Battle over state solar subsidies threatens to spill into spring
BOSTON >> One year has passed since limits on incentives for homeowners and others to produce and sell solar power back to the grid were reached for customers served by National Grid, an anniversary highlighted by advocates Tuesday in a call to bring added pressure on the Legislature to end an impasse.
Environmental and solar advocates announced that they would be embarking on a month-long campaign to mark the full year that has elapsed since solar net metering caps were reached in National Grid's service territory last March.
As voters headed out to cast ballots in the presidential primaries, activists planned to visit polling locations and other public areas to urge citizens to call or email their local elected leaders and request they lift the cap on solar metering, which allows customers to sell solar power back to the grid at retail rates to encourage development.
"Thousands of Bay Staters are calling for action," said Ben Hellerstein, state director for Environment Massachusetts. "We can't let the standoff over solar drag on into a second year. It's up to Speaker DeLeo to break the logjam and do what's right for our environment, our economy and the people of Massachusetts."
The House and Senate have passed legislation to expand the caps on solar net metering, but the bills have been before a conference committee since mid-November with lawmakers unable to strike a compromise. Advocates have been critical of the House bill, which included a proposal to charge solar customers a minimum bill to offset the utilities' costs for maintaining infrastructure and devalued credits over time.
Rep. Thomas Golden, D-Lowell, who is leading the solar negotiations for the House, declined to comment on the status of the negotiations on Monday, but House Majority Leader Ronald Mariano said that "fairly recent" signs have left him somewhat encouraged.
"I'm not privy to the negotiations but I do know that there's been indications that progress is being made. That's about all I can say right now," Mariano said.
Both Golden and Mariano did not rule out the possibility that the future for solar policy could get wrapped up into a broader bill under development for later this year that will also look at diversifying the state's energy mix with hydroelectric and offshore wind power, as well as expanded natural gas capacity.
"Solar's part of the discussion. I don't know if it's going to be in the omnibus. They're still meeting. The conference committee is still meeting, so if they can get something done it'll be done before the omnibus bill. If they can't, then maybe we roll it in," Mariano said.
The Senate's point man on energy, Sen. Benjamin Downing, said the prospect of wrapping solar net metering into the larger bill "scared" him because he said it was "not as clear to me as I'd like" that an omnibus bill could get done before the end of the session in July.
"I'd like to avoid that. I'd like to avoid it for several reasons, not the least of which is just because we say we're going to address that in an omnibus isn't a guarantee that an omnibus bill is going to get done that is complicated both from a policy perspective and from a political perspective, and we shouldn't just assume that putting it off guarantees that it will get done," Downing said on Tuesday.
The Pittsfield Democrat noted the Senate passed a bill to expand solar net metering caps last July, and considered it a "timely" step then, but said the federal government has given the state a "runway" with the extension of solar investment tax credits that were due to expire last year.
"Would I have liked it done long ago? Absolutely. But I would rather we get it right than rushing it, so we're going to continue to work at it and I would just encourage folks who are engaged to engage positively," Downing said.
The tone of the debate over the future of solar incentives in Massachusetts was raised on Monday when Associated Industries of Massachusetts President Richard Lord accused unnamed "fringe organizations" and solar developers of launching a "campaign of disinformation, ad-hominem attacks and dirty tricks."
In an open letter to AIM's members, Lord said member companies and board members have been harassed through online and social attacks, but a spokesman for AIM was not able to immediately provide evidence of these "attacks" or examples of the groups Lord referenced.
"Many of these groups are fringe organizations that have not been part of the ongoing discussions at multiple levels of government. They obviously do not read our literature or attend our programs. In fact, we have never heard of some of them," Lord wrote.
AIM says it supports further solar development as part of a "diverse set of market-driven generation sources to meet the commonwealth's demand of electricity," but opposed legislation that would "perpetuate or expand a byzantine system of subsidies" that cost customers more than the business-group believes ratepayers should pay. According to AIM, the cost of installing solar power has decreased 73 percent during the past decade and Connecticut and other states have reformed solar programs and customers in those states pay 50 percent less than Massachusetts customers pay to subsidize solar.
The major differences between opposing interest groups come down to how solar-producing customers should be reimbursed for the energy they generate. While proponents of higher reimbursement rates say the prices are necessary to encourage growth of the solar industry, critics question the need to continue subsidizing solar with higher incentives than those given to other clean energy resources like wind and hydropower.
The solar bill passed by the House would lift the cap on the amount of public and privately generated solar power that can be sold back to the grid at retail rates by 2 percent for both categories, but the reimbursement rate would fall from retail to wholesale rates after the state reaches 1,600 megawatts of installed solar power. The Senate bill proposed to expand the cap to accommodate 1,600 megawatts, but does not change the reimbursement level.
"The utility companies and other special interests have stood in the way of solar power for too long," said Emily Norton, the Massachusetts director for the Sierra Club. "It's time for state leaders to do what's right for our climate and our economy by eliminating the caps on solar power, and ensuring a fair reimbursement rate for solar power."
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