Solar energy supporters urge lawmakers to raise cap

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THINKSTOCK

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MARCH 11, 2014…. Solar energy proponents urged a legislative panel on Tuesday to remove a barrier to renewable energy production by lifting the state’s cap on the amount of energy that can be sold back to the grid by public and private customers with their own renewable energy generators.

Municipal leaders, solar advocates and lawmakers testified before the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy in support of bills that would raise the so-called “net-metering cap,” which limits to 3 percent of peak load capacity the amount of power that a homeowner, business or municipality can produce on site and receive credits on their electric bills.

Rep. Frank Smizik and Sen. Anthony Petruccelli have filed legislation (H 3901/S 2019) to scrap the fixed net metering cap and replace it with a time cap that would allow all qualified projects to be approved until Dec. 31, 2016.

The Smizik-Petruccelli bill would also create a special commission to study the long-term viability of net metering in Massachusetts and report back to the Legislature before the end of next year.

Smizik said lifting the cap was critical to meeting Gov. Deval Patrick’s goal of installing 1,600 megawatts of solar power in Massachusetts by 2020, and would support an industry now linked to 8,400 full-time jobs while helping the state reach its target of 15 percent renewable energy by the end of the decade. Some municipalities wanting to pursue financially viable solar projects have been “stymied and stalled” by the net metering cap.

“The net metering program has helped create an incredibly successful solar industry in Massachusetts. This bill will help advance the clean energy sector, reduce emissions and meet the goals of the Global Warming Solutions Act,” Smizik said.

Some cities like Haverhill, Winthrop and Palmer are interested in pursuing solar projects for municipal energy needs, but have bumped up against the cap, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association. The MMA said it would support the time-based limit on net metering or a 1 percent increase in the cap.

Sen. Michael Rodrigues has filed a competing bill (S 2030) that would maintain the fixed cap and increase it to 4 percent. Rodrigues, however, said his bill would also save ratepayers money by introducing a competitive bidding process for large-scale solar installations, similar to what has been done in Rhode Island.

Ron Gerwatowski, senior vice president of National Grid, said the large utility supports the Rodrigues bills, estimating it could shave $1 billion off the $6.5 billion price tag for ratepayers over the next 20 to 25 years to subsidize solar development.

“We can achieve the 1,600 megawatt goal, but by doing it a different way,” Gerwatowski told the News Service. The Rodrigues bill would introduce a competitive bidding process for large-scale solar installations managed by the utilities. Gerwatowski said the competition and promise that a utility would pay a fixed price over the duration of a contract for renewable energy should drive down installation costs.

Opponents, however, said the savings promised by Rodrigues and National Grid through competition remain in question, and other parts of the bill could introduce limitations for municipalities to partner with one another on solar projects and take advantage of net metering cost benefits.

“There’s a lot of competition in Massachusetts already. We want to understand what the reason is for doing this,” said Carrie Hitt, senior vice president of state affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA.)

SEIA, which supports the Smizik-Petruccelli bill, also said they oppose Rodrigues’s proposal to authorize the Department of Public Utilities to establish a minimum bill for electric customers that produce more energy than they consume, but also take advantage of utility services during non-renewable production hours that are paid by other consumers. Hitt called the minimum bill “discriminatory.”

Fred Zalcman, managing director for regulatory affairs at SunEdison, said his company supports the Smizik-Petruccelli proposal, and worries that the Rodrigues bill would cut the customer out of the procurement process for large solar projects. “These bills are essential to preserving the ability of towns to become green communities,” Zalcman said of the expanded cap space.

New England Clean Energy Council Vice President Janet Gail Besser said the business group supports the increased time-based net metering cap and opposes the competitive bidding proposal.

Besser also offered her support for Sen. Brian Joyce’s bill (S 177) to restructure a program intended to provide low-cost capital financing for clean energy and efficiency upgrades.

Joyce, a Milton Democrat, said the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program was well intentioned, but has proven to be ineffective. “Quite frankly, it hasn’t worked,” he told the committee.

Instead of allowing all 351 cities and towns to issue bonds so that homeowners and businesses can access capital and finance the upgrades by paying for them over time through property tax assessments, Joyce said his bill proposed to restructure the PACE program to allow MassDevelopment to issue the bonds.

Joyce said the bill “fine tuning” the PACE program has passed the Senate once already, and now has the support of the Patrick administration.

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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