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Our times demand more, not less, solar generation

Dave Roitman & Adele Franks: Our times demand more, not less, solar generation

Hampshire Daily Gazette Op-ed  By DAVE ROITMAN and ADELE FRANKS

September 10, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — The net metering debate is capturing attention lately. We think the issue deserves a lot more. Here’s why we, as residents and ratepayers, should care.

Net metering gives solar panel users — municipalities, businesses, residents and community solar participants — full credit for electricity generated during sunny times if it is more than they actually use then, and applies that credit to the electricity they use from the electric grid at night and during winter months when there is less sun.

Net metering provides an incentive to install solar panels, since it offsets the considerable cost of erecting them by reimbursing customers for electricity they provide to the grid.

When net metering was new, because investor-owned electric utility companies feared it would reduce their profits, the net metering policy included a cap on how much electricity from large solar arrays could be reimbursed.

Now that the net metering cap has been reached in many Massachusetts utility territories, (including our National Grid region), numerous solar projects in limbo, such as Northampton’s plans for multi-megawatt solar array on our closed landfill. Without the benefit of net metering, such projects are financially infeasible.

The American Legislative Exchange Council has been spearheading a nationwide campaign to limit the growth of solar power generation. We can guess the motive is to maintain the high profitability of fossil fuel-dependent electric utilities that fund them. Their campaign promotes the view that net metering programs “burden” non-solar customers by “subsidizing” solar arrays.

This campaign has successfully removed solar incentives in some other states, and is now being promoted by Massachusetts electric utility companies and their allies to slow solar development here.

Investor-owned electric utilities need to make a profit for their shareholders, so it is understandable why they want ratepayers to believe that net metering is unfair. This notion fosters a political climate that preserves their current business model as long as possible. But — and it’s a big but — this business model only looks at solar energy costs.

What if we were to also consider the benefits? Solar’s benefits include:

• A reduced need for costly new electricity generating facilities.

• A reduced need for utilities to purchase more electricity from fossil fuel-fired power plants at times of peak demand.

• Reduced carbon and methane emissions that contribute to climate disruption.

• Reduced air pollution that worsens asthma, heart and lung disease.

• Freedom from volatility in the price of fuel (sunlight is always free).

• Creation of new jobs at many times the rate of the economy in general.

Taking these benefits into account, solar’s benefits outweigh its costs. A recent national review of studies conducted to date concluded that solar customers are actually subsidizing non-solar customers and utility companies themselves, and that continued development of solar will likely lead to reduced electric rates overall (http://environmentamerica.org/reports/amc/shining-rewards).

In a recent Gazette article, Rep. Peter Kocot cited the Massachusetts legislature’s Net Metering and Solar Task Force finding that “each dollar invested in solar now, would bring in a return of $2.77,” a huge positive for the Commonwealth’s residents.

Our state legislature is considering several bills dealing with solar energy net metering. Under state Sen. Benjamin Downing and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg’s leadership, the Senate approved important measures to increase solar energy production across the state.

It is incumbent upon the House of Representatives to do the same without delay.

We call on state Rep. Thomas A. Golden Jr. and House Speaker Robert DeLeo to rapidly move forward legislation that would lift the cap on net metering without restrictions so that the Massachusetts solar industry can continue to grow, and the global warming emissions reduction required by state law can be achieved. We need all the clean renewable energy we can get, as quickly as possible — because climate catastrophe has begun.

Worldwide, this July was the hottest month on record, and the first seven months of 2015 were the hottest January-to-July span ever recorded. These sobering facts make it all the more important that we all work together — as fast and as well as we can — to transition from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy.

That is why we should care about eliminating the cap on net metering for solar power generation and let our elected officials know we expect them to do that without delay.

Dave Roitman and Adele Franks both live in Florence. They are members of the steering committee of Climate Action NOW.