Net metering caps blacking out solar development in the Berkshires
BOSTON — While people and businesses that elect to install solar photovoltaic panels do see a benefit from net metering, the utility grid and society in general benefit more.
That was the finding of a report issued recently by the Environment Massachusetts Research and Policy Center.
The report's authors reviewed 11 recent analyses of the costs and benefits of solar power, some conducted by utility companies.
According to the executive summary of the report, "Shining Rewards: The Value of Rooftop Solar Power for Consumers and Society," net metering not only promotes the growth of solar energy, but the solar energy generated by photovoltaic panels benefits the effectiveness of the grid as well.
But because of caps on the amount of net-metered commercial solar power that can be produced, such solar development in the Northern Berkshires has ended, leaving workers and small businesses idle.
"A review of 11 recent analyses shows that individuals and businesses that decide to 'go solar' generally deliver greater benefits to the grid and society than they receive through net metering," the report says. "Decision-makers should recognize the great value delivered by distributed solar energy by preserving and expanding access to net metering and other programs that ensure fair compensation to Americans who install solar energy."
The report came out two weeks after a long list of advocates for solar energy expansion in Massachusetts swarmed a joint state House/Senate public hearing which was examining the effect solar net metering caps are having on the growth of solar energy.
In northwestern Massachusetts, legislators were told, the rapid growth of solar energy generation has come to a screeching halt.
At issue is a cap on net metering for commercial and publicly funded solar projects that has stalled a number of solar developments and frozen untold number of jobs and revenue in Western Massachusetts, in the territory served by National Grid.
Net metering is a term that refers to the process of solar installations selling power into the grid at the retail rate — an essential part of the financial formula that promotes the development and use of solar-generated power.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, who is co-chairman of the joint committee along with state Rep. Thomas Golden Jr., said the topic is important in Berkshire County, both economically and environmentally, and comes down to determining the path with the most benefit at a cost that is the most effective and still provides widespread access to clean energy.
"Massachusetts has one of the most successful renewable energy programs in the country," he said.
But some maintain that the level at which the state subsidized the solar industry is too high, and utilities contend that intermittent sources of energy are more difficult to deal with because it is unpredictable and makes it more complicated to maintain a minimum power level in the public grid.
Environmentalists and representatives of the solar industry contend that more solar will only help allay the cost of energy, especially during peak usage times. They also note that the public grid should be upgraded to allow better efficiencies and more compatibility with renewable, non-centralized power generation, the general direction the industry is headed during the coming years. And solar power is more efficient as it does not partially dissipate during long distance transmission as it is used by nearby power customers.
The administration of Gov. Charlie Baker has indicated a willingness to double the net metering cap of 800 megawatts (MW) statewide, but not before the completion of a long-term plan that defines how renewable energy will play a role in overall energy use and grid development. Utilities have expressed a similar desire for a long-term framework to be established before discussing expanding the solar caps.
The growth in renewable — particularly solar — energy has been driven in large part by net metering, through which utilities pay generating facilities and homeowners for the power they pump into the grid. Net-metering caps, which do not apply to residential-size solar installations, are divided among the territories served by five different utility companies in Massachusetts.
National Grid and Eversource serve nearly everyone in Berkshire County, and in March, a cap on the net metering program was hit for about half of the towns and cities in Massachusetts — those served by National Grid. As a result, many businesses, local governments, and nonprofits hoping to install solar panels are no longer able to do so.
The private business solar development cap for the National Grid territory is 205 MW, which has been hit. The public solar development cap for towns, cities and other publicly funded concerns is 256 MW, which has also been exhausted.
There are a total of 39 MW of solar development projects currently on hold in the National Grid territory unable to move forward.
According to the report, the benefits derived from solar energy include avoided energy costs, avoided capital and capacity investment, reduced financial risks and more stable electricity prices; increased resiliency of the grid, and avoidance of the compliance costs relative to environmental regulations through reduction in the need for fossil-fuel-produced electricity.
"Solar energy systems produce clean, renewable electricity on-site, reducing the amount of electricity utilities must generate or purchase from fossil fuel-fired power plants," the report says. "In addition, solar photovoltaic (PV) systems reduce the amount of energy lost in generation, long-distance transmission, and distribution. These losses cost the country millions of dollars every year."
A reduction in the demand for electricity due to the use of solar helps ratepayers and utilities avoid the cost of building new power plants, power lines, and other infrastructure, according to the report. And while the price of solar energy tends to be stable over time, the price of fossil fuels can fluctuate suddenly.
"Integrating more solar energy into the grid reduces consumers' exposure to volatile fossil fuel prices," the report reads. "Also, by reducing demand for energy from the grid, solar photo voltaic systems reduce its price, saving money for all ratepayers."
The report notes that all 11 analyses show that solar helps avoid greenhouse gas emissions, reduce air pollution that harm the public health, creates jobs and spurs local economies.
"Net metering policies have been critical to the growth of solar energy in the United States," the report concludes. "To continue America's momentum toward a clean energy future, policy makers should continue and expand net metering policies."
Chris Kilfoyle, president of the local solar installation company Berkshire Photovoltaic Services, said he submitted written testimony to the joint committee hearing.
He said that utility companies are likely to try to inhibit the growth of solar because as energy supplies grow, profit margins shrink and shareholders start to feel the pain of fewer profits.
"But the utility business model has to change," he added. "It has to be more technically innovative and far less manipulative of the supply market and bureaucratic regulation to survive."
"It's time to go big on solar," said Ben Hellerstein, campaign organizer for Environment Massachusetts. "Solar is helping reduce Massachusetts' carbon emissions while strengthening the state's economy and keeping electricity costs under control. With the right policies in place, we can get at least 20 percent of Massachusetts' electricity from solar by 2025."
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