By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- Legislative leaders have abandoned their hopes of passing a comprehensive overhaul of the system used by the state to facilitate solar energy projects, opting instead for a simple lift of the cap on solar production to ensure that municipal and home projects in the pipeline don't stall.
A bill passed by the House early last Thursday evening would lift the cap on public projects from 3 percent to 5 percent of a utility's total power generation, while the cap for private projects would rise to 4 percent.
The bill (S 2214) would also create a task force to study the long-term feasibility of net metering in Massachusetts and Gov. Deval Patrick's stated goal of installing 1,600 megawatts of solar energy by 2020.
"It's as watered down as watered down can be. Essentially it's kicking the can down the road," said Rep. Matthew Beaton, a Shrewsbury Republican who sits on the Energy Committee.
Patrick has called for legislation to be passed this session to avoid hitting the cap and stalling growth within an industry that has created thousands of jobs in the past several years. He was also hoping to codify his solar goals into statute to avoid the risk of the next administration scaling back his ambition.
"Massachusetts leads the nation in clean energy and energy efficiency because of this Administration's policies and strong partnership with the Legislature.
Public solar installations are bumping up against the cap, while there is still some room under the private cap, according to stakeholders.
Earlier this summer, National Grid, representatives from the solar industry and the Department of Energy Resources announced that they had come to agreement on complex new system for solar energy that would replace the current strategy of trading what are known as solar renewable energy credits on an open marketplace and avoid having to repeatedly return to the Legislature seeking approval for additional solar cap space.
The proposal would have established a flat rate for solar energy that officials hoped would make financing projects easier and more predictable. The draft bill put forward by the stakeholders also would have codified Patrick's long-term goal for solar energy, locking the next administration into hitting the 1,600 megawatt target.
A proposal to implement minimum billing that would charge electric customers a set monthly fee even if the homeowner produces enough energy to cover their usage appeared to become a sticking point in the broader legislation. Utilities say the billing is necessary to cover the expense of maintaining the infrastructure needed to deliver electricity to homes.
Beaton said there were discussions of grandfathering existing homeowners with solar installations from the minimum billing provision, but those talks faltered.
"I'm surprised this got pulled. I thought we were getting somewhere. I think it was just too much in the 11th hour for people to get comfortable with it," Beaton said.