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Northampton City Council urges state legislators to eliminate solar net metering cap



Friday, February 05, 2016
NORTHAMPTON — City Council members urged state legislators to immediately eliminate the cap on solar net metering, sending a strong message at their meeting Thursday that Northampton is tired of stalled solar projects and Massachusetts must do more to address climate change.

Councilors voted unanimously to pass a resolution opposing a House bill that would expand the cap on public and private solar power by 2 percent each, saying this small increase would do little to address the backlog of solar projects, and would instead stymie efforts across the state to develop renewable energy.

At issue is a debate over the state’s net metering program, which regulates how much energy solar producers can sell back to the grid at retail rather than wholesale rates.

Utilities have opposed lifting the cap and insisted that solar-producing businesses should contribute to maintaining the grid. Associated Industries of Massachusetts has argued that significantly lifting the cap would increase consumer electric bills by hundreds of millions of dollars.

“There are people who see this as some kind of subsidy or giveaway and that’s absolutely not what it is,” said City Council Vice President Ryan O’Donnell.

In Northampton, the cap has stalled plans for a planned solar array on the closed landfill as well as efforts to bolster emergency power systems with backup solar energy, the resolution notes. Proposed by City Council President William H. Dwight and Ward 7 Councilor Alisa Klein, the resolution also criticizes the stipulation in the House bill that would allow mandatory minimum monthly charges for solar customers.

The bill directs the Department of Public Utilities to set a minimum fee that utility companies can charge solar customers — one that “does not excessively burden ratepayers” — to partially account for the cost of distributing electricity.

Massachusetts has poured significant resources into renewable energy, Dwight said, and efforts to move to solar power have been particularly successful in the western part of the state. But imposing a low cap on the net metering program stalls this progress, he said.

“HB 3854 runs completely counter to the energy — no pun intended — that was invested by the community and by the state in becoming autonomous and independent,” Dwight said.

Nine Northampton residents spoke in favor of the resolution during public comment. Many highlighted the increasingly alarming effects of climate change and urgency with which the state should move toward renewable energy, while others said it was important to support the estimated 15,000 people working in the solar industry across the state.

“The gift of being alive at this particular moment in history is we have a chance to make a difference, to change course, to protect the whole web of life which is presently unraveling,” said the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas of 83 Bancroft Road. Bullitt-Jonas is an Episcopal priest who serves as the missioner for creation care in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts and often preaches about climate change.

The resolution initially asked that House leaders eliminate or raise the cap by at least 6 percent, but was amended, upon the recommendation of several Northampton residents, to instead ask that the cap be eliminated altogether.

The resolution passed 7-0, which was met with applause from the audience. At-large Councilor Jesse M. Adams and Ward 5 Councilor David A. Murphy were absent from Thursday’s meeting.

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at smcfeeters@gazettenet.com.

This story has been updated from an earlier edition to include information about the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas' title and her work.