Solar energy bill hanging in the balance
Many interest clash amid fierce lobbying over power-generation goals
A bill designed to spur the growth of solar energy in Massachusetts is at the center of an intense Beacon Hill fight that could endanger its passage and dash Governor Deval Patrick's hopes of leaving office with aggressive long-term goals for solar generation in place.
The lobbying battle, which numerous participants have described as fierce, is pitting business group against business group and solar power advocate against solar power advocate — all trying to influence legislation more favorable to their interests.
The battle became so intense that Representative Brian Dempsey, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, met with House Speaker Robert DeLeo Monday to discuss how to salvage the bill before the Legislature adjourns Thursday.
A spokesman for DeLeo referred questions yesterday to Dempsey, who could not be reached for comment.
The administration still hopes that a flurry of last-minute negotiations could break a logjam of contentious issues holding up the bill, which was painstakingly crafted this spring in a compromise between solar industry groups, electric utilities, Patrick administration officials, and others.
"We're still very optimistic it will get passed," said Mark Sylvia, that state's energy undersecretary.
But other Beacon Hill officials wonder if the House and Senate can debate, amend, and act on such a highly technical piece of legislation in just three days.
"There's so little time left in the session," bemoaned Representative Frank Smizik, the Brookline Democrat who sponsored the bill. "There's a lot of lobbying going on."
The bill would increase the state's mandated amount of solar generation to 1,600 megawatts from 400 megawatts by 2020, or enough energy to power 240,000 homes.
The bill also would lift caps on the number of large solar developments that could participate in a program called "net metering," which allows customers who install solar systems at homes or commercial buildings to sell surplus power they don't use back to utilities.
The vast majority of residential customers who use less than 25 kilowatts of power per month automatically qualify for the net-metering program, but the number of larger commercial and institutional customers who can participate is limited. Removing those limits would make solar power attractive to more large users, creating a potential boon for solar installers.
Eliminating the caps was a top priority of the solar industry, but utilities demanded that customers participating in net metering pay at least a minimum "distribution fee" each month to pay for the delivery of electricity to their homes or businesses.
Some residential customers' roof-top solar systems generate so much energy tht their monthly bills are zero after they sell the surplus.
Utilities say such customers should pay something to cover the cost of bringing electricity to their homes, so the bill calls for establishing a monthly distribution fee, probably in the range of $5 to $10 per month.
But some solar industry officials objected to those fees, saying it was unfair to people who had already signed up for net metering under the belief they could "zero out" by reselling energy.
Lawmakers, industry leaders, and Patrick administration officials are working to modify the bill so those who have already signed up for net metering might be exempt from the fees for a period of time.
Tom Thompson, president of the Solar Energy Business Association of New England, said there are divisions within his organization over the bill, with some members thinking that lifting the net-metering caps is a huge win for the industry, while others believe too many other compromises were made.
Dan Porrazzo, the owner of Advantage Solar Energy Inc. in Brockton, said he favors lifting caps on net metering because it could lead to more large-scale solar projects for his firm and other installers, but he remains skeptical about another component of the bill, which would revamp incentive programs.
Still, Porrazzo said, the bill is probably necessary to the industry because lifting of the net-metering cap as well as the mandated increase in solar generation could mean substantial growth.
"Without all these incentives, a lot of my projects wouldn't make financial sense," he said.
Peter Rothstein is president of the New England Clean Energy Council, a trade group that represents a variety of solar, wind, energy efficiency, and other clean-technology companies. He said the council "absolutely believes that the Legislature will pass this bill" because of the importance to the solar industry.
"Many solar projects will not go forward in Massachusetts" without the legislation, Rothstein said in a statement.
But other business leaders say that could be just as well.
Robert Rio, a senior vice president at Associated Industries of Massachusetts, one of the state's largest business groups, says the legislation is too complicated and would drive up the cost of electricity, perhaps by billions of dollars over the next 20 years. The cost of solar is often more than double the price of electricity generated by natural gas, he said
"This bill will burden ratepayers for decades with virtually no way to control or alter the solar program in the future," Rio said.