Massachusetts Solar Bill Holds out Hope for Future

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The last few weeks were full of hope for a solar bill in Massachusetts that was hailed as a potentially precedent-setting agreement between utilities and solar advocates. The solar industry around the country watched to see if what happened in Massachusetts could serve as a template for the rest of the country.

In the end, the promise of the bill wasn’t realized — a surprise to many who’d been watching the bill’s progress. “We missed an opportunity last week to really advance the ball and set an example that other states can follow to reach common ground between the utilities and the solar industry,” Dan Berwick, chair of the Massachusetts committee of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), told PV Magazine.

But solar advocates put a positive light on what remained of H 4185 and expressed hope for future progress.

H 4185 would have made significant changes to Massachusetts solar policies, calling for:

  • Removing Massachusetts’ net metering cap.

  • Broad rate reform grounded in minimum bills for all customers.

  • Transition the Solar Renewable Energy Credit (SREC) program to a long-term, stable, performance-based incentive.

  • Transition to a sustainable framework for virtual net metering.

However, the bill as passed late last week did include a couple of significant items:

  • The bill extends the state’s net metering cap, increasing the cap on private projects to 4% of a utility’s total power generation, and for public projects from 3% to 5%. This is important because in some utility areas, public installations have already reached the caps.

  • It also establishes a 17-member task force to further delve into the state’s solar issues. The task force will study a couple things: 1) the long-term feasibility of net metering in Massachusetts and of a minimum bill to support the distribution system, and 2) an alternative incentive program to reach Governor Deval Patrick’s stated goal of installing 1600 MW of distributed solar by 2020. The task force must report its findings by March 31, 2015.

The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC), a major proponent of the bill, has stated that it supports H 4185 as passed last week. TASC says it’s committed to the framework of the legislation and will participate cooperatively throughout the regulatory process to ensure that it’s implemented successfully. While the legislature left important work to state regulators, TASC notes, H 4185 establishes a framework for common ground, which TASC and National Grid articulated in a co-authored Boston Globe column published in June.

Other supporters of the bill pointed out that it was introduced late in the legislative session, and that its complexity made it difficult for legislators to understand it thoroughly in the time allotted. And while the bill enjoyed widespread support in the solar industry, not all were on board: some questioned its provision for a minimum electricity bill.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that more time will be allowed now to consider some of the trickier elements of the proposed legislation. It will be interesting to see what the Massachusetts task force comes up with, at the same time as the California Public Utilities Commission is looking at revamping net metering in that state.