Bearing Witness for the Future

PUC Hearing Net-Metering Rules Oct 17

Photo by Livio Filice, via Facebook. (I am in the front row in a yellow solar shirt.)

Yesterday I participated in the public hearing held by the Public Utility Commission for new net metering rules in Maine.  From one testimony, I learned that these proposed rules are the most regressive, anti-solar rules in the nation.  In another testimony, Conservation Law Foundation attorney Emily Green questioned whether this process is even legal, since the changes are drastic enough that they are no longer really net-metering rules, but rather serve to eliminate net-metering–and thus are not within the purview of the Commission. Also noted was the fact that no economic impact statements had been prepared, prior to the hearing, as required by regulation.  Sadly, none of this made it into the story run by the Portland Press Herald today.

I gave testimony, too, but not on technical details or the effects on jobs or existing solar customers.  I spoke in my role as a minister, taking a look at the bigger picture.  Here is what I said:

I want to speak of our responsibility to the future generations, our grandchildren and their grandchildren.  Every gallon of oil we use today is a theft from the quality of life for those future generations.  If we take our responsibility seriously, we should be doing everything possible to shift all of our energy use to renewables, as soon as possible.

That responsibility to the future generations is why my family downsized from a 2000 square foot home to a 1000 square foot home–so we could afford to put solar panels on our roof and use less oil.  It only works for us because of some kind of net metering–solar produces energy during the day, and more during the summer, so we need to draw from the grid at night and in the winter, from the credits we build up during the sunshine. Net-metering makes it work.

But even so, there are only so many things I can do as an individual.  We need to be moving collectively toward an energy policy that will leave a livable future world for our grandchildren.  It is that serious!  We are creating in our time the story that the future generations of human beings will live.  Will it be a story of hardship?  Wars over declining resources? Chaos, and violence? Or will it be a story of human beings living in mutually beneficial relationship to each other and to all beings of the earth?

I know which story I am committed to–and I think we all want that.  It means doing everything possible to encourage the transition to renewable energy.  I pray that you will go home tonight and think of those future generations–our grandchildren and their grandchildren.  I pray that we might leave them a beautiful world–a world we know is possible.

We were told that all testimony was recorded and will be able to be seen at the website of the commission, but it is not posted yet, as far as I can tell.  The website is very difficult to navigate. If you want to find out more about this rule making case, you can follow this link.  If you want to make a comment on these proposed changes, you can do so at this page, using the case number 2016-00222.

There is a lot more to say about all this, but for today I will leave it with my prayer–that we might leave a beautiful world for the future generations.

 

The Devil in the (Solar Credit) Details

Solar DetailI was finally able to take stock of my estimated taxes for next year, and compute how the solar energy credit would work for me. Sad to say, the devil is in the details: while I was hoping to be able to take a tax credit to recoup 30% of the cost of our solar panels, it won’t quite work out that way. For this coming year, I will be able to take less than one third of that.  The rest I will have to carry forward to future years.

I am disappointed about that, and a bit surprised.  But before we installed the panels, I wouldn’t have even known how to ask the questions to discover all this.  In the literature on solar, it was always expressed as “may be able to get 30% of cost as a tax credit, but consult a tax professional.”  I had just assumed that it would work to take the credit this coming year, because I knew my tax bill is generally higher than 30% of the solar cost.  But I think I got caught in the peculiar way that minister’s taxes are computed.

Ministers are counted as “self-employed” for social security, so we pay 15.3% of our total compensation toward social security self-employment taxes.  Most employees have 7.65% withheld and the other 7.65% is paid by the employer. (On the other hand, ministers get a break on our housing allowance, so that tends to even it out.)  What ends up happening for me, though, is that the largest part of my actual tax bill is the social security self-employment tax. And I did not realize that the solar tax credit could not be used against that tax, but only the regular federal taxes.

I share all this because I am guessing that some of my ministry colleagues might have an interest in installing solar panels, since you share the same values I hold about caring for the earth and using renewal energy.  I wanted to warn you that you might not be able to count on getting that money back in the first year. Plus, I can see how this makes it even harder for solar panels to be affordable for lower income folks.  The lower your income, the lower your taxes, and the more years it may take for a rebate to actually come back to you.

Personally, I’ll be okay financially.  And I don’t regret having installed the solar panels, even with this and other political setbacks. But I sure was looking forward to having that rebate for other house projects that are waiting in line. So it goes.

Still Angry

Last week, we got our first electricity bill with a full month of solar energy production on our roof.  I was excitedly looking forward to a bill in which our production exceeded our consumption, and so we had nothing to pay at all.  Zero for electricity!  Well it turns out, that can’t happen in Maine.  Apparently, in the not so distant past they changed the structure of delivery rate payments so that anything less than or up to 50 kWh is billed at a set rate.  So no matter how little we use, I realized, we would always have to pay $11.51 per month.

But then, the very next day I read in the paper that rates were going up July 1st–but I couldn’t find the details anywhere until today–so now the basic delivery rate will be $12.88 for up to 50 kWh. (By the way, that would be .2576 per kWh if you used those 50.) The delivery rate for over 50 is going from .06302 to .066541.  This is in addition to the actual energy charge, which for us with CMP standard offer is an additional .064430 per kWh.

I wouldn’t be so angry if I hadn’t spent a day at the state house at the end of April listening to conservatives arguing that solar customers were getting a free ride and being subsidized by all other customers.  Here’s the thing I was thinking that day, assuming that we did have true net metering–where we only paid for the balance between what we generated and what we used–solar customers benefit the whole grid because we are adding energy to the grid during its highest use demands–summertime in the heat of the day.

And this is our earth we are talking about–we should be creating policies that encourage more and more renewal energy usage, or we won’t have a planet that can support human life anymore. Human life, anyone?  At this point in Maine, only on the hottest summer days do we even reach 1% of the total energy used being solar energy. Shouldn’t we be talking about how to increase that to 50%?  Not castigating those of us who have worked so hard to make a change, by calling us “elite” and acting like we are a drain on the rest of the customers?

Margy and I just spent a lot of money because we really care about the earth. It was almost impossible for us to do–we had to move to a new house and downsize our living situation to be able to afford the investment. But we really really care about the future of the earth. And we also hoped that as we grew older and had less financial resources, this would help us to get by.

But now I know that even if we use no energy at all from the grid, we must still pay 12.88 per month, to be able to be tied into the grid. And I understand that if everyone had solar panels tied to the grid (wouldn’t that be our dream future?) we collectively would have to find a way to maintain and support the infrastructure of the grid. But the attitudes of certain politicians in Maine are downright punitive towards solar customers.  While I was web surfing trying to find the new rates, I discovered that two years ago, they were trying to add a $25 monthly surcharge for solar customers.  It didn’t succeed that time, but everything will be reviewed again this coming year. Oh, and by the way, CMP is owned by the Spanish multinational corporation Iberdrola. So isn’t that the real issue–the privatization of public utilities and profits for the shareholders?

I am dealing with a bit of reality shock about all this–after the initial excitement about going for solar, I am discovering just how much of a battle is involved on so many fronts.  It caught me off guard. I called our solar installer and he apologized for this not being clearer up front–he thought he had explained it before. But I am curious–to those of you with solar in other states:  do you have any zero bills? How does it work where you live?

CMP Bill 0630161004

Waiting

Solar Panels all upSo all the panels were completely up on the roof by the end of Tuesday, and the electrician was supposed to come this morning with the installer to hook everything up and get it started.  But he mistakenly went to another job, and our installer was only able to do the internet hookup.  I was so frustrated after being so excited about this being “the day.”  And it was such a lovely bright sunny day too.  Now they are supposed to come tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, I did the paperwork for Central Maine Power to authorize our power generation and net-metering.

And on a different note entirely, I took a walk Wednesday to Evergreen Cemetery and saw the baby owls again, and also this lovely great blue heron fishing in the pond.  I intercepted the Maine Audubon warbler walk and met some birds I hadn’t known before, though my small camera was unable to get photos.  But I did get better at shifting from naked-eye view to binocular view without losing sight of the birds.  I saw a black and white warbler, a chestnut-sided warbler, a blue-headed vireo, and a northern parula. On Monday I saw and heard a wood thrush.

Maybe the blue heron can offer me something in the way of patience. It just kept walking around the pond, looking for fish I presume, and then being still and quiet as it watched and waited.Heron