The House of Representatives whisked through a bill to update the state's solar incentives on Tuesday with less than two days remaining in this year's formal legislative sessions — but not before first hearing from a coalition of the state's biggest business associations.
Solar developers and environmental groups slammed the House bill, saying it would essentially cause the sun to set on the frenzied proliferation of solar panels that the state has experienced in the past few years. A bill that the Senate passed in the summer is far more friendly to the continuation of the state's solar success story.
But business groups including the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, and the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation distributed a letter to House members on Tuesday, saying the newly written bill from the House Ways and Means Committee is beneficial for ratepayers and the state's economic health. The House later passed that bill with only one minor change with a 150-2 vote.
The groups, in their letter, wrote: "We believe that this legislation offered by the Committee strikes the appropriate balance between continuing to support renewable energy while addressing costs for ratepayers including businesses of all sizes."
Other groups that signed include the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, the Springfield Regional Chamber, and the National Federation of Independent Business.
Both bills tackle net metering, a system in which solar panel owners are reimbursed for the amount of excess energy they send onto the grid. The Legislature has put caps in place for these reimbursements, for nonresidential projects, and those limits have already been hit in National Grid's service area. Both bills would raise the caps, but the Senate's legislation would go further than the House bill. And the House bill would also reduce the reimbursement rate that solar panel owners get once the state hits its target of 1,600 megawatts of installed solar capacity. (There are just over 900 megawatts in place today.)
"Our goal in the House is to obviously continue the growth in solar and make it more affordable," said state Representative Thomas Golden, Democrat of Lowell and co-chairman of the Legislature's energy committee.
There isn't much time left to get a deal done with the Senate. Golden said he remains hopeful that a compromise measure can be reached by the time the Legislature adjourns for the holidays at the end of the day on Wednesday.
Lawmakers will continue to meet in informal sessions through the end of the year, and it's possible the solar bill could still move forward during these meetings. But controversial measures generally aren't taken up in informal sessions because any one lawmaker can block the movement of a bill.
George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said the House bill imperils future solar developments and doesn't adequately take into account all of solar's advantages, including the environmental benefits.
"While AIM [Associated Industries of Massachusetts] presumes to represent business on energy policy, many of our corporate allies such as Boston Scientific, Aggregate Industries, and others have made substantial investments in solar energy, and now are stalled as they plan more projects in partnership with municipalities," Bachrach wrote in an e-mail. "These are mainstream companies with thousands of employees, not merely solar developers."