Frustration grows over Eversource solar charge

BOSTON (SHNS) – New England’s biggest utility won approval for new charges on future Massachusetts solar customers starting next January but in the process Eversource aggravated a top lawmaker with jurisdiction over its industry.

“The frustration that you’re causing is irritating to no end,” Rep. Tom Golden told Eversource executives on Tuesday, as the Lowell Democrat accused the utility of purposefully making the new charges “as confusing as possible.” He said, “Let me tell you something gentlemen, I’m not happy how this was rolled out. I’m not happy with the lack of information my office has received.”

Golden, co-chairman of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, helped write the 2016 law that permits utilities to levy a new minimum monthly charge, and he told Eversource executives they were making it “extremely, extremely difficult” for him to continue to support them in the policy.

Mark Reed, Eversource’s director of government affairs, and Ed Davis, director of the company’s rates department, did not immediately respond to Golden’s criticisms, but later in the hearing Reed pointed out the new rates were “deemed to be in compliance with the law.”

“We have to respond to what you folks are doing and I’m not happy with what you did,” Golden said.

It was a rebuke from a member of the Legislature seen as more sympathetic than some of his Senate colleagues to utility company concerns with incorporating solar energy generators into local grids.

As Golden’s statement hung in the air, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matt Beaton said he was trying to come up with a joke to “break the ice,” but “it’s escaping me.”

Beaton attempted to explain the Department of Public Utilities’ Eversource rate decision, which the Department of Energy Resources – another agency under Beaton’s secretariat – has opposed. Beaton said the disagreement “points to the fact that the DPU is an independent adjudicatory body.”

Under the state’s existing net-metering system, solar customers receive above-market rates for their output of electricity.

Under Eversource’s new system – which has been appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court – solar customers who come online next January will be required to pay a minimum monthly reliability charge, an additional demand fee based on the hour when they use the most electricity from the grid in a month, and the usual kilowatt hour charged levied on all electricity customers, although for solar customers the kilowatt-hour charge would be discounted, according to Eversource.

A typical new net metered Eversource residential customer starting next January will face around $12 per month in new fees, according to the utility.

“These charges were not designed to overly burden ratepayers,” Department of Public Utilities Chairwoman Angela O’Connor told lawmakers.

The DPU-approved Eversource rates will likely drive up the cost by about $4,400 to $9,400 over the life of the solar installation, according to the advocacy group Vote Solar.

Nathan Phelps, who was a senior economist at the Department of Public Utilities and now works at Vote Solar, told the committee the department’s decision was “painful,” calling it an “abuse of discretion, arbitrary and capricious,” according to the Massachusetts Sierra Club.

The DPU decision could have impacts beyond the service area of Eversource, which says it operates “New England’s largest energy delivery system,” serving about 3.7 million customers in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire.

National Grid will likely rely on DPU’s Eversource decision when crafting its own minimum monthly charge, Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Mahony said.

Vote Solar and Attorney General Maura Healey have both appealed DPU’s approval of the new Eversource rates.

Mahony, who is Healey’s senior policy advisor for energy, suggested lawmakers should craft legislation that discourages customers from using electricity when demand on the grid is high. Demand fluctuates throughout the day as consumers turn on lights, flip on air conditioning and run electrical appliances. The demand charge in the Eversource rates does not vary based on time of day.

Sen. Michael Barrett, a Lexington Democrat and the Senate chairman of the committee, had a similar perspective to Mahony on the demand charges, questioning Eversource about why it wasn’t linked to when demand was highest on the grid as a whole.

The utility was limited by the metering technology, according to Davis, who said measuring the customer’s peak hour of electricity usage “is a technology that we have in place and we could employ today.”

“It will be very difficult if not impossible for customers to know when their peak will be and manage their demand to reduce these new charges, as they will not have timely access to the information they would need to adjust their demand,” said Janet Gail Besser, executive vice president of Northeast Clean Energy Council, in written testimony. “This is because Eversource has not installed the ‘smart’ metering and two-way communications capability necessary to provide customers with this information and is not proposing to do so.”