Around 120 solar energy advocates lobbied the Legislature Tuesday to raise the cap on the number of solar panels that can be hooked up to the electric grid.
The lobbying effort organized by the group Environment Massachusetts and several other pro-solar groups is meant to raise the state’s “net metering” caps, which limits how many big solar installations can be hooked up to the electrical grid in each utility’s territory. Currently, the statewide cap is at 1,000 megawatts, or 4 to 5 percent of utilities’ peak electric load.
In March, solar energy advocates sounded the alarm because that cap was reached in the large expanse of the state served by National Grid, where it’s easier to plan and build large-scale solar projects compared to the dense core of Boston. Solar advocates say about 31 megawatts of solar capacity -- or enough to power 5,000 homes -- was added after National Grid conducted an internal review, but they say that's not enough.
Ben Hellerstein, a campaign organizer with Environment Massachusetts, said organizers scheduled meetings with between 40 to 50 legislators and dropped in on several others to deliver their message. Currently, 35 representative are co-sponsoring a bill supported by the solar industry that would raise the net metering caps by 60 percent and increase the maximum size of projects that don’t count toward that cap from 25 kilowatts, about the size of a small rooftop system, to one megawatt.
“We are asking the Legislature to take action on it as soon as possible,” Hellerstein said. “If it doesn’t happen by the end of the year, we could see pretty significant impacts in terms of the solar industry in Massachusetts.”
National Grid has said the caps should remain in place for now, however. Utilities argue that solar panel owners feed energy back into the power grid without paying to use the wires, forcing other ratepayers to subsidize people with solar panels. Additionally, National Grid’s service territory is currently the only one that would be affected by raising the cap because it’s the only utility that has reached its limit.
“Our non-solar customers are subsidizing the significant expansion of solar, and those subsidies will increase as more solar comes on line under the existing rules,” said Mary-Leah Assad, a National Grid spokeswoman. “It is crucial for Massachusetts to develop a long-term plan to encourage growth in the solar industry while lowering the overall cost of the program and reducing the impact on customers’ electric bills.”
Currently, a state panel is examining whether the legislature should raise the net metering cap or scrap the current system. Both National Grid and Eversource, which are represented on the panel, oppose raising the caps without provisions to assign costs of transmitting the solar energy. The task force is due to issue legislative recommendations at the end of April.