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Solar industry in limbo after task force’s divided report

Environmentalists and solar power installers fear a halt in solar construction once the Eversource caps are reached.
Environmentalists and solar power installers fear a halt in solar construction once the Eversource caps are reached.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Many in the solar industry had hoped a solar energy task force created by the Legislature would reach a solid conclusion to address the biggest impediment to the industry’s growth in the state.

Instead, the task force ended up divided in the report it made public late last week, and any solution was pushed off to a later date.

The most pressing issue at hand for the solar industry: the limits on who can benefit from net metering, which is how solar users can be reimbursed for sending excess electricity onto the grid.

In National Grid’s territory, the net metering capacity is close to running out again and a waiting list for solar developments in that region already exceeds the capacity that’s available. There’s still considerable room for more net metering in Eversource Energy’s two regions, however (small, home-scale solar installations are exempt from the cap).

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Governor Charlie Baker’s administration came out against raising the caps, saying net metering remains too costly for ratepayers who don’t have solar panels. Angie O’Connor and Dan Burgess, two top energy aides in the administration and the task force’s co-chairs, wrote that the administration can’t support an increase in allowed net metering capacity until the state adopts a more cost-effective approach to solar incentives.

The stance is sure to concern environmentalists and solar power installers. They fear a halt in solar construction once the Eversource caps are reached and are frustrated by the pending stoppage in National Grid’s territory.

“Because there was a general lack of consensus through the task force, we’re left without a long-term framework for solar in Massachusetts,” said Evan Dube, a government affairs director with solar installer SunRun. “It’s critical to keep net metering going by extending the cap out. Otherwise, we’re likely to risk the thousands of jobs that have been created [in the solar industry].”

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Solar panel owners get reimbursed for the power they generate by the utility, but they don’t share in the costs of transmitting that electricity over power lines. Utility executives view this as a kind of freeloading, with solar panel owners getting unfair use of the power lines without paying their fair share.

On the task force, most of the members supported raising the caps again to ensure that Massachusetts’ solar panel growth doesn’t get impeded, while a long-term solution is worked out. But representatives for National Grid, Eversource, and Associated Industries of Massachusetts supported a dissenting opinion – the one adopted by the Baker administration that the caps on net metering remain in place.

“We oppose raising National Grid’s net metering cap as it will add to the costs to our customers and it is not necessary to ensure the continued growth of solar in Massachusetts,” National Grid spokeswoman Mary-Leah Assad said in a statement. “We believe that there are great opportunities to reduce solar costs here in Massachusetts, which are higher than in our neighboring states.”

Eversource spokesman Michael Durand expressed similar sentiments, saying that the company wants to support more clean energy as long as it’s cost-effective.

“On the current path, Massachusetts customers will be spending close to $4 billion for solar between 2015 and 2020, at a rate of more than $600 million a year,” Durand said in a statement. “This is unsustainable and we feel there are better ways to achieve similar clean energy goals at a much lower cost.”

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Baker and his energy secretary, Matthew Beaton, do support the goal set by former governor Deval Patrick of eventually having as many as 1,600 megawatts of solar energy in Massachusetts. (There’s more than 750 megawatts of installed solar capacity here right now.) Unlike his predecessor, though, Baker doesn’t want the growth to come until more protections are put in place for ratepayers.

The task force did reach a consensus on a few things, most notably including a request to the state Department of Public Utilities to come up with a fair compensation mechanism for the utilities.

Janet Besser of the New England Clean Energy Council said she viewed the task force report as a positive forward step toward resolving this ongoing debate. Besser was one of many task force members who argued that the net-metering caps should be raised to avoid halting solar work and to allow time for a long-term adjustment to the solar incentives. Besser’s group will take that argument to the Legislature next.

“It was a very collaborative process, a very respectful process,” Besser said of the task force. “We learned a lot. It was a valuable foundation building for the next steps that need to take place.”

Ben Hellerstein, campaign organizer with Environment Massachusetts, said the protracted nature of this debate sends the wrong signal to the solar industry.

“The uncertainty is certainly a problem,” Hellerstein said. “That’s why we’re pushing for a long-term solution that will enable us to keep solar growing in our state. We shouldn’t be asking ourselves what kind of cap we should put on clean energy. We should ask ourselves how we can get as much clean energy as quickly as possible.”

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Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.