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Mass. passes bill lifting solar net metering caps, but cutting payments

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Mass. passes bill lifting solar net metering caps, but cutting payments

In along-awaited compromise, the Massachusetts Senate has passed a bill that would increasethe state's solar net metering cap by 3%, allowing development of distributed solarprojects to move ahead again but impose tough cuts on some larger distributed solarprojects.

Underthe compromise, new net metering credits would be reduced to 60% of the value offull retail rates after Massachusetts reaches its goal of 1,600 MW of solar capacity.Small residential, commercial, and government- and municipal-owned solar projectswould be exempt from the cuts, but larger projects, including community solar projectsand some low-income projects, would not be. The bill would also allow utilitiesto implement a "monthly minimum reliability" charge for net metered solarcustomers to cover the cost of transmission maintenance.

RepublicanGov. Charlie Baker is expected to sign the bill, H.B. 4173, which passed the state Senate by a vote of 35-0on April 7 following the House's 152-1 vote in favor of the bill the day before.

Enactingthe law should immediately free up a backlog of solar projects that were put onhold after National Grid and EversourceEnergy hit their limits. According to an analysis by the Solar EnergyIndustries Association, 551 solar projects worth nearly $618 million in investmentand constituting more than 241 MW of installed capacity have been stalled due tothe cap.

StateSen. Benjamin Downing, a Democrat, celebrated the passage of the bill while acknowledgingthat the final legislation is vastly different from the one he originallyintroduced in July 2015.

"Solaris a key piece of our strategy to combat climate change and reduce our dependenceon fossil fuels," Downing said in a newsrelease. "This legislation is an important step to continue solardevelopment."

Somesolar supporters and environmentalists, however, have called foul, arguing thatthe 3% increase to the cap is not enough and that the 40% cut in reimbursementswill target larger community-shared and low-income housing projects.

"Thenew cap is expected to be reached within 6 to 9 months, which means risk to investors,and to the 15,000 Massachusetts residents who rely on solar jobs to put food onthe table," said Emily Norton, state director for the Sierra Club, in a .

Nortonalso criticized the decision to impose the cuts on larger community solar projects,which are often developed with the aim of providing low-income communities accessto distributed solar.

"Thelegislature can't have it both ways," Norton said in a statement. "Ifthey agree that retail rate makes sense for residential and municipal, how can theycredibly claim it does not make sense for low income and community solar."

Ben Hellerstein,state director of Environment Massachusetts, likewise criticized the provisionsto allow the minimum monthly charge on solar owners by utilities.

"Thesechanges could make it harder for many — including renters, low-income families,and people who can't install solar on their roofs — to access the benefits of solar,"Hellerstein said in a news release.

In additionto the increased cap and decreased reimbursements, the bill would authorize thestate Department of Energy Resources to create a new solar incentive program focusedon community-shared, government- and municipally owned; and low-income solar projects.Additionally, the bill would increase the amount of solar an energy distributioncompany can own or operate from 25 MW to 35 MW.

All projectsinstalled prior to the reaching of the 1,600-MW goal will continue to receive thefull retail rate for 25 years from the date of grid interconnection in additionto receiving other benefits under the incentive program.