Mass. attorney general backs lifting cap on solar projects

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BOSTON >> Attorney General Maura Healey said Monday she backs an immediate lifting of the cap on solar production in Massachusetts.

In written testimony to the chairmen of the Legislature's energy committee ahead of a hearing slated for Tuesday, Healey said public and private net metering caps have been reached in National Grid's territory, putting solar projects in 171 communities at risk as development slows.

Net metering allows electricity customers to offset their bills by receiving the retail rate for excess energy produced by solar panels.

"Increased market constraints can drive up costs, and reduce investment in the clean energy sector, to the detriment of customers, the clean-tech economy, and the Commonwealth's energy and environmental policy goals," Healey wrote in her testimony. "A limited cap increase will help avert this market boom-bust that would adversely impact 1,400 Massachusetts solar companies and place jobs at risk."

Caps exist for government-owned and private net metering solar projects, while residential projects or projects under 25 kilowatts aren't subject to a cap.

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Solar industry advocates have pushed for a cap lift, while utilities have opposed it, saying customers without solar panels will be hit with higher bills. Gov. Charlie Baker's administration has said it opposes raising the net metering caps without a long-term solution.

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The Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, chaired by Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, and Rep. Thomas Golden, D-Lowell, is holding a hearing at 1 p.m. Tuesday on 13 solar energy bills and a net metering task force report.

Baker's energy and environmental affairs secretary, Matthew Beaton, has said Baker backs the previous administration's push for installing at least 1,600 megawatts of solar energy by 2020, but has also said the framework and incentives need to be reviewed.

Healey, who does not plan to attend the hearing, did not back a specific bill, and instead outlined elements of legislation she could support.

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According to the two-page letter, the elements include lifting the cap and providing "relief" until an "open and transparent" study of the value of solar and distribution costs is published; directing the state Department of Public Utilities to decide the "appropriate rate mechanism for solar"; and reforming current solar incentive programs to "ensure that our solar industries continue to mature and ultimately thrive independent of policies that have helped launch their success."

"A long-term, balanced solar policy must ensure that non-solar customers are not disproportionately subsidizing expansion of solar, and that all the costs and benefits to the system and society are realized and accounted for fully and appropriate," Healey wrote. "Studies conducted in other states have concluded that solar net metering is a net benefit to all utility customers because solar provides significant benefits to the electric grid, environment and economy."

Before Tuesday's hearing, members of the Massachusetts Solar Coalition and solar industry workers plan to hold a rally outside the Statehouse at noon.

According to organizers, expected attendees include Peter Rothstein, president of the New England Clean Energy Council; Larry Aller, director of business development and strategy at Next Step Living; and David Colton, Easton town administrator.


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