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The War over Solar Energy: A Report from One of the Front Lines

February 11, 2015
David Schlissel

The town of Belmont, Mass, where I live, has a municipal utility, Belmont Light, which until recently had a progressive net-metering system that encouraged homeowners to maintain rooftop solar panels that tied into the local electricity grid. This policy meant purchasing solar power that went into the grid, and it was in keeping with the expressed views of Belmont residents who have supported non-binding resolutions to reduce the town’s carbon footprint, and have shown in Belmont Light’s own surveys that they support initiatives like rooftop solar.

Even with net metering, it’s not like Belmont is plastered with solar panels. Of the roughly 10,000 homes in Belmont, which is a close-in suburb of Boston, only 17 or 18 have rooftop solar installations. This is a substantially lower rate than many nearby towns.

Nevertheless, at the prodding of its advisory board (which is led by a vocal opponent of distributed solar generation), Belmont Light developed a new solar-pricing policy last year to jettison net-metering and, replace it with a policy that was much less supportive of distributed solar photovoltaic. The arguments put forward by the advisory board changed frequently, made little sense and were counter to both accepted regulatory policies and to the practices and policies of the operator of the regional New England power grid. For example:

CLAIM: There is no evidence that distributed solar photovoltaic energy actually reduces carbon emissions.
FACT: Because fossil fuels are the marginal fuels in New England 75 percent to 80 percent of the time, solar PV is particularly effective at displacing power generated from these fuels, and, therefore, at reducing both the Town’s and the region’s carbon footprint.

CLAIM: Distributed solar in Belmont produces very few community benefits because Belmont’s peak load occurs early in the evening after the generation from solar has decreased.
FACT: Rooftop solar in Belmont provides significant benefits for all of Belmont Light’s ratepayers, in particular because in-town distributed solar PV reduces the cost of paying for energy, capacity and transmission for all customers, not just the solar hosts.

CLAIM: Non-solar Belmont Light customers substantially subsidize the handful of solar hosts in town.
FACT: Even if you accept the results of some questionable Belmont Light studies, that did not reflect the significant benefits that distributed solar PV provides to all of Belmont Light’s customers, the typical household in Belmont paid only about $2 per year to support net metering.

Unfortunately, at the same time they proclaimed their support for distributed solar PV, the Board of Belmont Light decided in December to adopt a new solar pricing policy that has made solar much less economically attractive and is likely to dramatically reduce residents’ interest in putting solar panels on their homes. Under this new policy, which some Belmont residents have called “anti-solar,” new solar hosts will pay a new monthly ‘distributed generator charge” of about $14 a month to connect their solar panels to Belmont Light. Under the new plan, solar hosts will also have to pay retail rates for the electricity they generate on their own roofs —after having paid thousands of dollars to have the solar panels installed.

The new policy also reduces the buyback rate, which is the credit that solar hosts receive for the excess power they feed into the grid. The new rate will be only about 3 to 5 cents per kilowatt hour compared to the 18 cents that Belmont Light has been paying under net metering. This rate will be so low because it will reflect the average price of power during all hours of the month, including all of the nighttime hours when solar power would never be expected to produce any power.

During my more than 40 years of experience as an expert in state utility commission cases, I’ve seen many myths and misleading claims from the energy industry in support of policies that benefit the utility and energy companies while hurting ratepayers and/or the environment. I never expected to run into such myths and misleading claims in my own home town.

There’s a silver lining to this cloud, though. At the same time that Belmont has taken a major step backward, neighboring towns, the state and the region remain committed to getting more energy from clean, renewable sources like distributed solar PV.

And one of the emerging themes of the energy-economy transition nationally is that the proponents of a cleaner and more sustainable energy future don’t give up all that easily. The people of Belmont will reorganize and restore our temporarily retired progressive energy policy.

David Schlissel

David Schlissel has over 30 years of experience as a regulatory attorney and consultant on energy and utility issues. He has testified as an expert witness before regulatory commissions in more than 35 states and before the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

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