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Solar Power Incentives In Jeopardy In Massachusetts

an array of solar panels

The Massachusetts legislature recessed formal sessions for the year earlier this week without renewing a solar power incentive program.  It leaves many solar power projects across the state in limbo.

Torn between arguments from environmental activists and solar developers that months of inaction was harming the state’s fast-growing solar industry and threatening a commitment to renewable energy and the lobbying by utility companies and business groups that complained about the size and fairness of solar subsidies, lawmakers were unable to strike a deal on net metering legislation.

Net metering is the system that allows solar power generators to be paid for electricity that goes to the power grid.  Limits were set on the net metering incentive in each of the utility company’s service areas. The cap, at 950 megawatts, was reached last March in the National Grid territory.

The Senate passed a bill last summer to raise the cap to 1,600 megawatts. The House waited until the day before the scheduled recess to approve a bill that raised the cap by 2 percent, but slashed by 70 percent the rates paid to solar generators.  A conference committee met briefly, but it was clear the gap between the two chambers on the solar issue was too big to bridge before adjournment.

Seven business groups, including the Chambers of Commerce in Springfield and Boston, urged legislators to scrap the solar incentive program.  Robert Rio, a vice president with Associated Industries of Massachusetts, said the solar subsidies are too generous.

"Solar energy costs have come down over 50 percent in the last five years, but the subsidies we're paying for solar has not really come down that far," said Rio.

Rio said the solar industry in Massachusetts has matured to the point where solar companies should be able to compete in an open market for how much they’ll be paid for the electricity produced.

"Every business competes for their business and solar developers should do the same thing," he said.

 Officials say there are 270 solar companies doing business in Massachusetts with about 12,000 employees.

  Ben Hellerstein of Environment Massachusetts said there are benefits to investing in solar that make continued subsidies worth the cost.

"Solar has the potential to make electricity more affordable for everybody because it can reduce the demand on the electric grid during peak demand when the price of electricity tends to be highest and it can reduce the need to invest in expensive generation and transmission infrastructure," said Hellerstein.

Hellerstein and other solar activists said the net metering bill should be a priority when the legislature returns for formal sessions in January.

" It is pretty urgent at this point," said Hellerstein. " It has been more than seven months since we hit the cap on solar net metering and as a result businesses and local governments across the Commonwealth that want to do solar have been unable to do so."

   Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said the cap is a potential roadblock to putting solar panels on part of the city’s closed landfill.

" That is the way these projects are financed and the way communities that develop these projects can benefit from the energy savings."

Narkewicz signed a contract in September with a solar power company to design, build, and operate a 3.3 megawatt solar array on the former landfill. The project would provide the city with about $9 million in cost-savings and income over 20 years.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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