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Solar Advocates Look For Answers On Net Metering

Solar energy currently generates just two percent of Massachusetts’ total electric power. Backers of solar energy hope to bring that number up to 20 percent by the year 2025. To get there, more customers need to switch to renewable energy. But getting people to make that change will take some creative incentives. WCAI’s Brian Morris reports that right now, many solar developers are in a holding pattern, waiting to learn the fate of one key solar energy incentive called “net metering.”

Credit Brian Morris/WCAI
Part of a new community solar array in Freetown.

Phil Cavallo surveys a large plot of land off MacArthur Drive in Bourne, not far from the Bourne Bridge. Bulldozers hum in the background, clearing the 7-acre tract, which, by mid-October, will be covered with 4,300 solar panels. This is the future home of the Bourne Community Solar Farm, and Cavallo’s company, Beaumont Solar, is handling the installation. Cavallo said community solar farms are perfect for people whose homes don’t meet the criteria for solar panels.

“This is sort of a non-invasive version of it, which is, ‘Hey, I can get the solar power. I can get it as cheaply as I could get it if it was on my roof, but I don’t have to drill holes in my roof.’ So it’s an innovative way and an alternative to doing solar,” said Cavallo.

Community solar arrays produce solar power remotely for customers’  homes. The Bourne facility already is 90% leased. Cavallo explained that anyone can participate - there’s no initial charge to sign up. The Gallo Ice Arena in Bourne will use half the array’s energy, and the rest will go to power approximately 130 homes in the area.

“You have an arrangement where you’re buying the electrons from a Power Purchase Agreement from this facility here in Bourne, and you can cancel it when you want to. And if you sell your house, you sell your house. It’s no big deal,” he said..

Renewable energy systems generate power independent of a utility company’s grid. But solar users still need to use power from the grid at night or on cloudy days. On sunny days, those users may generate more power than they use, and can export that power back out to the grid in return for credits. All this activity is recorded on a meter which runs forward when power comes from the grid, and backward when excess power flows back out to the grid. This determines a customer’s net power use, and is called “net metering.”

In 2008, the State DPU put limits on how much net metering utilities could allow. Once those net metering caps are reached, customers can no longer participate in the net metering program for that year. Or, in other words, they can’t sell their excess electricity back to the grid. The utility National Grid reached its cap earlier this year, and Eversource is on track to reach theirs sometime later this year.

Another community solar array came on line recently in Freetown. This one was built by NRG Solar, and it’s already at full capacity, with more than 200 customers each leasing 20 of the facility’s 3,000 solar panels. State Senator Michael Roderigues attended the opening.

“We had put caps on net metering to try to have controlled growth in the industry, never realizing that the demand for growth was gonna be so large,” said Roderigues.

Roderigues said that as the solar industry continues to expand in Massachusetts, many developers and other players are holding back, waiting to see what happens with the caps.

“I’ve heard from a number of constituents that are ready, willing and able, and wanting to make investments in solar but cannot because of the net metering cap,” said Roderigues.

Some say raising the caps will put an undue burden on non-solar ratepayers. Amy Rabinowitz is Vice President and Deputy General Counsel for National Grid. She said that when solar companies sell power back to the grid and the utilities that run it, they’re not paying their fair share.

“This is being paid for almost entirely by utility customers that don’t have solar. For National Grid, there’s a lucky one percent that’s being subsidized by the remaining 99 percent,” said Rabinowitz.

But Ben Hellerstein disagreed. He’s with the advocacy group Environment Massachusetts, which recently completed a state-wide tour to promote solar energy and educate people about net metering.

“The utilities have made that point on several occasions,” Hellerstein said. “And what they’re doing is, essentially, they’re looking at Every study that’s been conducted agrees that the benefits of solar far outweigh any of the costs that are associated with it.”

Hellerstein said that solar can help reduce electricity costs even for those customers on the traditional grid.

“On hot summer days, the demand for electricity tends to be highest. And this is actually the time when solar installations are producing the most electricity. So by cutting down on the demand on the grid at those times of the day, and also producing electricity closer to where it’s needed, solar can actually help to make electricity more affordable for everybody,” said Hellerstein.

State Senator Roderigues recently co-sponsored legislation to double the statewide net metering cap as a way of encouraging solar development. The bill passed in late July. Governor Baker also has proposed raising the net metering caps, and has said he eventually wants to eliminate the caps altogether. Rodrigues is confident the net metering issue can be resolved.

“When the sun ain’t shining, the users are utilizing power off the grid, and there are carrying costs for that power: the poles, the wires, the investment that’s already in the ground. But that’s a number. That something that we can figure out, and that’s something that shouldn’t hold up the whole discussion,” said Roderigues.

Massachusetts is 4th in the nation for solar energy development. The industry here is ready for the next wave of growth. Now, the challenge for lawmakers is to create a model for solar that encourages those eager to participate, but protects those who still haven’t gotten into the game.