New solar legislation goes the wrong way

Bill would bar many from the sun’s benefits

Which state do you think has a more robust solar power sector, Florida or Massachusetts? If you bet on the Sunshine State, you’re wrong; in recent years, Massachusetts has emerged as a nationwide leader in solar energy. Unfortunately, legislation currently pending on Beacon Hill threatens to undercut major parts of the policies responsible for that success.

To keep pace with the rapid growth in solar power in our state, the Legislature is contemplating changes to the state’s solar policies, seeking to strike a balance between public policy goals of expanding access to solar, controlling costs, maintaining a reliable and modern electric grid, and achieving the Commonwealth’s greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. The Legislature deserves great praise for tackling this complicated topic head-on. However, the legislative proposal currently before them, House Bill 4185, strikes the wrong balance.

Indeed, the proposal could keep huge numbers of Massachusetts residents from benefitting from the cost savings and price stability that come from solar. At least 80 percent of Massachusetts households can’t put solar panels on their own roofs, either because they are renters or have a roof that is too shaded or not suitable for solar. Under current policy, that’s no problem; these people can still be part of solar projects where the solar panels are located elsewhere – by owning a stake in their neighborhood’s shared solar panels, for instance.

The pending legislation, however, would limit these kinds of opportunities by reducing the energy credits and cost savings these kinds of projects produce, and by implementing new size and eligibility restrictions. These changes will have a real effect: Just last month, Boston Community Capital, which helps low-income communities and nonprofits access solar power, completed an offsite project in Gardner that we would not have been able to do if the new proposal had been in place.

The proposal also imposes a new minimum electric bill that could result in significant new monthly charges for many electricity customers. Though solar power users are clearly the main target for this fee, a minimum bill could impact any electricity customer with a low electricity bill, such as energy efficient users and tenants.

And while the proposal includes strong incentives to encourage solar adoption, they come with strings attached: The utility gets ownership of all “energy and non-energy attributes” produced by the solar project. Like other parts of the bill, that language raises more questions than it answers, but it’s clear that it risks stifling innovations around solar storage and backup services, including ones that could provide emergency power in the event of a storm or black out.

Finally, the proposal would put a detrimental limit on how big rooftop solar developments can be. These restrictions will prevent homeowners and businesses with good roofs for solar installations from building solar systems that are sized to meet future increases in electricity use from, for example, electric vehicles or from donating extra net metering credits to their local church or sharing them with a neighbor who cannot put solar on their own roof.

The current proposal does achieve some critical goals: It would lift net metering caps, which currently keep many new solar projects from happening, and codify Gov. Deval Patrick’s ambitious goals for boosting solar energy installations in the state. But these advances would come at the expense of current policies that help ensure everyone has access to the benefits of solar.

We recognize the need to do something before the legislative sessions ends on July 31. But the risks of passing this legislation as is are too great if Massachusetts is serious about remaining a leader in renewable energy.

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Meet the Author
Meet the Author
If these issues can’t be resolved before then, we recommend that legislators immediately act to raise the net metering cap. Because we’ve already reached the cap’s limit in some parts of the state and are close to it in others, this needs to be addressed right away. Any further changes to solar policies should be dealt with when the Legislature reconvenes, in a more thorough and transparent process, involving all stakeholders. This approach will give us the best opportunity to ensure that Massachusetts residents and organizations continue to enjoy the benefits of forward-thinking solar power policies for decades to come.

Elyse Cherry is CEO of Boston Community Capital, DeWitt Jones is President of BCC Solar, and Emily Rochon is a BCC Energy Fellow