In November, nearly everyone in the state House of Representatives voted for a solar bill that the solar industry vigorously opposed.
But now, with the issue bottled up in a conference committee, roughly two-thirds of the House’s members have reversed course and are rallying to the industry’s cause. A group of 100 lawmakers have signed a letter to the committee urging members to endorse legislation that includes a level of incentives the solar industry could support.
Negotiators so far have been unable to come to an agreement on how to raise the limits for net metering, the system for crediting solar panel owners for excess electricity sent into the grid. The caps have already been hit in National Grid’s service area, causing many large solar projects to be shelved. Household-sized rooftop solar panels are exempt from the caps.
One big issue: what happens to the net metering reimbursement rate after the state’s solar generating capacity reaches 1,600 megawatts. (The state’s existing capacity is more than 1,000 megawatts, but there are enough projects in the pipeline to get close to 1,600.)
The Senate proposed what was seen as the most favorable bill for the solar industry, in terms of how much the reimbursement levels would be reduced, while the House bill was considered the one most onerous to solar. Governor Charlie Baker pushed a third bill, one that was seen as middle ground between the other two.
The House bill would have reduced the net metering rate from the current retail price for electricity to the much lower wholesale price, again making an exception for residential rooftops.
But the 100 representatives have now coalesced around a more pro-solar approach than the bill that nearly all of them voted for in November.
They say that the state’s net metering policy should, at a minimum, maintain the retail rate for community-shared solar projects, as well as those that serve low-income residents. Rates for all municipal projects would remain at the higher level. They also want lawmakers to ensure existing systems are “grandfathered,” so those previously-built projects continue to receive the same reimbursement rates.
The letter follows one on Monday, sent by at least 30 mayors and city managers, asking the conference committee to protect reimbursement rates for municipal projects.
The state lawmakers, in their letter, said they’re concerned that sharp cuts to net metering rates could cause irreparable harm to the solar industry and its roughly 15,000 jobs in the state.
Representative Cory Atkins, one of the legislators behind the petition, said in a statement that the letter was inspired by a stream of calls from constituents since the House passed its bill in November.
The state’s two big utilities, Eversource and National Grid, and the Associated Industries of Massachusetts argue that the existing system is too generous for solar panel owners at the expense of other ratepayers who don’t use solar panels. AIM sent a letter to the solar conference committee last week, asking the committee members to wait to take action on net metering until the Baker administration’s Department of Energy Resources completes an analysis of solar incentive values.
AIM also criticized the latest letter, from the 100 representatives.
“The employers of Massachusetts remain disappointed that these legislators oppose common-sense reforms to the solar program and are willing to impose billions of dollars in taxes on companies and individuals who do not use solar,” AIM executive vice president Chris Geehern said in a statement.
But George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said that it’s important to also weigh the other benefits of solar with the costs, including the reduced need for fossil-fuel burning plants.
Bachrach said he was surprised so many lawmakers signed the letter, indicating a major shift from the House’s stance in November.
“They understood this is a somewhat more complicated issue than they first saw it as,” Bachrach said.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.