Good Things and Bad Things about the 2016 Solar Bill

On Wednesday April 6th, the Massachusetts legislature passed a long-awaited solar bill. The bill is now headed for Governor Baker’s desk—and he’s almost certain to sign it.

The bill has good things and bad things.

One bad thing about the PROCESS is that the bill was released late Tuesday evening, and was scheduled for a House vote Wednesday morning. This gave constituents no time to react and contact their legislators. This kind of rushing through of controversial bills is undemocratic and we should protest the process, which happens too often in Massachusetts.

In terms of SUBSTANCE there were several key issues.

One is the net metering rate. This determines how the utilities pay customers with solar panels for the energy that panels generate and feed back to the grid. So far, utilities have paid the retail rate—the same rate they would charge to provide the electricity. The new bill cuts that rate by 40%, but only for large arrays. The good news is that municipalities and individuals still get the higher rate, and that the rate is unchanged for existing projects. The bad news is that community solar projects, which are important for low-income communities and for further solar growth, now get the lower rate. This is unfair to those who can’t afford their own rooftop array but still want to participate.

Also, there are many large projects that have been stalled for months because of the so-called net metering cap, which sets a limit on how much overall solar energy can take advantage of net metering. While the cap has been increased, and these projects can now go forward, they will now fall under the lower reimbursement rate, which could totally scramble their budget projections. This sends a message that it’s not safe to do business in Massachusetts because the ground rules can be changed under you. This is definitely a problem for job growth.

Speaking of the net metering cap…The cap has been too low, which has meant that many projects have been sitting around waiting to go forward, which costs jobs and slows our transition to renewable energy. The new bill lifts the cap, but not enough. We’ll probably hit the new limit again within the next year or so, and be right back where we were. This is not very forward-looking.

Finally, the bill allows electric companies like Eversource and National Grid to put a “minimum charge” on the electric bill of anyone who gets net metering credits. This means that even if you are producing all your own electricity, they can still charge you something for their costs in maintaining the physical grid. However, the bill places no limit on this charge, and in some states it has been set so high that it wipes out any savings from having solar in the first place. This clearly isn’t going to help the transition to renewable energy.

So overall, the bill is somewhat improved from the original version, probably as a result of lots of pressure from the public. But it’s not as good as it should be, and legislators should be aware that we won’t settle for this compromise for long. We’ll keep pushing for aggressive solar policy and keep advocating for a thorough study of all the benefits associated with adding more solar to the grid, including clean power and reduced demand at peak times.

We’ll also keep fighting for other policies to limit fossil fuels and encourage the use of clean energy—like pricing carbon!                                            

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