution and transmission companies, begins in July when the Maine Public Utilities Commission is set to raise electricity rates.

The recovery method is essentially how the state is paying what some call exorbitant solar subsidies that Harwood now says is unsustainable. He first warned the public about the issue back in January; but according to Sen. Matt Harrington, R-York, the EUT Committee hasn’t revisited the topic since then.

“There has not been a whole lot of interest in truly addressing this issue, despite the Public Advocate time and time again testifying before the committee to address [it],” Harrington said during the briefing. “We’ve seen bills from the majority party to add electric bicycles, electric vehicle rate rebate programs, electric school buses – these seem to be the priority of the majority party. We’re not in the driver’s seat – Democrats are – but we hope they will heed the advice of the public advocate.”

When Senate Republicans first covered the topic during a press briefing in January, some estimates by the energy industry had speculated that the costs could go as high as $400 million per year. Since then, Harwood estimated the costs around the $220 million/year figure. Still, Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Aroostook, said the problem dates back years and Maine Democrats have refused to solve the looming crisis.

“The other side cares about all kinds of other things. We care about lowering the cost of energy for Maine people and figuring out what makes sense to do it. We’re not opposed to solar; we’re opposed to solar that increase costs to ratepayers,” said Stewart. “Until we are addressing costs, we need to be prioritizing these people because if you increase the cost of energy in Maine, then the person who is on a fixed income has to make a really tough choice – do I keep the lights on or do I buy prescription drugs?”

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