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Governor Baker to sign solar compromise

Governor Charlie Baker.Elise Amendola/AP/file 2016/Associated Press

Governor Charlie Baker plans on Monday to sign a compromise bill reached by the Legislature to significantly increase an important financial incentive for solar panel owners.

The bill, which emerged from House-Senate negotiations earlier this week, focuses on net metering — the way that solar panel owners get reimbursed for “selling” excess power onto the grid. Solar advocates say a number of projects were sidelined and no longer financially feasible after net metering limits were hit last year in National Grid’s service territory.

The new bill aims to get that work rolling, by raising the caps again. The state limits the number of solar projects eligible for net metering credits. Under the current system, the cap is 4 percent of a utility’s peak electric load for privately-owned installations and 5 percent for publicly-owned systems.

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Under the new legislation, those limits would go up to 7 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

“If the question is, ‘are we going to sign this?,’ the answer is ‘yes,’ ” Baker said in an interview. “It creates certainty in an area where we’ve had uncertainty now for five or six months.”

The Senate passed the compromise bill on Thursday night, sending it to Baker for his review, following the bill’s approval in the House of Representatives. A bill-signing ceremony has been scheduled for Monday at the State House.

Baker had wanted lawmakers to act last year, before their pre-Thanksgiving adjournment. But the Senate, which was pushing a bill that was more favorable to solar developers, couldn’t reach an agreement with the House in time.

The compromise version will also reduce the reimbursement for privately owned solar projects by 40 percent, while keeping the higher rate for municipal projects. Small projects — such as those that would fit on the roof of a house — remain exempt from the caps and will continue to get the higher rate.

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This week’s compromise still caused people on both sides of the issue to complain.

Associated Industries of Massachusetts issued a statement saying electric ratepayers will still be on the hook for billions of dollars over a 10-year period to cover the cost of these incentives. John Regan, a lobbyist for the group, wrote lawmakers saying the legislation is “poorly conceived, it will not lower costs and will not put the commonwealth on a path to a sustainable future.”

Meanwhile, a number of pro-solar groups expressed concern the caps would be hit again soon, possibly later this year. They point to the long waiting list for net metering credits that already exists in National Grid’s territory. And they worry about a provision in the bill that would allow utilities to seek state approval to impose a minimum monthly charge to solar-panel owners that use net metering.

Janet Gail Besser, a lobbyist with the Northeast Clean Energy Council, said the Legislature needed to act — even if that action represented a short-term solution.

“We had folks laying off employees, and projects on hold, and people not being hired because they couldn’t move forward with projects, particularly with municipal projects,” she said. “This bill lets solar developers get back to work and solar workers get back to work.”

Meanwhile, the Baker administration on Friday reopened a separate program to help subsidize solar projects that had hit its cap in February. That program makes credits available to solar panel owners that can be sold to utilities to help them meet state renewable-energy rules.

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