Solar power rhetoric, lobbying heats up
As House dithers, advocates debate cost, benefits
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
House leaders are taking their effort to pass a solar energy bill before the winter recess down to the wire, fomenting an increasingly bitter and public back-and-forth between the solar industry and business groups searching for an alternative way to incentivize the clean energy technology.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo has listed a bill to address the solar net metering cap – which limits how much solar power can be sold back to the grid by consumers at retail rates – as one of his two main priorities to finish before the Legislature recesses from formal sessions for the year next Wednesday.
But House lawmakers have yet to produce a bill, and lobbyists on all sides of the debate have been stalking the hallways of the State House for weeks trying to influence and shape the outcome. The Alliance for Solar Choice paid for a box truck to drive around the State House Thursday with electronic billboards that read: “Eversource Is Trying to Kill Solar Competition.”
Solar industry advocates held a press conference on the steps of the capitol on Thursday to both urge passage of legislation and to call out what they see as the outsized political influence of the major utility companies.
“The utilities, Eversource and National Grid, have an army of lobbyists and a high-paid CEO who are camping out at the State House doing everything they can not to compromise or influence this legislation but to kill it and to kill, therein, solar competition,” said Sean Garren, Northeast regional manager at Vote Solar.
Eversource CEO Tom May, according to his company, has been on Beacon Hill to meet with lawmakers to discuss energy, including solar net metering. “That is a testament to how strongly we feel on this issue,” a spokeswoman said.
While the solar industry says utilities are protecting their own profits in the quest to slow the expansion of solar, National Grid said Thursday that Bay State consumers are paying double what neighboring states pay for the same clean energy.
“National Grid continues to advocate for solar growth and access to renewables for our customers – at a fair cost. Despite the misinformation and tactics employed by those pushing for more subsidies, our customers need to look no further than their monthly electricity bills to see the growing impact these solar subsidies are having on their energy costs,” National Grid spokeswoman Mary-Leah Assad said, adding that 99 percent of customers that don’t have solar are paying 7 percent or more on their electric bills for solar subsidies.
Eversource spokeswoman Caroline Pretyman said the utility’s “primary concern is protecting those customers who do not have access to solar,” including renters and low-income customers. She said the “tax” paid by customers on their energy bills to support solar goes to out-of-state developers.
“It’s important to point out that many of these are low-income residential customers or not-for-profit businesses who can ill afford any kind of rate increase, let alone one that they do not benefit from,” Pretyman said. “Unfortunately, this is more of the same rhetoric from solar industry lobbyists who are attempting to saddle our customers with billions of dollars in unnecessary charges. All along we have been clear about our goals — to support the growth of solar and renewables while also holding the line on rising costs to consumers and businesses.”
Both sides have sought to portray their opponents as special interests putting their own agendas ahead of consumers. While the net metering cap in National Grid’s service territory has been hit, the utility claims that solar projects continue to move forward without the incentive, while supporters of a cap lift say the policy has stalled many projects.
Last weekend, Associated Industries of Massachusetts posted an item on its blog describing the cost of solar incentives to consumers that advocates called wildly overstated. New England Clean Energy Center Vice President Janet Gail Besser published a rebuttal calling the A.I.M. figures “way off” and said the group chose to ignore the offsetting benefits of solar.
For instance, A.I.M. said residential customers will pay $83 on average in 2015 to subsidize solar under the current system, while NECEC said the cost is closer to $23. Further, the council cited a report prepared for the Solar Net Metering Task Force that found for every $1 invested by the state in solar, Massachusetts receives $2.50 in benefits in return.
A.I.M. Executive Vice President John Regan responded by calling the solar incentive program a “bad deal” for consumers costing on average 39 cents per kilowatt hour compared to 5 cents for wind.
“AIM supports the development of solar energy, but not in the form of a government-sanctioned boondoggle that will harm the 99 percent of ratepayers who do not have solar,” Regan said in a statement.
Michael Green, executive director of the Climate Action Business Association, said his South Boston-based company works with many small business owners who value solar, and do not agree with A.I.M.’s position against lifting the cap on net metering, which makes projects financially viable for many small business owners.
“A.I.M. claims to speak for their members, but they have yet to listen to what they have to say,” Green said.
A.I.M. spokesman Chris Geehern said “virtually none” of the group’s members benefit from net metering because they use solar to reduce their overall electric bill, but do not sell the power back to the grid.
“We hear about the cost of electricity from thousands of Massachusetts employers, from large hospitals to colleges and universities to small manufacturing shops. These are the voices being drowned out by those who stand to benefit from solar giveaways,” Geehern said.
With roughly 950 megawatts of solar capacity already installed in Massachusetts, the Senate has passed legislation to lift the cap on net metering to 1,600 megawatts, and Gov. Charlie Baker has filed legislation proposing a temporary cap lift until his administration can develop a longer-term incentive program.
House leaders weeks ago floated the idea of raising the cap further to 2,400 megawatts and allowing utilities to charge all customers, even solar producers, a minimum bill to help offset the cost of maintaining infrastructure and distribution networks.
As talks have bogged down, however, some involved in the negotiations said there was some talk of doing a much smaller cap lift to give policy makers a few extra months to develop a longer-term solution. Most don’t expect to see a finalized bill emerge until next week in the final days, if not hours, of formal session.
The urgency to passing net metering legislation has to do not just with the fact that many areas of Massachusetts are bumping up against the cap, but a federal tax credit program is due to expire for solar the expirations date on at the end of 2016.
The Clean Energy Collective on Thursday said its 1.3 megawatt shared community solar array in North Adams, which is awaiting interconnection to the grid before the end of the year, is completely reserved and, along with three other fully constructed projects in Uxbridge, could be the last community solar facilities available to National Grid residential and small business customers without a cap lift.