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Legislature deals setback to Patrick on energy bills

But move to expand solar power incentives passes on final day

Expanding solar power is a priority for Governor Patrick.

Associated Press/File

Expanding solar power is a priority for Governor Patrick.

Governor Deval Patrick and renewable-energy advocates suffered setbacks early Friday when high-profile solar and hydropower bills failed to pass before the Legislature adjourned for the year.

The state’s solar industry eked out a partial victory when lawmakers approved an increase the number of large-scale solar projects that can qualify for a popular financial incentive program designed to boost solar generation in Massachusetts.

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But industry officials had sought total elimination of caps on the number of participants in the program, known as net metering. Net metering allows electric customers to effectively resell surplus power from rooftop systems back to utilities, which makes solar energy more attractive for developers.

In addition, lawmakers failed to pass a provision that mandated an increase in the amount of solar generation in Massachusetts from 400 megawatts to 1,600 megawatts by 2020, or enough to power 240,000 homes. They also failed to act on other proposals crafted during tense negotiations this spring by representatives from the solar industry, major utilities, and the governor’s office.

Instead, lawmakers authorized the creation of a new task force to look at how various financial-incentive programs can be structured to achieve the 1,600 megawatts goal. The task force must report its findings by March 31, 2015.

Expanding solar power in the state was a top priority of Patrick before he leaves office in January, but Mark Sylvia, Patrick’s undersecretary of energy, downplayed the legislative setback. He said the administration was pleased lawmakers at least increased the amount of large-scale solar projects that can participate in net metering.

The governor’s office also pushed another bill that would have effectively required utilities to sign long-term contracts to buy large amounts of hydroelectric power from Canada. The administration argued hydropower would help curb greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change, while filling a void caused by the expected closures of coal and nuclear plants in coming years.

The Legislature took no action on the bill before adjourning during the last day of the legislative session. Sylvia would only say that the state faces “very real challenges” if it does not find a way to offset the loss of electric generation because of future plant shutdowns.

The Bay State Hydropower Association, which represents hydroelectric facility owners in Massachusetts, did not bemoan the failure to pass the hydropower bill. Thomas Tarpey, president of the association, said buying large quantities of hydroelectricity from Canada has the “potential to be immensely disruptive” to the hydropower industry in Massachusetts and across New England. Hydropower accounted for about 3 percent of net electricity generation in Massachusetts last year, according to the US Energy Department.

Jay Fitzgerald can be reached at jayfitzmedia@gmail.com.
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