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News & Issues August 2015


State caps could stall solar power in Mass.

Environmentalists push to raise utility limits on net-metering program


The Berkshire Edge


New solar energy projects have been stalled in parts of western Massachusetts since March because of state limits on the solar incentive program known as net metering.

So in recent weeks environmental advocates and representatives of the state’s growing solar-power industry have been pressing legislators to act quickly to raise the caps and allow more solar power installations to go online.

“There’s a cap on the total amount of solar power eligible for net metering, and in March the cap was hit for towns served by National Grid, including many towns in the Berkshires,” explained Ben Hellerstein, the state director for Environment Massachusetts. Hellerstein spoke at a July 20 press conference in downtown Pittsfield, one of 10 such events his organization staged around the state to raise awareness about the issue.

Because of the cap on net metering, Hellerstein said, “planned solar installations in dozens of communities across the state are not able to move forward.”

Among the projects that could be stalled is a new solar farm being planned atop the 18-acre former municipal landfill in Williamstown, advocates say.

“Arbitrary caps on solar power are keeping us in the dark,” Hellerstein said. “Our state leaders should help communities here in the Berkshires and across Massachusetts take advantage of all of the environmental and economic benefits that solar brings.”

Three days after Hellerstein’s stop in the Berkshires, the state Senate passed an amendment sponsored by Sen. Ben Downing, D-Pittsfield, to lift the cap on solar net metering. But it was unclear whether the House would act on the proposal before starting its summer recess at the end of July -- and, if it did, whether Gov. Charlie Baker would sign it.


Limits to growth
Net metering refers to an incentive that credits solar producers for the excess electricity they provide to the grid. For photovoltaic systems larger than 25 kilowatts, the state has capped the amount of solar energy eligible for this credit.

The state caps equate to a percentage, currently about 6 percent, of each utility company’s historical peak demand. National Grid, which covers towns at the northern and southern ends of Berkshire County, hit its cap in March, meaning no new large solar installations in its territory can receive net-metering credits unless the cap is raised.

As a result, a proposed community solar project in Williamstown that is estimated to save the town $2 million over 20 years is at risk of being stalled. Advocates say solar developers won’t proceed with such projects unless they can be sure the projects will qualify for net-metering credits for the excess power they produce.

Statewide, total solar capacity allowed under the caps is currently 800 megawatts. Downing’s amendment and similar legislation proposed in the House would double that limit, allowing the state to achieve a solar power production target set by former Gov. Deval Patrick.

But utility companies have opposed raising the caps. The utilities contend solar producers who reap the benefits of net metering are effectively being subsidized by other ratepayers, because the solar producers aren’t sharing in the cost of maintaining power transmission lines.

The Baker administration also has opposed immediate action to raise net-metering caps, echoing the utility industry’s concerns about the cost of the net-metering program to other ratepayers.
The state has already raised the net-metering caps several times since the program was set up in 2007.

Solar power supporters counter that it’s shortsighted to stall the development of new photovoltaic installations at a time when state policies call for increased reliance on renewable energy as one way to curb the greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to climate change.


Stressing the benefits
Tony Mazzucco, the town administrator in Adams, said a recently completed solar project has delivered tax revenue, jobs and clean energy to his community, and he urged the state to act to allow his and other towns to reap the benefits of more such developments.

“We would like to continue developing more solar projects in town of all scales to foster economic growth while promoting sustainability,” Mazzucco said in a written statement. “Not adjusting the net metering cap effectively ties our hands and denies us a crucial avenue for economic and job growth, tax base growth, … and essentially stops dead our best avenue for a truly sustainable community and region.”

Supporters say renewable energy is of the fastest-growing sectors of the Massachusetts economy. According to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, the sector employed more than 88,000 people at the end of 2014 and expected to add another 11,700 jobs this year.
Bruce Winn of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team said the number of people employed in clean-energy jobs in Massachusetts is now comparable to the number working in the insurance industry.

“Clean energy jobs account for 2.5 percent of the Massachusetts state product, and these numbers are growing fast,” Winn said. “Current net-metering caps are an obstacle to this progress.”

In addition, supporters say, solar power indirectly supports jobs outside the industry such as architects, engineers, software developers and telecommunication specialists.
“There’s a multiplier effect,” said Christopher Kilfoyle, president of Berkshire Photovoltaic Services. “Here in Berkshire County, the multiplier, the ancillary jobs, are very important.”
Winn pointed out that solar installations also have played a major role in the state’s increasing use of renewable energy.

“The renewable energy share went from 6 percent in 2011 to 9.3 percent in 2013,” he said.
Hellerstein said that trend should be allowed to continue.

“There’s no reason we should be putting caps on clean energy,” he said. “We have to move as quickly as possible towards the future where we get 100 percent of our energy from clean and renewable sources. Solar is going to be a big part of that.”


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