Massachusetts House lawmakers, mayors, town managers push to get solar bill moving

This solar installation in Adams could be affected by legislation under discussion on Beacon Hill. Dozens of House lawmakers, as well as 32 mayors and town managers, have petitioned their own negotiators to raise net metering caps and resist cuts in metering credit values.

BOSTON >> Hoping to dislodge a solar energy bill that's been stuck in House-Senate talks for four months, 100 House lawmakers have written a letter to their own negotiators urging them to raise net metering caps and resist cuts in metering credit values that they say could cause irreparable harm to an industry the state is trying to grow.

And they are not alone. A letter from 32 mayors and town managers, as well as letters from other city and town officials, including the Williamstown Board of Selectmen, have been descending on the House and Senate leadership and members of the House/Senate conference committee working on the solar legislation.

"We hope you can advance a bill to a floor vote at the earliest opportunity, in order to restore investments in our communities and allow businesses to rehire workers who lost their jobs as a result of the net metering caps," representatives wrote in a letter organized by Reps. Cory Atkins, of Concord, and James O'Day, of West Boylston.

Net metering enables those that host solar panels to sell excess power back to the energy grid, usually for credit on their electricity bills. Under current law, electric companies pay for net metering at the retail rate — the same rate they charge customers for electricity. The proposals would reduce the price of net metering credits by as much as 75 percent, permitting utilities to purchase the power at the wholesale rate — the cost of production — thus making solar power development financially challenging for municipal hosts and solar developers.

The letter was addressed to Reps. Brian Dempsey, of Haverhill, Thomas Golden, of Lowell, and Brad Jones, of North Reading, who were charged in November with working out a compromise solar energy bill with the Senate. The conference committee has been unable to find common ground on H 3854 and S 2058.

The letter from mayors and town managers, including North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright, was delivered to six members of a Legislative conference committee considering the proposals, with copies going to the speaker of the House, the Senate president and the governor. The letter calls on legislators to eliminate the net metering caps and maintain the value of the net metering credits at the retail level.

"We ask the committee to produce a final bill that allows communities to continue to host solar facilities on municipal property and to continue to make forward progress towards a clean energy future," the mayors and town managers wrote.

Alcombright said by lighting up 4.5 megawatts of solar power for city uses last year, roughly $200,000 has been saved already, with that number likely to grow.

"We were able to balance our budget because of that," he said. "And next year our insurance costs are going to go up another $400,000 to $500,000, and savings on the cost of energy could go a long way toward beating down that huge expense. Or it could fund two to three teachers or police officers. It's not chump change, that's for darn sure."

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer said that she will also be sending a letter to legislators calling for quick action on net metering and solar financial incentives.

"We want to do more work in this area," she said. "We have acres and acres of rooftops on municipal buildings that we could take advantage of, but only if the solar incentives and credits remain at the current level."

Meanwhile, the Williamstown Select Board endorsed a letter on Monday to presidents of both the House and Senate calling for rapid action on compromise legislation that lifts the net metering caps and eliminates the ceiling on another important financial factor in growing solar power — the Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SREC) — which was reached earlier this year. Both caps have been dramatically darkening the development of new solar energy projects throughout the state.

"In order to enable us — in Williamstown and across the commonwealth — to move forward with cost effective clean energy programs, we strongly support the elimination of the net metering caps," the Williamstown letter reads. "In addition to lifting the net metering cap, we urge you to keep the value of net metering credits at a reasonable level. Furthermore, the SREC II incentive program has now expired. We strongly support the creation of a new program that lowers costs for ratepayers and allows us to achieve even greater long-term solar goals and to take full advantage of the federal tax credits that have been extended."

In Williamstown, the letter notes, several projects have been stalled, including:

• A 1.5 megawatt solar plant at the town's capped landfill authorized at town meeting in May 2015.

• A community shared solar project that could serve more than 50 local households, which lack an appropriate site for installing solar at their home.

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

• The Williamstown Youth Center is working to install a solar array to fill 80 to 90 percent of its electricity needs.

• A local farm is seeking to install a sizable solar array to power its operations and substantially save on its operating costs.

"We know you and your colleagues are seeking to comprehensively address our energy issues," the board wrote. "Electricity from solar must be a key part of this picture and the urgency of this issue is such that we ask you to address it in a swift and timely fashion. Massachusetts cannot wait the time required to finalize an omnibus energy bill instead we must move key solar legislation forward now."

Massachusetts has brought online 985 megawatts of solar since 2009, enough to power 150,000 homes. Current solar policies are estimated to have created more than 15,000 jobs in Massachusetts and resulted in $791 million in investment in 2014. The state has made a commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

Energy has been a constant topic of policy talk on Beacon Hill this year. With Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth scheduled to close by 2019 and the state moving away from coal-fired plants, lawmakers are weighing their embrace of renewable energy sources with concerns over energy prices and reliability, and worries over the impacts of proposed pipelines and a possible over-dependence on natural gas.

"We support your desire to reduce costs," the state lawmakers wrote to House conferees. "However, it is important to note that net metering credits are not subsidies, but rather compensation for the value provided by solar generation exported to the grid."

The letter, signed by Democrats and Republicans, lays out policy recommendations and warns against compensating solar projects at wholesale rates. The letter came about, at least in part, because lawmakers have been hearing from more constituents seeking stronger growth in the solar sector.

"Since November, we have been contacted by many constituents concerned that reducing the retail net metering credit rate will do irreparable harm to many solar projects in the state," Atkins said in a statement. "We know that House leaders care deeply about this issue. We thought they'd want to hear our concerns."

State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, co-chairman of the House/Senate conference committee working on the compromise legislation, said that while it's nice to see support from other legislators, some of them voted in favor of the more constrictive house version before it was sent to committee, which he finds "frustrating."

And it would have been nice to hear these views being aired last fall when the legislation was originally being crafted, said Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat.

"We'd be in a far better place right now," he said.

But at this point in the process, the conference committee can not go outside of the parameters that the two bills are proposing, he said, limiting the elements of the legislation they could potentially change.

"That is the unfortunate reality," Downing said.

At the same time, he noted, it's nice to see such a widespread expression of support for net metering, and it gives negotiators a better understanding of what the public wants to see and a bit more leverage in creating strong financial incentives for the further development of solar power.

"It certainly helps to have so many people weigh in with their support of the existing program and it helps us in the work we have yet to do," Downing said.