Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Solar Fighting for Survival in Mass. Energy Transition

Solar panels across a low-income housing complex known as Union Crossing in Lawrence, Mass. The state with the second-highest solar distribution in the nation is eyeing rolling back the policies that made it a renewable energy leader. (Photo Credit: Boston Community Capital) Click to Enlarge.
An energy battle royal is brewing in Massachusetts as legislators consider rolling back policies that encourage solar owners to sell power from their rooftop photovoltaic systems back to the electricity grid.

Legislation being hashed out in Boston this spring could slash by 75 percent the rate of compensation utilities pay to customers who participate in solar net-metering programs across the commonwealth, from an average of 18 cents per kilowatt-hour to 4.2 cents per kWh.

Solar advocates say such a deep cut in net-metering rates would place billions of dollars of energy investment at risk in Massachusetts -- currently the country's No. 4 solar market -- while eliminating key economic benefits that existing solar owners enjoy in one of the nation's most expensive retail electricity markets.

"Opponents have tried to portray solar as a niche technology that's driving up electricity costs," Emily Rochon, director of energy and environmental policy for solar financier Boston Community Capital, said in an interview.  "Of course, that's not true.  But facts don't really matter in this debate."

Since 2008, Rochon's group has helped finance more than 4 megawatts of solar capacity for low-income communities and nonprofits across the state.  Yet even as it has helped drive down energy costs for thousands of ratepayers, BCC expects to see much of its future solar work go away if the most sweeping net-metering reforms are implemented.

Electric utilities and their backers argue the opposite.  They say net-metering reforms are necessary to sustain Massachusetts solar growth over the long term and that cuts to net-metering rates will level the economic playing field between those who choose to install solar systems and net meter their power, and those who don't.
While hope remains for a legislative fix that can keep solar at the center of Massachusetts' energy transition, the stakes are getting painfully high for solar companies like RePower Partners LLC of Lexington, Mass., which has seen a number of its commercial projects put on hold as legislators weigh their options.

"These are local small businesses -- a plumber, a lumber company, a custom home builder.  They all want to go solar," said Mark Sandeen, the founder of the 7-year-old solar firm, who is also president of MassSolar, a trade organization lobbying lawmakers in Boston.

"They have good-sized storage sheds and excellent rooftops for solar, yet we've been working with them to get these projects approved for a couple of years now," he said.

Those projects may soon be on indefinite hold.

Under the most sweeping reform proposal, projects like those Sandeen is building would receive lower, wholesale rate credit because they exceed 10 kilowatts under single-phase metering and 25 kW under multi-phase metering.  Smaller systems, mostly designed to power private homes, would continue to receive the full retail rate.

Most of Boston Community Capital's projects also would also not qualify for retail-rate net metering, Rochon said, because they aggregate solar production for multi-family dwellings and larger buildings.  If the steepest rate reductions pass, she said, low-income solar projects will become a thing of the past in Massachusetts.  “Basically nobody is going to build them,” she said.

State caps stopping new projects
Other solar developers are in similar or worse straits, having delayed or canceled hundreds of megawatts of planned solar projects in nearly every corner of the state.  Critics further note that much of the state's estimated 15,000 solar-sector workers could begin receiving pink slips just as the spring and summer construction season heats up.

Observers say the slowdown began taking hold last year, when the commonwealth's utilities warned they would stop accepting applications for new solar generation after hitting state-imposed caps that restrict the amount of net-metered energy that can flow to the grid from certain systems.

Read more at Solar Fighting for Survival in Mass. Energy Transition

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