House manufactures a solar industry crisis

Further delays could jeopardize projects, jobs

YOU MAY HAVE HEARD that the Massachusetts House is attempting to pass a bill to continue our solar programs. If the House fails to act before the Thanksgiving break, a significant number of solar projects are expected to be delayed or may never be built because of the “net metering” cap.  The cap limits the amount of solar energy consumers can sell back to the utilities. The impact on our solar industry, which employs over 12,000 people, is uncertain, but it is unlikely to be good.

The public should be aware that if the caps aren’t lifted, the disruption in the solar market will be a manufactured crisis, not one determined by good policy. Throughout this year, Massachusetts policymakers and stakeholders have worked to find a rational, fair way to preserve our solar programs and lift the net metering cap, while revising the programs to recognize the rapidly declining costs of solar power.

The state Net Metering and Solar Task Force’s April report determined that our solar programs provide substantial benefits to Massachusetts customers by incentivizing a local source of renewable energy generation, obviating the need for costly new energy infrastructure, and bringing solar industry jobs to our state. The task force found that our net metering and solar incentives will net $2 in benefits for each $1 invested in solar for our state. That sounds like a program worth keeping.

Craft Josh

Last July, the Senate passed solar reform measures as part of a climate adaptation bill, calling for an increase in the net metering caps and allowing the Department of Public Utilities to adjust how solar installations on our rooftops and our landfills and in low-income housing projects would be compensated after a more careful analysis of solar’s costs and benefits. The expectation was that the House would follow suit, with Speaker Robert DeLeo calling for the House to put out solar legislation before Thanksgiving.

But now progress appears to be stalled, apparently because of opposition from the state’s electric utilities. At a hearing on solar legislation before the State Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy Committee, the state’s utilities stood more or less alone in opposition to legislative measures to continue our solar programs. Like utilities across the country, our investor-owned utilities seem more interested in delaying the shift away from large, fossil-based power plants to local renewable energy resources like solar.

As the Washington Post spelled out in March of this year, utilities view rooftop solar units as an “unexpected challenge to the utilities’ bottom line.” So while the utilities have cloaked their arguments for new pipeline infrastructure in the guise of sticking up for ratepayers, they don’t have much interest in a resource that may cut into their own future revenues. With close ties to the Gov. Charlie Baker’s office, the utilities seem content to sit on the sidelines and put up roadblocks, rather than work toward a real compromise.

Meet the Author

Josh Craft

Leader, Global Warming Solutions Project, Environmental League of Massachusetts
We cannot delay further in lifting the cap on net metering. Time is of the essence because a federal tax credit for solar development, which pays one-third of the customer’s cost, expires at the end of 2016.  Without lifting the state cap and without the federal tax credit, Massachusetts companies and municipalities are being forced to abandon solar projects on landfills and on school roofs.  The Legislature may yet pass a temporary increase in the cap, but that won’t sustain our solar programs in the long-term. Consumers, investors, and developers need certainty, or the solar industry will move to other states that provide it.  There is still time to act this year and sustain our solar programs. But time is running out.

Josh Craft leads the Global Warming Solutions Project at the Environmental League of Massachusetts.