Policy stall casts shadow on solar collectives
It seemed like a good idea when a group of nearly half a dozen people from around Franklin County came together to build a shared community solar project.
The project was to serve some of the people in the area who can’t put a photovoltaic system on their homes because their roofs don’t face south, or trees block the sun, or they simply don’t own the property. That amounts to about 70 percent of the state’s homes.
They were on the way to a solution in the form of a 1 megawatt PV system on leased land, which the group could buy and divvy up to provide renewable energy to up to 250 customers.
Then they began hitting the same roadblocks that Massachusetts lawmakers did in the last session in trying to tackle state energy policy. In a state that’s been ranked at or near the top for several years for solar policy and that’s pushed more than 875 megawatts to be installed statewide, this is a major conversation that the state Legislature and Baker administration will be dealing with in the weeks and months ahead.
For now, “There are so many question marks we can’t move ahead,” said Susan Worgaftik of Greenfield. She began thinking about the need for “stability” in solar installations about three years ago, when she was trying to take care of maintenance issues on solar panels and realized that the local installation company she counted on for maintenance had been bought by a national firm.
After working with a team of local advisers, the group behind the shared solar project decided to proceed as a cooperative — to keep ownership local — and figured they needed to find investors for about $3 million to put in the maximum 1-MW system allowable under state regulations for a community-shared solar project.
“We had a pretty good idea of what we were doing, but when we tried to find investors, we realized we had to be able to promise them they would get their money back to be eligible for 30 percent tax credits. One of the biggest roadblocks was we couldn’t get a good answer from Eversource how much it would cost to connect to the grid … It was very frustrating.”
Another major hurdle last fall was the uncertain continuation of federal tax credits after December 2016 — until Washington extended the credits for another five years.
And even though a state legislative conference committee is trying to iron out differences between a cap on net-metering — the program allowing electricity customers with PV systems to be paid by utilities for the power they contribute to the grid — the rules now say residential customers tied to community supported solar projects must be paid at commercial rates that are about 30 percent lower than residential rates.
“That’s one of our biggest complaints right now,” said co-op organizer M.A. Swedlund of Deerfield. “At least in the new legislation, they should give residential customers net-metering credits at the same rate as somebody putting solar panels on their house.”
Swedlund said she believes the delays in removing roadblocks in the state’s solar policy are part of a national pushback by utilities resistant to decentralized renewable energy sources.
“The utilities seem to be having a lot of influence,” she said, point to rollback of net-metering programs in Arizona and elsewhere as part of a coordinated effort by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council. “It’s a little frightening. There’s a lot of money and effort to protect the old model utilities seem bent on sticking to.”
There are other community solar projects, like one being developed by Co-Op Power at the Greenfield Industrial Park. Swedlund added, “We think the market is huge for community solar. Eversource is also slow-walking this stuff, but that’s much harder to deal with.”
Eversource spokeswoman Priscilla Ress, responding to similar criticism earlier this winter, attributed delays to the sheer volume of applications.
“We have received a tremendous increase in the number of applications coming in. When the solar program started we might get a hundred or two hundred — we are in the thousands of applications,” Ress said. “We have doubled the workforce here to handle these applications.”
Another co-op organizer, Paul Newlin of Whately, said, “We’re really struggling to make people aware of the inequity and unfairness of this discriminatory pricing system. Why can’t we get residential net-metering rates?”
Newlin has had a 5-kilowatt PV system on his roof for the past 10 years and, as a longtime advocate of a renewable energy supply, says the motivation is to let the 70 percent of the state’s residents who can’t have their own solar panels at home find a way to contribute to the state’s alternative energy mix.
Another issue — to be decided by the Baker administration — is whether to renew the Solar Renewable Energy Credit program, which has nearly reached its limit, especially for projects larger than 25 kilowatts. That program, paid for by carbon-polluting generators, could contribute an additional incentive of $1,000 a year to make the PV project viable for investors.
Newlin said he’s also concerned that the utility could require the developer of a community solar project to pay for a new transformer that would be required to handle the additional generation. And while he understands that a lot of transformers weren’t designed to handle generation from decentralized producers, Newlin says, “I think everybody should pay for maintenance and upkeep of the grid, and the cost should be distributed among all ratepayers, solar or not, if we want to reduce greenhouse gases. People shouldn’t be penalized for putting up solar collectors by having to bear the whole cost.”
For Newlin, who in 1980 was director of the Franklin County Energy Office, a part of the county government that was pursuing creation of a Franklin County Energy Authority to seize and develop unused utility-owned dam sites, this chapter of energy history recalls utility efforts to scuttle those initiatives.
Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, said the hope is that a compromise can be reached between House and Senate versions of lifting the state’s net-metering cap to allow large, stalled solar projects to move ahead in Massachusetts before the Legislature takes up a more comprehensive energy package this spring — one that Kulik hopes will include whether new natural gas pipelines are needed, along with wind, hydro and biomass. And Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, a member of the conference committee working on a net-metering compromise, called the solar co-op’s problems emblematic of an energy policy in transition.
“We’re still up against the net-metering cap and we have the SREC-2 program basically coming to an end,” he said. “I’d like to think we could use this opportunity to align our solar policy right, to continue with net metering and continue to reduce the incentive in the program to reduce the incentive and to minimize cost. It’s also an opportunity to say if we want to come up with savings in the solar program, they don’t all have to come out of the net-metering program,” he said.
Downing, who pointed out that there’s nothing to say that the Baker administration will continue in the footsteps of the prior Patrick administration to promote solar energy, added, “I think folks are right to be concerned about the future of community shared solar. I think it’s entirely dependent on us getting a good deal on net metering and … isn’t just limited to people who are lucky enough at this point to have the land or the roof to do it. We ought to be able to able to come up with a public policy that ensures access to the 70 percent.”
You can reach Richie Davis at email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269