Solar advocates seek to end caps on sales of sun-generated electricity to Massachusetts utilities

Last modified: Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Solar advocates want the Legislature to preserve the right of larger solar electricity producers to get paid by electric companies for excess power the solar arrays produce through a process called “net metering.”

Tired of the “solar-coaster” of up-and-down incentives and disincentives for the renewable solar energy, solar advocates want to do away with a limit on how much sun-generated power Massachusetts utilities have to buy from them.

Environmental advocates, along with labor organizations and low-income groups, called for the Legislature to do away with caps on solar collection systems that can sell their power to electric utilities. Their spokesmen say the cap limits growth of an industry that not only reduces dependence on fossil fuels, but also has been boosting a sector of the economy.

Net metering allows electricity customers to offset their bills by receiving the retail rate for excess power produced by solar panels. Caps exist for government-owned and private net-metering solar projects, while residential projects or projects under 25 kilowatts are not subject to the cap.

A recent hearing by the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, co-chaired by state Sen. Benjamin Downing of Pittsfield, heard testimony on several bills following the release in April of a report by a task force designed to address the cap on a key incentive on solar development in the territory of National Grid, which serves eastern and western Franklin County as well as Northampton, Belchertown, Goshen, Granby and Williamsburg in Hampshire County.

Advocates say that in 171 communities served by National Grid, the net metering caps have stalled the development of municipal, community solar, low-income and commercial solar projects.

The 5½-hour hearing June 2, attended by several area solar advocates, brought “overwhelming support for immediate action to lift the caps, but also a recognition across the board … that we need a long-term framework in place in place controlling the up and down of state incentives. We need to do both.”

The immediate concern for advocates like Claire Chang of the Greenfield Solar Store, representing a Mass Solar advocacy group concerned that the caps are hampering the industry, is that federal tax credits are due to expire after next year.

Chang said that Eversource, which serves most of Franklin County, is only halfway toward its net-metering caps but failure to raise them could curtail solar development around the state, even potentially affecting the small residential systems that do not fall under the guidelines.

Legislation supported by Mass Solar would increase the caps through the end of 2016 while establishing the kind of framework for setting future policy that encourages solar development, but reduces some of the incentives as needed.

“The current goal for solar PV (photovoltaic) is 1,600MW which is only 4 to 5 percent of our electricity demand,” said Chang. “This is not enough. Global warming and climate change demand that we act as fast as humanly possible.”

Chang told the committee, that the goal set by the Patrick administration of 20 percent of the state’s electricity coming from renewable energy by 2025 is only 10 years away, and it will take another 11,000 MW of electricity generation to achieve this goal. “We have the technology available today to make this happen.”

William Stillinger, president of Pioneer Valley Photovoltaics and a board member of Solar Energy Business Association of New England, said, “This has been a very encouraging state for development of solar energy. In the larger picture, as an adjunct to people’s ability to take control their energy futures and bring about environmental improvement and actually bolster their communities here in Western Mass and the rest of the state, that encouragement has really paid off.

“The megawatts of solar energy in this state — about 840 MW statewide, came about a lot faster than the policy people had anticipated, and with that success all of a sudden, maybe people had a jaundiced view toward clean energy, and said maybe we’re doing too much too soon, maybe the incentives are too rich, so let’s take a look at that.”

He added, “To have these caps in place right now means Massachusetts is avoiding a real economic advantage it can have to keep money locally, this (federal) tax credit. If we don’t take advantage of that, shame on us. PV Squared is sitting on a number of projects and a number of prospects who just say, ‘Let’s not even plan on this project because there’s no future, it’s too uncertain.’ ”

Downing agreed in calling for a short-term increase in the cap.

“Every day that goes by is a day that we squander federal incentives, and squandering those will drive up the cost of solar across the board. We need to act to take advantage of that,” he said

But he added, “It makes all the sense in the world that our solar incentives would change for a solar market that has 800-plus MW, versus the incentives we had in place when the market was 2 MW. That means changing to reflect the new reality. I don’t think anyone wants us to squander ratepayer resources — dollars that are coming out of my and your bill — when it comes to incentivizing renewables.”

Yet Associated Industries of Massachusetts says those without solar panels subsidize those who do generate solar.

“While it is understandable that developers and even some participants want to keep the status quo, virtually all the savings (except for wholesale fuel costs) attributable to solar installations are basically a transfer from non-participating ratepayers to those who have solar, increasing costs for those who may not be able to take advantage of solar programs,” AIM lobbyist Robert Rio said in written testimony. “While the easy answer is to encourage more solar, in fact, the viability of the program depends on this inequity. If everyone took advantage of solar programs, there would be no ratepayers left to pay the cross-subsidy.”

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