Activists, Officials Call For Lifting Cap On Solar Subsidy Program

Jul 22, 2015

Solar panels now cover the once-contaminated former Chapman Valve Co. property in Springfield, Ma.
Credit WAMC

An environmental advocacy organization is campaigning in Massachusetts to drum up public support for ending restrictions on a solar power incentive program.

Dozens of solar power projects in Massachusetts have stalled because limits have been reached on a program that compensates the owners of large solar arrays, according to an activist, a Co-op Power company executive, and a municipal official who spoke Tuesday on the steps of Springfield City Hall.

The program known as net metering allows commercial, municipal, and nonprofit generators of solar power to be paid for the electricity that is added to the power grid.  But, state law caps the program at a percentage of the total electrical usage, and the cap was reached earlier this year in places served by National Grid.

As a result of reaching the net metering ceiling, solar power projects planned in places including Northampton, Williamstown, Monson, and Brimfield cannot proceed, according to Ben Hellerstein, state director of Environment Massachusetts.

"Arbitrary caps on solar power are keeping us in the dark,"  Hellerstein said. " State officials should help communities here in the Pioneer Valley and across Massachusetts take advantage of all the environmental and economic benefits that solar offers."

Solar power accounts for 2 percent of the electricity generated in Massachusetts. Solar advocates have a goal of 20 percent of the state’s electricity produced by solar by 2025.

Bills to raise the net metering cap introduced in both the Massachusetts House and Senate are in committee, according to Hellerstein.

Douglas Albertson, the town planner in Belchertown, said a commercial solar project that town officials approved last year has apparently been halted because of the net metering ceiling.

" We are saying ' it is good to go, make it happen' but they're stopped and that is unfortunate because it is a cut into the town revenues as well," said Albertson. " That's money we are loosing. That's clean energy we are loosing."

Residential solar projects are exempt from the net metering cap, but people who live in apartment buildings or condominiums cannot access solar power except through community shared projects, which are subject to the net metering cap, according Lynn Benander of Co-op Power.

" It is complicated, but the answers are pretty clear.  We need the caps raised, we need virtual net metering kept in order to solve these problems for people in communities," said Benander.

Jens Christiansen, an economics professor at Mount Holyoke College, said the net metering cap is bad policy.

" The expansion of the solar industry will bring down the price of solar energy. It will eventually become competitive," said Christiansen.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno endorsed raising the net metering cap. He said Springfield has installed solar panels at several municipal and school buildings to lower electric bills. He said the city is reaping tax benefits from commercial solar arrays that were installed on two once badly polluted former industrial sites.

" We've developed contaminated sites generating $750,000 in tax revenue I can use for the entire city. So, I am proud to stand with these individuals for the continued movement  on solar power," Sarno said at Tuesday's press conference.

The net metering cap has not yet been reached in communities served by Eversource (the former Western Massachusetts Electric Co.), which includes the city of Springfield.