New guide aims to help steer Massachusetts solar energy into low-income communities

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BOSTON >> A policy guide launched Monday holds up Massachusetts as a leader in making solar energy accessible to low-income communities, but solar supporters said Monday that status could be at risk under legislation lawmakers are negotiating.

Competing House and Senate solar bills (H 3854 and S 2058) were referred on Nov. 18 to a conference committee. Lawmakers were charged with working out differences including the amount of power solar producers can sell back to the energy grid at retail rates through what is known as net metering.

"If the bill that comes out of committee is anywhere in between the what Senate version was and what the House version was, you are all but assured that low-income solar is in deep trouble in Massachusetts," Emily Rochon, director of energy and environmental policy at Boston Community Capital, said during a conference call with reporters and solar advocates Monday.

The call touted the release of a policy guide for low-income solar projects, assembled by national nonprofits Vote Solar, GRID Alternatives and the Center for Social Inclusion. The guide examines models that open up solar access to affordable housing developments and low-income households, citing Massachusetts' solar loan program and Green Communities Act of 2008 as successful examples.

"Massachusetts has really been leading the way," Vote Solar Northeast manager Sean Garren said. "Right now in the state we have through the solar renewable energy credit program -- and this is just within the existence of that program, so pretty recently -- 75 megawatts of solar that are currently serving or planned to be serving affordable housing or low-income individuals or families. That's 13 percent of the state's overall market for solar renewable energy credits sort of at the commercial scale."

The 75 megawatts include "a number of" projects that have stalled after qualifying for credits because of the cap on net metering, Garren said. He said his organization did not have the data to provide an exact figure, but that it is not easy to keep solar projects alive while on a net metering waiting list, particularly low-income projects that tend to be more complicated and costly.

"When you start to cut the overall package of both compensation and incentives for solar, you're going to start seeing low-income be one of the market segments that starts to be hurt immediately, and it's going to be one of the first to disappear because that is a tougher market and it requires often literally more money and at the least more incentive to get more folks focused on it," Garren said.

Rochon said she knew of a solar project at a housing development in Worcester and one at a Grafton farm that are on hold after the net metering cap was reached in National Grid territory last March.

Hitting the cap pushed Boston Community Capital to cancel two planned one-megawatt solar projects in Western Massachusetts that would have served affordable housing developments, Rochon said.

"If we wanted to move forward with the projects, instead of receiving retail net metering credits, we would receive wholesale net metering credits, and the projects simply aren't economic with wholesale net metering credits," she said.

Referring to the six lawmakers making up the solar conference committee, Garren said that there is a "pretty closed room and a small set of people that are figuring out what this path forward is," while advocates continue to "push from the outside."

The conference committee members are "trading proposals back and forth," House Speaker Robert DeLeo told reporters Monday.

"I think from where we were the day that it was passed to now, we are seeing movement on both sides to hopefully come up with a resolution but have not reached that at this point, so I'm hopeful maybe that can happen," DeLeo said.


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