Massachusetts lawmakers fail to reach accord on solar incentives

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BOSTON >> The House and Senate moved into their winter recess on Wednesday night without a deal to raise caps on solar power that advocates say are hindering solar development across the state.

Negotiators fell short of pushing a final bill across the finish line.

Entering the day seemingly far apart, the gap between two competing proposals to raise the caps on solar net metering narrowed Wednesday and Legislative leaders appointed a conference committee to try to bridge the divide.

House and Senate negotiators made a show of quickly assembling to take a swing at crafting a quick compromise, but 90 minutes later both sides acknowledged that it would take further discussions before a deal could be reached.

"Clearly the conferees weren't able to get to any level of agreement so far but I'm confident that there's still time to work something out in the parameters that we're working within and get something done," said Energy Secretary Matthew Beaton, who was patrolling the State House hallways into the evening as outcome of the solar talks were still in doubt.

Lawmakers in both branches have expressed urgency to increase a cap on the amount of solar electricity produced by the private sector and public entities that can receive the retail rate for the power produced. A federal incentive for solar production expires at the end of 2016, and caps have been hit in National Grid territory and are close to being reached in other utility territories, including Eversource's, stalling solar projects that proponents say carry jobs as well as clean energy.

"I think the timeliness is important. We want to make sure we take advantage of the federal investment tax credit. I know that's a goal that both sides have, and every day that we don't that's a missed opportunity, but I know everyone wants to get something done so we'll keep working on it," Sen. Benjamin Downing, the lead Senate solar negotiator said.

While formal sessions for the year have ended, leaders in branches are not ruling out the possibility of passing a finalized bill during informal sessions when any one member can object. Asked whether it might be a matter of days, weeks or months before agreement could be reached with the House, Downing said, "I'm always the optimist. I'm always hopeful, but I don't want to put a date or a timeframe on it."

Reps. Brian Dempsey, Thomas Golden and Brad Jones and Sens. Downing, Marc Pacheco and Bruce Tarr plan to continue conference committee negotiations in the coming days.

The state's net-metering program allows solar-producing businesses and municipalities to sell that energy back to the grid at retail rates. The current caps - 4 percent on private installations and 5 percent on public - are calculated as a percentage of the peak electrical usage.

After the House on Tuesday passed a bill that was roundly criticized by the solar industry for not going far enough on caps and undermining the value of reimbursements that make solar projects financially viable, the Senate on Wednesday updated its own plan to agree to the House's recommendation of a 2 percent cap raise across the board.

Differences remain, however, over how to reimburse solar producing customers 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.

Downing, during the floor debate, said the House bill went "too far on the cost side" to lower reimbursement rates after the state hits its target of 1,600 megawatts of installed solar capacity, while House Ways and Means Chair Brian Dempsey said controlling cost for ratepayers that do not use solar is a prime concern to the House. In its version the Senate scrapped the House's plan to charge solar customers a minimum bill to offset the utilities' costs for maintaining infrastructure.

Beaton, who still believes that Gov. Charlie Baker's bill carved out the appropriate middle-ground on the issue, said the Senate's net metering credit plan is still "higher than I would like to see it," and questioned the dire prognostications from solar industry critics of the House bill.

"I think the message that we're hearing that this would shut down and bring solar to its knees is a little bit of a disingenuous statement. Anyone who is familiar with the numbers and can take an honest assessment at the numbers knows that is not the case, so it's unfortunate that the conversation has gotten to that level, but that said, I think everyone will be able to see through the noise enough to see that we're not putting forward a proposal that's in the interest of any one special interest, whether it's a utility or a solar development firm," Beaton said.

Tension between the branches over the issue appeared to be running high at the start of the day with Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Pacheco referring to the House solar proposal as the "utility bill," suggesting the major utilities had exerted their influence over House lawmakers to scale back the solar incentives.

Sen. Dan Wolf also bemoaned the process, describing senators as "under the gun to raise the cap" on net metering despite the Senate acting back in July to address the issue only to see it stall in the House until the second-to-last day of formal session.

With the Legislature planning to try to tackle a more comprehensive energy bill next year that addresses other sources like hydropower and on- and off-shore wind, Downing said he didn't see the fractious solar debate as a harbinger of what's to come.

"The larger energy bill is always going to be complicated. Nothing about today changes that. It's going to be complicated no matter what," he said.

Sean Garren, of Vote Solar, echoed the frustration of trying to push a complicated bill through the Legislature in the waning hours of formal session.

"Months of inaction and delay fueled by utilities and their high-powered allies led to this missed opportunity, which will directly harm consumer savings, local jobs, and solar progress for a growing number of communities," Garren said in a statement. "Because House leaders ran out the clock, 171 towns and cities will be left in the shade and more will be joining them when further net metering caps are hit. The result is that hundreds of planned solar projects will wither on the vine and millions in investment dollars will go to other states."


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