With less than two weeks remaining for the Legislature to act, clean energy advocates are pressuring a joint conference committee to act on a comprehensive energy package that would move in the direction of a sweeping omnibus bill that the Senate passed unanimously in June.
Hundreds of protesters, including some from western Massachusetts, descended on Beacon Hill Thursday to push for increasing or even eliminating the net-metering cap that limits incentives on solar projects, as well as speeding up the annual rate of the Renewable Portfolio Standard that requires electric utilities to increase their share of renewable sources.
The Senate’s comprehensive package, which would void Eversource’s new consumer demand charge, removes the solar net-metering cap, triples the RPS annual increase from 1 to 3 percent and triples procurement of offshore wind to 5,000 megawatts, also includes requiring the state Department of Utilities to consider alternatives to pipelines to minimize public land taking and to include resident groups, municipalities and elected officials as official intervenors in its process. That measure, together with three far weaker House energy bills that passed last week, are now before a conference committee to craft a compromise.
The fact that several House bills have moved forward all before the Aug. 1 end of the session offers some hope, although the behind-doors horse trading in an environment where other conference committees are also working to craft compromises has turned up the pressure on groups pushing for renewable energy to combat climate change and contain energy costs.
“It’s still alive because on the conference committee, you have everything that’s passed on either side,” said Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, who filed one of the bills to triple RPS and is an advocate for eliminating the net-metering limit that’s bottlenecked projects around the region. “The conference committee is wide open.”
The House net-metering bill, which still is awaiting action by representatives and could come up for a vote next week, needs to be raised, said Mark. “I’d love for it to go away entirely.”
While optimists could take heart in Mark’s summation, “anything could happen in the next two weeks,” he added, “There are only about 12 days left to pass something significant in formal session, so it’s important that legislators, like myself, who really care about this are going to advocate to the conference committee that we want the strongest bill possible. It’s good for constituents and for voters to be advocating now. This is crunch time, when we’re going to have a final product very soon.”
Although a bill filed by Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, that calls for reforming the DPU — including restricting it from forcing electricity customers to subsidize gas pipeline construction — was sidelined for this session, part of that bill is also contained in the Senate package before the conference committee.
Kulik said he also believes there should be no net-metering cap and that his positions are more in line with those of the Senate.
“I’m very hopeful the conference committee can come up with a comprehensive and progressive set of policies,” Kulik said. “It’s important for reducing fossil fuel use, for increasing renewables, for energy conservation and job creation.”
Claire Chang, co-owner of the Greenfield Solar Store and board member of the industry group MassSolar, said, “The problem is Associated Industries of Massachusetts and (Gov. Charlie) Baker, who’s said he doesn’t see the need for raising the net-metering cap or raising RPS by more than 1 percent. Clearly Baker has a hold over (House) leadership, and even though there’s a veto-proof majority, they’re not willing to work against Gov. Baker. I don’t know what’s going to change the current lack of progress.”
The state lost 3,000 solar industry jobs in 2017, said Chang, has lost thousands more this year and stands to continue losing jobs if the net-metering cap isn’t raised.
The House RPS legislation calls for doubling the rate to 2 percent, but then dropping it back to 1 percent in 2030.
“That’s crazy,” Chang said. “We’re going to start building up the (renewable energy) industry and then knock it back down?”
Advocates of a stronger clean energy policy say that tripling RPS to 3 percent a year would create 10,000 to 43,000 new jobs in the state as well get the state to a target of 50 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030, a goal other states have adopted.
“It’s insane to be a leader and the fall back to sixth or seventh place in the nation,” said Chang, who said that Massachusetts’ leadership position on solar installations has fallen behind because “regulatory uncertainty is killing the marketplace. The costs (of solar power) have declined dramatically since 2010, and Massachusetts has been sitting on its hands.”