Massachusetts Legislators Pass Solar Compromise Bill

On April 6, the Massachusetts legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy finally agreed (S.1763/H.4173) to increase the amount of excess solar energy that public and private customers can sell back to the grid by 3 percent. The bill passed on the House floor on the same day and on the Senate floor on April 7. A final vote was expected that would send it to Governor Charlie Baker (R) for signature at the end of the week.

“The legislation reflects our shared priorities and will provide a path for continued solar development in the Commonwealth while also ensuring significant ratepayer savings,” Representative Brian Dempsey (D – Haverhill) and Senator Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield), the lead negotiators of the six-member conference committee named back on November 18 said in a joint statement to the State House News Service.

The measure had been delayed for about five months by a lack of consensus, according to renewable energy supporters – creating a standoff that deferred more than 500 solar projects in Massachusetts, purportedly worth $617 million, based on a study released on March 31 by Vote Solar and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

Indeed, in mid-March, 100 local legislators had sent a petition to the House leadership, saying, “We hope you can advance a bill to a floor vote at the earliest opportunity, in order to restore investments in our communities and allow businesses to rehire workers who lost their jobs as a result of the net metering caps.”

According to those familiar with the measure, the cap increase of 3 percent for public and private projects goes beyond the 2 percent increment proposed in the both the House and Senate bills on which a compromise was reached.

However, the bill would change the way in which larger solar producers are reimbursed – from providing payback based on the current retail rate to compensating them based on a lower wholesale rate.

The final wording of the measure would enable smaller-scale projects of around 25 kilowatts (kW) to benefit from higher retail reimbursements rates – about 16 or 17 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) – while commercial and community projects would be excluded and receive a less favorable wholesale reimbursement rate of about 3 or 4 cents per kWh.

In reaction, State Rep. Frank Smizik (D-Brookline) argued that the reduction of the compensation for major solar projects “will end any chance of continuing the growth and investment Massachusetts has seen in this industry over the last decade,” and will jeopardize jobs in the field, according to the news organization, Mass Live.

What’s more, after the state reaches its established goal of producing 1,600 megawatts (MW) of solar power, utilities would be able to establish a minimum monthly charge for solar customers, in order to address their concerns that solar energy producers do not pay for the system-wide costs of maintenance and distribution – saddling other ratepayers with those bills.

Finally, the new legislation would grandfather those who already have solar plants. Projects established under the old rules would get the retail reimbursement rate for 25 years from the date of installation.

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