By Lucy Alexander
This past Friday, May 1, the Net Metering and Solar Task Force (“Task Force”) released their much anticipated report on their recommendations for how to best support solar energy in Massachusetts. The Task Force was created in 2014 in order to conduct a review into the “long-term viability of net metering and develop recommendation on incentives and programs to support the deployment of 1,600 MW of solar generation facilities in the Commonwealth.” While the task force agrees that meeting this 1,600 MW goal is essential, the Task Force failed to come to a consensus on what policies to support to do so. Although the report does reach conclusions on certain issues, it is not definitive, and leaves much to be discussed in the legislature over what Massachusetts’ solar policies will look like going into the future.
The Task Force looked into how to best promote the growth of solar in Massachusetts while ensuring that ratepayers not using solar are not adversely affected. One of the most important issues that divided the task force was net metering, which allows solar users to sell their excess electricity back to the grid. Even though as part of the Task Force’s review they found that states not offering net metering had limited solar development compared to Massachusetts, the Co-Chairs, representatives of the Baker Administration, came out against raising the net metering caps until a comprehensive solar reform is reached. Other task force members recommended lifting the caps to ensure solar industry growth is sustained until a comprehensive solar reform is reached. The task force also disagreed on whether or not existing net metering systems should be grandfathered into the new solar program when it is developed. With net metering caps already hit in National Grid territory, and other areas soon to follow, waiting until a reform is reached could adversely impact Massachusetts’ solar industry, which has already employs 12,000 people in Massachusetts. Massachusetts’ needs to adopt policies that continue this growth and momentum in the solar industry, and lifting caps on the net metering program is an important step to take to accomplish this.
Despite disagreements on how to reach the 16,000 MW goal, the Task force did come to consensus on certain recommendations for the legislature. They agreed that for small scale solar projects, incentives should be performance based and that the state should continue to incentivise them through the SREC II program until implementing a declining block incentive program. The Task Force also agreed that policies should support equal opportunity for solar adoption across geographic areas, and that equal solar compensation across geographic areas would encourage that goal.
Another issue that the Task Force agreed on was that the costs and benefits of solar need to be researched so that non participating ratepayers and utilities can be fairly compensated for use of the distribution grid. This mechanism should take into account use of the distribution system, be cost based, take into account customers size, and be designed fairly for low income customers. One fair compensation method discussed in the report was implementing a minimum bill. Minimum bills are a charge for ratepayers to compensate for their use of the grid, even if through net metering they have net zero energy use. They further recommended that a comprehensive value of solar study be conducted in Massachusetts to accurately measure the costs and benefits of solar in Massachusetts.
Massachusetts has been a leader in the in solar industry, ranking fourth in the amount of solar capacity installed in 2014, and a long term plan needs to be developed to continue supporting the jobs and other benefits that solar power provides. The Task Force’s report found that state level policies were a major determination of solar development, which means that that policies passed in the legislature will have important implications for the solar industry here in the Commonwealth. We need policies that support encourage the growth of future solar projects and continuity of current ones. Important steps that the legislature can take to ensure this is includes lifting the net metering caps so as to not slow down the momentum we have already achieved. The uncertainty around the future of solar incentives in the state discourages adopters of solar, so we also need to ensure that those currently participating in solar incentive programs are appropriately grandfathered into the new policy framework.