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Compromise energy bill criticized as too weak

  • Stock photo of solar panels



Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The state Legislature, on its last day of formal session, adopted a compromise energy bill that environmentalists like the Sierra Club criticized as taking “baby steps … when what are needed are giant strides.”

The measure compromised the Senate’s unanimous call in June for bold actions – including tripling from 1 percent the Renewable Portfolio standard, which governs the share of renewable sources utilities must purchase and integrate into the state’s energy system.

It also softened the Senate bill’s elimination of the solar net metering cap, which has the effect of limiting private solar projects and is partially responsible for what critics say is more than 2,000 solar-industry job losses in 2017.

Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, and Paul Mark, D-Peru, expressed disappointment at the watering down of comprehensive energy legislation that included many of their progressive elements.

“The disappointment is that it didn’t deal with net metering,” said Mark, although he still held hope that a standalone bill raising the cap could be taken up by both chambers before midnight.

The compromise bill, which came out of conference committee Monday night and was voted on by the Legislature Tuesday, calls for the renewable portfolio standard to be increased by 1 percent until the end of 2019, then by 2 percent each year until the end of 2029, and would then set the state on a track of 1 percent increases each year thereafter.

Claire Chang, co-owner of the Greenfield Solar Store and on the board of the industry group MassSolar, called the failure to raise the net metering cap “a big step backwards for Massachusetts’ solar policy” and predicted “solar projects will remain stalled in 230 communities across Massachusetts. ... Behind-the-meter PV systems will receive less compensation without net metering caps raised.”

While the conference bill restricted a minimum monthly demand charge that the state Department of Public Utilities had allowed Eversource to charge its photovoltaic customers based on the hour when they use the most electricity from the grid, Chang noted that the language did not eliminate the charge and did not require that real-time usage data be provided to users subject to the charge.

She warned, “The legislative failure to raise net-metering caps and to allow the regressive Eversource monthly minimum reliability contribution demand charges will reduce the economic benefits for homeowners and will weigh heavily on the commonwealth by limiting opportunities for shared solar projects that provide everyone the opportunity to benefit from solar. This is … a failure of the House and Baker administration to follow the will of the people. There is no time to waste as Massachusetts falls behind. You can’t have a clean energy future without solar.”

Sierra Club Massachusetts Chapter Director Emily Norton said, “With this bill, the Massachusetts legislature took baby steps on clean energy legislation when what are needed are giant strides. The world needs Massachusetts to be leading the transition to a clean energy economy, and instead we are offering half measures and timidity. We had an opportunity to be bold and grow jobs, improve public health, stabilize energy costs and reduce the fossil fuel pollution that is warming the planet, and instead Beacon Hill has sided with the status quo of fossil fuel and utility companies, over the innovation clean energy and high tech economies.”

And the Partnership for Policy Integrity said a last-minute amendment to the compromise allowed garbage-burning to qualify for clean energy subsidies.

“At the last minute, and with virtually no public review, state lawmakers gifted the waste industry lobby by allowing garbage incinerators to qualify for new clean-energy subsidies during times of peak energy demand, said James McCaffrey, its New England legislative director, because of greenhouse gases and pollution. “We should not give clean energy subsidies to dirty technologies. Looking to the future, in order to meet its clean energy goals, Massachusetts needs to remove dirty power from its Renewable Portfolio Standard and invest far more in clean, renewable technologies that produce zero emissions.”

Kulik and Mark said the energy bill is emblematic of differences between Western Massachusetts — where environmental issues are central – and the state as a whole.

“I believe Western Mass – especially in Franklin and Hampshire counties – are way ahead of the rest of the state in terms of a progressive, forward thinking, renewable energy and conservation value, and that’s been true for 40 years ” said Kulik. “And that’s reflected in the Legislature. I guess in a way we’re sort of outliers on matters of energy policy and to some extent on environmental issues. I see some creeping support for these issues. They’re not there yet. ...(Statewide) energy doesn’t crack the top three, four, five subjects that most people hear about. It’s certainly in the top three that I hear about from my constituents.”

Also, Kulik said, sometimes one chamber of the Legislature adds elements to bills that will end up in a conference committee, “more for the purpose of negotiation with the other side that that we’re going to fight to the bitter end for those. The Senate had a whole lot more coming into the conference committee that they had voted on than the House did, so in may ways they had to give up more in negotiation.”

A carbon pricing system and elimination of the net metering cap, as called for in the Senate bill, were not included in the compromise, and Kulik – who had sponsored a carbon pricing bill – said he hopes it will be an issue in the next session, although he will be retired from the Legislature.

Kulik also hopes the Legislature will take up DPU reform legislation he was unsuccessful in getting included or passed as a separate measure, which would have prohibited charging electric customers for building natural gas infrastructure and would have allowed legislators, municipalities and customers to intervene in utility cases.

Katy Eiseman, director of the Massachusetts PipeLine Awareness Network, said, “As expected, it doesn’t address any of our DPU issues. The pipeline lobby is already ramping up in preparation for next session, so we will continue to push back against DPU practices that promote pipeline overbuild, and we’ll work to make sure that ratepayers aren’t burdened with the costs of unneeded new gas infrastructure that moves us further from our climate goals.”

The legislation approved sets an energy storage target of 1,000-megawatt hours to be achieved by the end of 2025 and requires electric distribution companies to start submitting reports next year to alert the state to energy storage installations.

(State House News Service contributed to this report.)