100 reps break ranks on solar

Lawmakers flip-flop on net metering cuts

A GROUP OF 100 state representatives broke ranks with House leadership on Tuesday, urging six lawmakers trying to broker a legislative compromise on solar energy to hew more closely to the Senate approach on the bill.

A letter, signed by the 100 lawmakers, was sent to the three House members of the legislative conference committee trying to reconcile radically different House and Senate versions of the solar legislation. The conference committee has been meeting since last November.

The letter was unusual not only because nearly two-thirds of House lawmakers signed on but because all but two of them had voted to support the House legislation last November when it passed by a 150-2 margin. The letter’s signatories included Democrats and Republicans and 22 members who serve in House leadership. One signatory was Rep. Stephen Kulik of Worthington, the vice chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, which crafted the House’s solar legislation.

“This is very unusual,” said Rep. Cory Atkins, Democrat of Concord, who sent out an email to colleagues about three weeks ago inviting them to join her in signing the letter. She said another House member joined the group after the letter went out, bringing the total to 101.

Atkins chalked the House’s flip-flop on the issue up to several factors. She likened the House vote in November to a town meeting vote, where members endorse a measure even if they don’t support everything in it because they want to move it along to the next stage. She said she and other lawmakers who voted for the House bill also had been promised “another bite at the apple” when the House unveils its omnibus energy bill next month, but it is now unclear whether that bill will include solar in it.

Solar receives two types of incentives. The one targeted in the legislation is net metering, which is the rate at which solar power generators are paid for the electricity they deliver to the power grid. The other incentive is the solar renewable energy credit, or SREC.

The Senate passed a net metering bill last summer that raised the cap on how much solar power could be net metered but left the existing rate – the retail price of power, or about 17 cents a kilowatt hour – intact. The House waited until the day before the end of the legislative session last year to unveil its bill, which raised the cap slightly and called for dramatically reducing the net metering rate to about 5 cents a kilowatt hour. The Senate countered with a proposal that would have established a tier of net metering rates – 17 cents for residential and small commercial and industrial projects; 12 cents for low-income, public, and community solar projects; and 8 cents for all other generators.

The six-member House-Senate conference committee couldn’t agree on a compromise in the waning hours of the session and has been meeting ever since trying to find common ground.

Atkins said the point of the letter sent Tuesday was to clearly tell the House negotiators where most of the branch’s lawmakers stand. “Solar is here to stay and we want to do more to support it, not less,” Atkins said.

Atkins’s attitude is very different from the stance taken last fall by House leaders, who paid heed to warnings from utilities and business groups that solar power developers were making big profits off of subsidies financed by electric ratepayers. A letter circulated by seven state business groups said “the current solar subsidy program is unfair, unaffordable, and unsustainable.”

The letter sent by the 100 lawmakers on Tuesday took a very different tack. The letter said that a strong net metering policy at a minimum would maintain the 17-cent rate for community-shared solar, low-income, and municipal projects until an analysis of the costs and benefits of net metering can be done.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“We support your desire to reduce costs,” the letter said. “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….We hope you will look to reduce costs not by arbitrarily cutting the net metering credit value, but rather by reforming the SREC program, which was designed to be an incentive for solar development.”

 

  • FrancisMcManus

    If anyone has a link to the document that lists the 100 signatories, post it here in the comments. Thanks.

  • Pingback: March 16 Energy News | geoharvey()

  • Pingback: 2016-03-17 Energy Week | Energy Week with George Harvey and Tom Finnell()

  • Andrei Radulescu-Banu

    It’s a debate where little is shared with the public in terms of cost to ratepayers. Government at its non-transparent best – wheeling and dealing the energy market without any inkling given to the public or to the press regarding the costs and the benefits involved.

  • Mark Durrenberger

    Nice job Bruce. One minor point. In paragraph 6 you refer to “two types of incentives.” I will agree that solar credits (commonly referred to as “SRECs”) are indeed an incentive. Net metering credits however, are not. Net metering credits (payment for electricity supplied to the grid by a solar generator) are fair compensation for the electricity provided.

    If you haven’t already, I suggest you review the Value of Solar studies such as the one published by the Acadia Center (http://acadiacenter.org/document/value-of-solar-massachusetts/). In this (and many similar studies from across the nation), Acadia shows that solar energy is actually worth MORE than the net metering credit the utilities are willing to pay.

    Mark Durrenberger
    President
    New England Clean Energy
    Hudson, MA

  • NortheasternEE

    Power companies buy electricity wholesale and sell it retail. Net metering forces power companies to buy solar energy at retail giving up the portion for grid maintenance and profit. Utility losses from net metering are shifted to ratepayers who have North facing roofs or cannot afford to invest in solar panels. Solar generators are getting free ride.
    At a minimum, solar should be compensated at wholesale.

    • runiter

      The way I see it, those who don’t have solar panels should pay more for electricity. They pollute the air and there should be a cost for that. I don’t have solar panels because I live in an apartment but I wouldn’t mind if my rate went up to subsidize solar. Electricity too cheap if you ask me, I see too many people wasting it.

      • LemonHeart

        You’re advocating for a system where affluent homeowners are subsidized for energy consumption choices that low income residents don’t have access to. I’d be alright with that, if there weren’t a spillover of infrastructure costs that those low income residents will bear.

        • runiter

          I believe the low income residents are already protected via Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and I wouldn’t mind more support for the low income folks. But I disagree that this is a system for affluent homeowners. Any house owner with good sunny roof should take advantage of the cheaper electricity via solar panels and help the environment along the way. I wouldn’t mind subsidizing their solar panels because I know the clean air will benefit me too.

      • NortheasternEE

        Unfortunately, in the absence of utility scale energy storage (giant batteries) the need to stabilize the power output from solar panels pollutes just as much.
        You are paying extra for nothing in return!

        • runiter

          Please elaborate. My understanding is that fossil fuel power plants can be turned off during the day when solar energy meets the need and turned back on during the nights when the sun is out. Energy storage could eliminate the need for fossil fuel even at nights, but turning them off or reducing their output during the day is still a big win for the environment.

          • NortheasternEE

            It’s complicated!

            Perhaps this link can help:

            http://breakingenergy.com/2012/03/13/renewable-energy-will-cost-grid-more-mit/

            “Integrating more renewables into the US grid will be costly and have unintended consequences, including potential for increased carbon emissions, that policymakers need to plan for, warns a new Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative study.

            The study, unveiled Monday, looked at what needs to be done to accommodate increasing percentages of renewables on electricity grids, said MITEI head Ernest Moniz.”
            It does date back to 2012, but not much has changed in the interim.

          • runiter

            It’s a good read, but as the authors mentioned this is just a short term issue that exists while we transit to full clean energy and storage. The issue being that turning coal and nuclear plants on and off is not very efficient. Which is a good reason to retire them, specially coal plants quickly and replace them with natural gas, wind and solar. Note that wind generates more electricity at nights and solar generates electricity during the day. So eventually with a good combination of solar and wind we won’t even need natural gas power plants or many storage batteries. The point is that we shouldn’t let the short term difficulties stay in the way of the progress. Some people use these challenges as excuse for slowing down the adoptable of solar and wind. I prefer speed things up so we can overcome these challenges even quicker.

          • NortheasternEE

            Replacing coal and nuclear with natural gas is a very expensive proposition. Doing so on the expectation that cost effective energy storage will be developed in the near future is a huge unnecessary gamble.
            As I read the article, natural gas in the role of firming the intermittent and variable nature of wind and solar on the grid avoids little to no carbon.

  • Bradley MacDougall

    We are confused and would like to know why some in the House and Senate are
    so eager to impose a $2.8B tax on individuals and businesses that don’t have
    solar on their roofs. Does everyone realize who is going to pay for this
    excessive subsidy or that other state’s have proven how to maintain a solar
    industry without such an excessive subsidy??!!

    Would also encourage readers to see Associated Industries of Massachusetts
    (AIM) response to the signors of the letter mentioned above, which was sent by John Regan, EVP for Government Affairs at AIM on March 15, 2016:

    “Dear Representative: With all due respect, the penultimate paragraph of

    your letter to the House members of the solar bill conference committee is

    mistaken and very misleading.

    As representatives in Massachusetts, you might focus on the costs and the

    benefits to your constituents and the employers in your respective districts

    who deeply subsidize the $2.20 in system benefits claimed in your letter.

    As calculated, those benefits, should they occur at all, accrue to the entire

    New England electric grid while the costs hit Massachusetts ratepayers

    only. In fact, the same report you quote says on page 195, that

    “non-participating ratepayers (NPRs) fund the incentives, so it is no

    surprise that they incur net costs. NPV costs are $6.6 billion compared to

    benefits of $3.766 billion.”

    So, your constituents, and your employers without solar are paying

    $2.834 billion in additional ratepayer costs to lower electricity rates for

    consumers in competitor states in New England.”

    • Tribalscribal

      We hope this means AIM is also opposed to the proposed tariff on ratepayers to pay for the proposed Kinder Morgan fracked gas export pipeline scheme, something that would not benefit the citizens of the Commonwealth but certainly enrich private corporations.

    • pauldobbs

      I’d like to hear Mr. Regan, on behalf of AIM, weigh in on the costs to taxpayers and future taxpayers that will undoubtedly occur as a result of further development of carbon fuel resources and their transportation; e.g., loss of clean drinking water, rising temperatures, loss of arable land, declining crop yields, rising sea levels, loss of species diversity, I’d like to hear if AIM is aware of the news about climate change and its consequences. I’d like to hear if AIM believes it is wise to ignore the opinions held by the overwhelming majority of climate change scientists and the predictions they are making about the consequences of futher development of carbon fuel resources.

      • NortheasternEE

        Unfortunately the need for further development of carbon fuel resource is the direct result on state and regional mandates for wind and solar. These mandates, scheduled to increase renewable energy usage to 25% plus by 2030, are forcing the early retirement of coal and nuclear power plants to be replaced by new or converted natural gas and oil as is the case with the Cape Cod canal plant which is being doubled in capacity.
        Demand for electricity is flat and possibly decreasing as a result of the efficiency campaign. So, in an attempt to legislate our way to a clean energy future, we are forcing rates to skyrocket with little to no carbon avoidance.

  • Emily Norton

    I strongly recommend a review of this report written by former DPU Chair Paul Hibbard: http://www.analysisgroup.com/uploadedfiles/content/insights/publishing/hibbard_net_metering_5-2015.pdf

    It goes into some detail on the many ways solar REDUCES energy costs to ALL of us, including those of us without solar ourselves.

    And in terms of AIM/utilities’ claims, this quote in particular stands out:
    The full scope of impact on ratepayers and on the people of the Commonwealth must be considered in order for
    the Legislature to determine the evolution of the solar program in Massachusetts. Absent this, the Legislature is left with the utilities’ analysis, which is incomplete in scope and detail, and is misleading on its own. Of greatest concern, the various simplifications, assumptions, and omissions in the companies’ analysis tend to systematically ignore or understate net metering benefits, while overstating the utilities’ presumed cost impacts on ratepayers.

  • Keith Burrows

    The recommendations made in the House letter are balanced and fair—maintain retail net-metering rates for community solar, low-income projects and municipalities until a publicly scrutinized cost-benefit analysis has been completed. They also recommend that the cost of incentives is addressed via reforms to the SREC program. There’s nothing controversial here, yet we have AIM representatives talking as though the British just taxed our tea. I find this type of anti-solar bias disconcerting to say the least.

    The letter can be found here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/304852048/Conference-Committee-Petition-Final

  • Pingback: Time running short on solar | S A F E()