Governor Baker’s Solar Bill Misses the Mark

Aug 25, 2015 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Anticipating the release of his promised solar power legislation, we encouraged Governor Baker to be bold in strengthening and continuing the solar-friendly policies, including net metering, that have made Massachusetts a national leader in solar energy. Unfortunately, his proposed bill falls well short of that goal. At a time when our changing climate demands urgent action on clean energy, the people of Massachusetts deserve better.

Net Metering: The What and the Why

So what is net metering and why is it important? Economics.

Strategic investments in renewable energy sources will reduce our reliance on climate-changing fossil fuels. Photo credit: CLF

Strategic investments in renewable energy sources will reduce our reliance on climate-changing fossil fuels. Photo credit: CLF

Net metering is the billing arrangement with Eversource and other utility companies that encourages the use of solar power by making it a good investment for businesses and families. When the sun is shining, your panels either power your home directly, or run your meter backwards – selling your excess solar power back to the utility. At the end of the month, you pay the difference between the electricity you consumed and what you sold back to your electric company – the “net” amount of electricity you purchased. The savings – over buying all your electricity from the utilities – can allow an average Massachusetts home installation to pay for itself (with other federal and state credits) in as little as five to six years. It’s a win-win: You get cheaper electricity; we all get cleaner air, a more resilient grid, and fewer climate warming emissions.

Caps Are Bad for Business (and Our Climate)

For historical reasons we’ll discuss in just a moment, the number of solar installations that are allowed to “net meter” in Massachusetts is capped; in much of the state, we’ve reached the cap, or we’re about to. The result: fewer solar installations exactly when we need more (and more!) clean solar power to help us get rid of the dirty fossil-fuel generators that are destroying our climate. That’s why we encouraged the Governor to join the state Senate in raising Massachusetts’ net metering caps all the way to the state’s 2020 goal of 1,600 megawatts of installed solar – or, better yet, to get rid of them altogether as Rhode Island has successfully done.

But the Governor’s bill did neither, instead simply bumping the caps up again from about 9% of the utilities’ total load to about 13%. That’s well shy of what’s needed to either re-energize the state’s solar industry or to get the state to its 1,600 megawatts goal. That small bump should help a few solar projects that have been waiting in the wings in certain parts of the state, but there is every indication that, with those projects and others, we would quickly hit the new caps if this bill were to become law.

And that’s a problem.

According to a recent study by the National Renewable Energy Lab, when the number of solar installations in a state approaches the level of a net metering cap, uncertainty about the availability of net metering impedes the market. To thrive under a cap, the study found, the solar market needs clear and strong signals regarding the future availability of net metering.

Baker Bill Is a Set Up for Solar Deja Vu

Unfortunately, Governor Baker’s bill would keep the future of solar in Massachusetts an open question. Instead of moving decisively to build up our solar industry and ensure that we reach our goal in 2020 and beyond, the bill would guarantee that in the very near future, we will have to (again) press pause on solar installations across the state while we (again) argue about whether, when, and by how much to (again) raise or remove the caps.

Moving ahead in such fits and starts seems particularly short-sighted for at least two key reasons. First, climate change demands serious action, not halting baby steps, right now. Second, the need for net metering caps vanished years ago. In Massachusetts and elsewhere, caps were imposed in the early days of solar power, when we were all a bit uncertain as to how much variable solar power our steady-state grid could accommodate without becoming unstable. In that context, volumetric caps on installations made sense as a way to judiciously control the system. But those days are long gone.

We now know that solar power brings extra value to our electric power system beyond the electrons it produces. We also know that the existing grid, without significant modification, can be expected to operate reliably and safely with renewables like solar power providing up to about 30% of our power. Here in Massachusetts, that’s more than nine times the amount of solar power we hope to have by 2020 – and just over ten times more than allowed by the Governor’s proposed new caps!

It should come as no surprise, then, that a majority of the members of the state’s recently concluded Net Metering and Solar Task Force voted in favor of doing away with net metering caps altogether as long as the value of solar is accurately priced (more on that soon).

So the imperative remains: To ensure Massachusetts remains an innovator and leader in the drive to a clean energy future, the Legislature should immediately lift the net metering caps system-wide to at least our 2020 goal of 1,600 megawatts-installed or, better yet, remove them altogether to allow the true value of solar to shine through!

Generating Clean Energy and Efficiency Across Massachusetts

Aug 28, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

How does a community balance the potential costs of siting clean energy projects with the economic benefits they provide? What are the local economic realities of hosting distributed clean energy generation facilities and energy efficiency projects in a community? CLF Ventures explored these questions and others in a recent webinar we co-sponsored with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) and the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s (MMA) Massachusetts Municipal Energy Group.

The first in a three-part series CLF Ventures is co-hosting this summer and fall, the August 15 webinar featured a presentation by James McGrath, Park and Open Space Program Manager for Pittsfield, a Massachusetts Green Community that has hosted several large-scale solar projects and implemented robust, community-wide energy efficiency programs. He spoke about how to initiate clean energy projects, the advantages of clean energy at the local level, and strategies to manage the most common roadblocks in implementation.

The webinar series is targeted to municipal officials and volunteers who are already engaged in clean energy and energy efficiency issues or interested in learning more about how to site and finance clean energy facilities and programs in their communities. Building on themes explored in CLF Ventures’ earlier work with MassCEC on siting land-based wind energy projects, the webinar series gives participants an opportunity to learn first-hand from municipal leaders and technical experts as they share their experiences implementing clean energy and energy efficiency projects across Massachusetts.

Upcoming webinars on September 12 and October 24 will explore how to engage the public when siting solar and wind energy projects and the ins and outs of financing clean energy through power purchase agreements. For more information or to register for upcoming webinars, email

The Next Opportunity for Growing Renewable Energy in New England: Going Big by Going Regional

Jul 23, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

The story of renewable energy development in the United States has included many important moments in which the states have provided leadership – most notably through fostering the shaping and building of new markets for renewable energy markets through programs like Renewable Energy Standards (also known “Renewable Portfolio Standards”).  These efforts have been of great value to the states who put them in place and have complemented and reinforced the incentives and programs to build up renewable energy resources like wind and solar by the Federal Government.

We are at a critical moment in the history of renewable energy development.  The collapse of coherent federal renewable energy policy, due to congressional inaction, in the form of failed attempts to put in place a Renewable Energy Standard and renew the Production Tax Credit, has created a greater need for state action – especially when clean renewable energy is an essential puzzle piece in solving the fundamental climate crisis that we face.

An interesting new element in this story is the quest by the New England States, working through a variety of vehicles, to develop a new “regional procurement” strategy that will allow the states to minimize the cost and maximize the benefits of renewable energy development for the region. This idea, also being discussed by leading scholars, could be a way to move forward smart and effective energy and climate policy, producing great value for a very reasonable investment.

This is far from a theoretical question.  Last year, in July 2011, the New England Governors directed their staff and the New England States Committee on Electricity who work with that staff, to continue to develop and build a mechanism for regional procurement. On July 29-30, 2012 the Governors meet again in Burlington Vermont and will hear a report on how that work has gone.  Will they take the critical step of moving beyond study and consideration of this idea and take action?

When a Fact Check Goes Wrong and Misses the (Clean Energy) Point

Jan 16, 2012 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »

The rise of dedicated public fact checking services like PolitiFact, and the Washington Post Fact Checker has been a generally good thing. However, these services can go astray when they decide that a statement which would be improved with clarification is “false” – a practice that weakens the “false” label when it is applied to an outright falsehood.

This unfortunate phenomena was on display when the Rhode Island edition of PolitiFact critiqued a comment by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse about the interplay between the deployment of renewable energy resources like solar panels and ending U.S. dependence on imported fossil fuels, like the oil that is refined into gasoline.

In their critique, the Providence Journal staff writing and editing the item examine comments that Senator Whitehouse made in support of federal tax incentives for renewable energy:

“Let me just bring it home,” Whitehouse said, as he referred to his notes. “In Rhode Island, this [grant program] has facilitated solar panel installations on three new bank branches. The TD Bank has opened up in Barrington, in East Providence and in Johnston, Rhode Island. Those projects created jobs, they put people to work, they lowered the cost for these banks of their electrical energy, and they get us off foreign oil and away, step by step, from these foreign entanglements that we have to get into to defend our oil supply.”

The Politi-Fact RI folks decide to look narrowly at the question of whether electricity production from solar panels always and consistently directly reduces use of oil.  This is definitely part of the story and, as I emphasized when I spoke to their reporter when he was working on the “piece, it is a direct relationship that used to be more present back in the days (not too many years ago) when more of our electricity came from oil. But is still a real relationship, especially during the days in the summer when air conditioning drives up electric demand to its highest levels of the year.  As ISO New England (the operator of the regional electric grid) told Politi-Fact RI “oil is used more on days when demand for power is high” although the reporters dismiss this reality (despite the fact that these peak hours are when air pollution is at its worst and the fact that the entire system is designed to meet that moment of peak demand) as “isolated.”

Senator Whitehouse was making three points, only one of which is addressed by the simple “displacement” analysis of what generation is pushed out by deployment of new renewable sources:

  • Moving to cleaner electricity generation from renewable sources like wind and solar is an essential piece in an overall conversion of our economy and energy system (including energy used to move the wheels on our cars, trucks and buses round and round) away from dirty and imported fossil fuels. In places like East Providence RI where TD Bank (as highlighted by Senator Whitehouse) is installing solar panels on the roof of their branches in close proximity to a Chevrolet dealer selling the Chevy Volt you can seeing that future taking shape.
  • Senator Whitehouse’s larger point about ending “foreign entanglements” is of particular significance, moving beyond the question of oil, to people in and around Rhode Island because the largest power plant in what is known in the wholesale electricity world as “Greater Rhode Island” (a geographical label of particular pride and amusement to native Rhode Islanders) is the Brayton Point Power Plant. That facility, just over the border in Somerset Massachusetts, has burnt coal imported from Indonesia and Colombia in recent years.
  • And the direct displacement issue is real: while there is less oil used to generate electricity these days it is worth pondering the overlap between peak solar energy generation (do we really need a link to show that it makes more electricity when it is sunny?) and those peak hours of electricity demand during the summer when it is hottest and air conditioners across the region are roaring away.

All of this suggests that the specific comment by Senator Whitehouse that Politi-Fact Rhode Island evaluated are solidly grounded in facts and accurate observations.

Clean Energy Solutions needed: Small, Medium, Large and Extra-Large

Nov 14, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

I often say that there are two phrases that a professional climate advocate, whether they like or not, ends up repeating.

The first one, which is not the subject of this post, is “The scary part is . . . ”  As in “The scary part is that Daniel Yergin might be right when, in his new book, he suggests that climate science is right and fossil fuels are a systemic problem AND that peak oil/gas theory is wrong and we are not running out of fossil fuels.”  But that is the subject of another and different blog post to be written and just one of millions of examples of sentences beginning “The scary part is . . .” that you can write or utter about global warming.

The second one is “We have to do that too . . . ” As in, “Yes, we need to conserve more and be more efficient but we need to build wind farms, like the one proposed off of Cape Cod, too.”   As so many folks, including the folks at Princeton who are more famous for wedges than dairy farmers in Wisconsin, will tell you big systemic problem like global warming requires a huge range of solutions.  As some like to say, there is no silver bullet, perhaps multiple rounds of silver buckshot.

This last point causes me to do something I am reluctant to do – disagree with a very smart guy who has a record of knowing how to get things built.  In an opinion piece, Jiggar Shah, the founder of the solar development company Sun Edison and CEO of the very laudable Carbon War Room disagrees with the wisdom of the “jumbo” solar projects being undertaken by large energy companies like NRG Energy that are chronicled in a recent New York Times article.

My suggestion is simple: We need to do both.  We need the vast network of distributed solar on millions of rooftops that Mr. Shah envisions.  We need to do smart development of large solar as well.  We also need to be far more efficient in how we light and heat all our buildings and how we use energy to travel.

The array of technologies we will need to address global warming range from new smart heating devices for our homes, sidewalks to allow safe travel on foot in all our communities, shareable bicycles like the one I took to work this morning, electric cars powered by clean renewable energy, trains that connect cities and neighborhoods, and intelligently sited wind farms and solar installations on land and in the water.

We need to be relentless in our search for new solutions, recognizing dead-ends like the old nuclear power plants that have proved to be an expensive dead-end while aggressively evaluating new answers.

The good news about solar electric generation, as a source of new answers, is that the price of this technology continues to descend at a very steep rate.

While this is very bad news for folks trying to build a business that depends on making a profit by selling these modules, it creates many new opportunities to deploy solar electric generation as part of a large scale clean energy solution; and to do so in the form of a whole lot of Small on many rooftops, a fair amount of Medium on large roofs and appropriate locations on the ground, some Large and, where appropriate, even some Extra Large.

A renewable energy resource . . . on the web

Nov 7, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

CLF is a proud founding member of Renewable Energy New England, a non-profit association that brings together companies working on and supporting clean renewable energy (including developers of wind farms, manufacturers of equipment that harvests wind and solar power, private builders of transmission lines that serve wind farms) with environmental advocates. RENEW (as the group is known) has a nice new revamped website worth visiting.

Solving our massive environmental and energy problems will involve a lot of saying no to bad projects but will also will require saying yes to what affirmative projects that can meet the needs of our society and economy in a cleaner and better way.

Environmental advocates like CLF will never agree with everything that businesses like renewable project developers say and we will scrutinize their projects and may even oppose some.  But we need to work with them as much as we can if we are truly serious about reaching our shared goal of a thriving New England.

Beacon Power bankruptcy: NOT “another Solyndra”

Oct 31, 2011 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

The unfortunate news that Beacon Power, an innovative technology company based in Massachusetts,  declared bankruptcy has inspired a bit of a media feeding frenzy centered around analogies to the failed California solar company Solyndra,  because Beacon (like Solyndra) received  a federal loan guarantee.

This analogy simply doesn’t hold up for the following reasons:

  • Beacon Power has a fully operational facility in Stephentown New York that is an operating model of their flywheel technology, a innovative technology that provides an essential service to the electricity grid, providing stability to the power system at a very low cost.  This stability will allow smoother operation of the power grid and allow for integration of many more renewable resources like wind and solar smoothly at a reasonable price.
  • The Federal loan guarantee is structured in a way that protects the financial interests of the taxpayers – giving them the right to be repaid out of the assets of Beacon before other companies and people that are owed money.
  • Unlike Solyndra, which was effectively losing a price competition with Chinese and other US manufacturers, Beacon makes a unique product that is being developed here in the United States.
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a mere 11 days ago, issued a detailed rule that requires utilities to compensate companies like Beacon that provide power system stability in a competitive manner.  This sets a clear trajectory for Beacon, and the handful of other companies providing similar services, to be economically successful.

Given the assaults on the environment and climate and continuing economic and social disruptions there is enough bad news out in the world without alarmist voices generating scary stories because of events like the Beacon bankruptcy.   While it is an unfortunate event for some private investors and employees of Beacon it is not a crisis for taxpayers and can and will not stop the development of innovative and important technologies that will be the backbone of a new clean energy economy.

Get yourself into (solar) hot water in New Hampshire !

Apr 21, 2010 by  | Bio |  7 Comment »

In the spirit of the Federal rebates for efficient appliances discussed in a prior post this  message just came in from Jack Ruderman, the Director of the Sustainable Energy Division at the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission:

Friends – I am delighted to report that the Commission is now accepting applications for the residential solar hot water rebate program.  Two rebates are offered:  a State rebate of $600, $750, or $900 depending on system output, and a federal appliance rebate of $750 per system.  The State rebate is funded by New Hampshire’s Renewable Energy Fund, while the federal rebate is funded with federal stimulus funds made available by the Office of Energy and Planning.  There is enough funding available from both sources to provide rebates for up to 660 systems over the next two years.

We anticipate that this program will lead to a surge in demand for solar water heating systems and will create new jobs in the alternative energy sector, while also reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and cutting emissions of greenhouse gasses.  This program will complement the Commission’s existing rebate program for residential solar electric and wind systems, which to date has received 285 applications for renewable energy systems across the state, and has created new business for 129 alternative energy businesses and electricians.

The Commission’s Order approving this program is attached.   The rebate applications are posted on the Commission’s website and can also be accessed directly with these links: State Solar Water Heating Application; Federal Solar water Heating Application; Step 2 Solar Water Heating Application

Many thanks to all of the stakeholders who participated in the public comment process and provided valuable input and feedback on the design of this program.

And please stay tuned – we will be bringing additional rebate programs on line over the next several months – one for commercial scale renewable energy systems and another for residential wood pellet heating systems.

Happy Earth Day!

Note that Mr. Ruderman tells us that only 660 systems will be paid for across New Hampshire by this program so if you want to heat your water without burning some fossil fuels then act now.