Some Maine homeowners who want to install solar panels are denied their requests by electric companies that say there is too much demand to connect to an aging grid that is running out of capacity.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, solar panels are now more affordable than ever, and prices have fallen by more than 70 percent in the past decade. Panels can also earn a federal tax credit to help homeowners lower their federal income tax bill.
But as more Mainers now take advantage of competitive pricing and incentives, they sometimes run into a problem: There isn’t always room in the wiring to plug them in.
When homeowners are interested in residential solar energy, they will typically call a solar installation company. The company determines whether the location is suitable for rooftop or ground-mounted solar panels and will determine which system will meet the homeowner’s energy needs.
The company then calls on Versant Power or Central Maine Power Co. to connect its customers to the grid. applies to a utility company. Utilities are responsible for the system of poles, wires, substations, and other equipment that make the delivery of electricity possible. The solar installation company’s application includes details such as the number of panels required and the kilowatts of electricity the homeowner’s system is expected to produce.
But recently, some Mainers have had their applications denied because of a lack of capacity on the power grid. One was Matt Quinn of Trenton, whose rooftop solar application was rejected by Versant on Dec. 7.
“Having our solar panels and reducing our electric bill by 80 percent has been very effective for us,” Quinn said. He said the state’s goal of becoming carbon neutral and electrifying was important, but for him, “policies don’t match reality.”
Danny Piper, owner of Sundog Solar in Searsport, a company that installs solar systems on homes, said he has recently seen three other customers in addition to Quinn have their applications for grid connection denied.
Quinn said Versant, which serves 159,000 customer accounts in northern and eastern Maine, did not provide an alternative or suggest changes when Quinn was contacted. The utility’s emailed response to him said it was denying his application because the level of generation would cause a high strain on the existing system. Versant also said the proposed design for Quinn’s residence is beyond the scope of a minor change.
Connecting a particular project can affect voltage or power quality in the larger system, both of which must be kept within certain limits, said David Littell, an energy and environmental lawyer and former commissioner of the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
“It’s definitely a problem,” he said. “It really depends on the level of the grid to accommodate power and voltage changes.”
Otherwise, voltage fluctuations can damage equipment in the home owner’s home or in the homes of others on the network. He said he dealt with the issue last year when a voltage fluctuation caused a power surge and fried an electric car’s charger.
The Public Utilities Commission mandates that utility companies, the largest of which are Versant and Central Maine Power, maintain adequate energy levels to prevent problems such as voltage fluctuations and power outages.
“When people generate a lot of solar energy and only use some of it, they push all the energy into the grid for other nearby customers to use,” said Judy Long, Versant’s communications manager. “And when they don’t produce enough solar energy, they take power from us.”
The power grid is not designed to have multiple power sources in the distribution system or to facilitate two-way power flow, Long said. Additionally, utilities do not have discretion and are not permitted to reserve space for rooftop solar programs.
“We feel for these customers,” he said. “But we take them on a first-come, first-served basis, and we need to study them to make sure they’re safe and secure.”
He said that applying for residential solar power connection has never been a serious problem in the past. But with incentives to develop larger community solar projects, the demand to connect to the grid has increased, and utilities face a bigger challenge.
“There is only so much space on distribution lines, and with the demand to interconnect larger projects, we are running out of space for all projects without the expensive upgrades needed to maintain the safety and reliability of the system,” Long said.
Maine has more requests to join the network than ever before.
“There’s more demand in terms of megawatts to connect to the grid, actually more than our demand for electricity,” Long said. “So if we connected all these projects together, we would have more energy than we use.”
The Public Utilities Commission doesn’t track how many residential solar projects are denied statewide, but Phil Bartlett, its chairman, said he doesn’t believe there are more denials than approvals.
“It can happen in some places if someone is in a cycle with very limited capacity for new solar, but it’s certainly not the norm,” Bartlett said.
Central Maine Power declined to say how many applications it has rejected, but spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett said it is seeing more demand for rooftop solar to connect to the grid. It added 1,663 new rooftop solar customers this year, more than any year before.
Versant, meanwhile, began tracking the problem recently when it was unable to connect 10 rooftop solar projects due to capacity shortages, Long said. As of 2020, it has integrated 485 rooftop solar installations.
Littell, an attorney who represents utilities and renewable energy producers, said connecting to the grid is one of the biggest challenges facing renewable energy development not only in Maine but across the country. He believes that the lack of power will require the improvement of the electricity grid.
“But it really takes everyone working together to effectively solve these problems,” he said.
According to EnergySage, an online marketplace where people can shop for local solar installers, the average cost to install 5 kilowatts of solar panels in Maine this year was between $14,238 and $19,262. According to estimates, a homeowner could save $22,693 over 20 years for an average prepaid system.
Mehr Sher is a report for an American corps member. Additional support for this report is provided by the Commonwealth Fund and donations from BDN readers.