Opinion

The Podium

Equal and equitable access to solar

Solar panels on a roof in Cambridge. Jon Chase Photo/The Boston Globe

Solar panels on a roof in Cambridge. Jon Chase Photo/The Boston Gobe.

Many progressive solar energy policies that have benefited 11,000 homeowners and businesses, and made Massachusetts a national leader in renewable energy, are at risk of being curtailed under a bill before the Legislature.

The proposed legislation makes two laudable changes, establishing in law Governor Deval Patrick’s goal of 1,600 megawatts of solar energy in the Commonwealth by 2020, and eliminating the net metering cap.

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Other aspects of the bill, however, make solar less accessible, and often more expensive, for citizens, businesses, non-profit organizations, and cities and towns. By hurting solar consumers, the legislation also hurts local solar companies and the regional economy and environment.

Eighty percent of the Massachusetts population can’t put solar on their roofs because they rent or have roofs that are too shady or oriented the wrong way. Today, those people can still benefit from solar’s stable electricity prices and environmental contributions by buying into community shared solar projects, or by the allocation of a friend’s or relative’s extra solar energy production to their utility accounts. Yet the legislation limits access to or reduces the affordability of these options.

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Any homeowner or business wanting to install a larger solar system than their electric company thinks they can use would have to justify their system size and get approval from National Grid or NStar. Planning to purchase electrically powered energy-efficiency technologies like a heat pump or electric car? You’ll have to prove in advance that you’ll need the extra power they’ll require. This onerous change introduces additional paperwork and potential delays into the process of going solar, and could result in less solar being installed.

The current Solar Renewable Energy Certificate program compensates solar owners for producing clean energy. The income from this program offsets homeowner and business investments in solar and reduces payback time. For the 853,000 citizens living in towns served by municipal light departments, these payments are critical to keeping solar affordable since the state solar rebate is generally not available to them. The legislation’s proposed SREC replacement program would exclude those residents from participating, penalizing people based on where they live.

The proposed bill also includes a new mandatory “minimum bill” charge for all utility customers, and doesn’t allow solar owners to pay that charge with their solar credits. For consumers who already have solar, this changes the terms under which they made their investments.

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We agree utilities should be paid fairly for maintenance of the grid, but any calculation of that payment amount must take into account how solar benefits the utilities. For example, new solar generation reduces the amount of other power utilities must make or buy. A May report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Berkeley Lab stated that in 2012, renewable energy policies cost Massachusetts ratepayers $111 million but provided $328 million in benefits.

Massachusetts’s progressive policies have created a vibrant solar energy industry. The legislature should make sure that future policies sustain that industry and enable it to deliver the benefits of solar energy to all its citizens.

David Enos is a former solar coach for Solarize Bedford. Worth Robbins is a member of Harvard Solar Garden, the first member-owned, community-shared solar project to go live in Massachusetts.
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