Massachusetts solar industry steps up the pressure as net metering caps bite

Over 100 solar workers representing over two dozen solar companies descended upon the Massachusetts State House this morning to put more pressure on legislators to lift the state’s restrictive caps on net metering. They brought with them over 5,000 petitions and letters addressed to House Speaker Bob DeLeo (D).

The timing of lifting the state’s existing caps on net metering, set at 4% of peak load for private installations and 5% for public projects, is becoming more and more desperate. While the first program caps were hit in the service area of utility National Grid a year ago, recently the cap for private installations was hit in the service area of Unitil, and Eversource has only 200 kW remaining.

With much higher penetrations of solar PV on the grid in other states and nations, there is clearly no valid technical reason for these caps. Instead, Massachusetts’ solar industry and the 15,000 jobs which it represents are being held captive by politics.

“We’re fighting from a tough position,” Vote Solar Northeast Regional Manager Sean Garren told pv magazine. “Utilities… benefit from the status quo working in their favor.”

Last fall legislators left for winter recess without reconciling two different bills to raise the caps by 2%. It is widely recognized that the uncooperative party in negotiations was the leadership of the House of Representatives. Aside from lifting the net metering caps by 2%, the House bill read like a wish list for the utility industry. This included moving net metering compensation from retail to wholesale rate, and instituting a minimum bill for customers.

While the House bill was passed nearly unanimously, a number of legislators changed their tune after being contacted by constituents. Two weeks ago a letter signed by 100 members of the House calling for the caps to be raised without the move to retail rates was sent to House leadership.

However, despite the support of the Senate and at least 2/3 of the House, an extension to net metering appears to be held captive by a deficiency of democracy in the State House. Specifically, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Brian Dempsey (D), House Chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Thomas Golden (D) and Speaker of the House Bob DeLeo (D) have been identified as the main stumbling blocks.

Behind this small group of powerful politicians is the Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM). This lobbying group includes utilities, and has been advocating for dismantling net metering through advertising and pressure on individual legislators.

In effect current net metering caps only impact installations above 25 kW, however this is a great threat to the state’s fast-growing community solar segment. Paul Spencer, founder and CEO of Clean Energy Collective told pv magazine that much of the projects which have been stalled are community solar, totaling “hundreds of megawatts”. “We’ve put hiring on hold,” stated Spencer.

Massachusetts has been the fourth-largest solar market in the United States for the past three years, and has the second-largest number of solar workers at over 15,000. However, the state may be in risk of losing both jobs and its leading position.

“The (federal) Investment Tax Credit is a foundation but if you want to get solar done in the states you need good state policy,” notes Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) State Director Sean Gallagher. “Massachusetts is going to have to get something done in order to maintain its leadership position.”