Downing key to passage of solid solar bill

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LOWELL — This past week, at the end of a long and winding road, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a solar bill. No one would argue that it's a perfect bill, but after years of often acrimonious debate about a subject that House Speaker Robert DeLeo fairly referred to as one of the most complex the Legislature has dealt with in his long tenure, it's a good one.

Now on its way to Gov. Baker's desk after passing 152-1 in the House and 35-0 in the Senate, the bill lifts — by about 650 megawatts — the statewide cap on solar installations that had stalled our otherwise successful solar program. This is enough to power roughly 130,000 homes, and it's about the amount of solar generation built in the state the last two years. The bill also instructs the Department of Energy Resources to extend and improve its solar incentive program.

So with this bill, the Legislature keeps the over 15,000 people employed in solar in Massachusetts at work, and it notches an important win in the project of making our electricity footprint more carbon-free. It's a powerful statement from the legislature: we want to continue to support solar in the state.

Of course, there are compromises. Chief among them, it cuts the reimbursement rate for power sold back to the grid for some kinds of projects — especially those most commonly used by low-income residents and renters — without much at all in the way of technical or economic justification. States like New York and California have taken the more sensible approach of directing their public regulatory commissions to determine the fair and reasonable level of compensation for solar, in the same way that other rates are set. And even with this bill, solar remains arbitrarily capped. So this is not the last time this Legislature will have to address solar. All stakeholders would have preferred a long-term, sustainable policy. This is not that.

But the very fact that this is not that is a testament to how difficult it has been to find a solution that works, and that effectively balances a range of reasonable priorities: to make sure Massachusetts continues to support solar; to ensure that we're doing so in a way that maximizes the benefits and minimizes the costs to our electricity system; to include all residents who want to share in our solar story; to manage this exciting transition to a cleaner, smarter grid in a way that ensures safety and reliability in our power system.

So for now, this solution — one that keeps solar working —is a good one, and our legislators deserve praise for finding their way through a complex and politically challenging debate to a bill that most everyone can support.

Though the House passed a bill in November that would have been very bad news for solar in Massachusetts, they kept at it, and over the course of four months, leadership listened carefully to the large majority of House members who expressed a strong desire to arrive at a bill that would support solar. The House representatives on the joint legislative committee that wrote the bill should be credited with finding the middle ground on a measure that ultimately drew opposition from a few groups on both ends of the political spectrum, but that was broadly supported between the two poles.

Solar's champion in this debate, though, has been Sen. Ben Downing. Sen. Downing, who chairs the Energy Committee, has done more than any other legislator, over a full decade, to understand the complexities and challenges of writing good solar policies.

Sen. Downing is leaving the Senate at the end of this year. The Legislature will miss his command of the most challenging energy issues, and his steady, principled, progressive approach to the often messy work of politics and policy.

This solar bill bears his signature: political moderation and compromise, but effective in serving the progressive priorities of Western Massachusetts.

Dan Berwick is executive vice president of Strategy and Business Development at Borrego Solar, and chairs the Massachusetts committee of the Solar Energy Industries Association.


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