September 30, 2015

Gov. Baker makes pitch for renewable energy initiatives

Eagle wire services | Posted: 09/29/2015 |

BOSTON >> Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday pressed lawmakers to move swiftly on renewable energy initiatives designed to reduce energy costs and lower the state’s carbon footprint – including a bill to raise caps on solar “net metering.”

At a packed Statehouse hearing, Baker also said he’s open to exploring long-term contracts with utilities for offshore wind and hydropower.

The state currently doesn’t have the authority to allow utilities to pursue long-term contacts – up to 15 or 25 years – with large scale renewable energy producers like wind, solar or hydropower, said Baker, who testified on two of his energy bills.

The Senate has already passed legislation to lift the caps on net metering – the amount of solar power that can be sold back to the grid at retail rates – and direct the Department of Energy Resources to create a new solar incentive program when the state reaches its goal of 1,600 megawatts of installed solar capacity by 2020. That’s enough to power about 240,000 homes each year.

Solar net-metering caps are calculated as a percentage of each utility’s highest historical peak load – the most electricity consumed by their customers at any one time.

Private facilities are capped at 4 percent and public facilities at 5 percent in the amount of solar energy available for net metering credits. Baker would raise those private and public net metering caps 2 percentage points each.

Proponents of lifting the net metering cap argue that the limits have stalled solar installation in 172 communities served by National Grid – including in Northern Berkshire – where the cap has been hit. Some advocates have expressed concerns that Baker’s plan doesn’t go far enough.

The utility opposes lifting the cap.

Amy Rabinowitz, vice president and deputy general counsel at National Grid, said the utility company continues to receive proposals for public and commercial solar installations, and has projects moving forward despite the cap.

Baker told lawmakers he’s not only interested in lowering the state’s carbon emissions, but in driving down energy costs by diversifying sources of power, including hydropower – or a combination of hydropower and wind or solar.

“If they want to add a proposal to that that would add an offshore wind component as well, that would be fine,” Baker told reporters after testifying.

The road to offshore wind in Massachusetts has been stormy.

Cape Wind received approval five years ago to build the nation’s first offshore wind farm, a 130-turbine project in Nantucket Sound. That project stalled after opponents challenged it in court.

In January, federal officials auctioned off leases to more than 550 square miles of federal waters about 12 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard to two companies – Offshore MW LLC and RES America Inc. – hoping to develop wind energy projects.

Baker described the companies as “very big, capital intensive” players. He said he’d like to put offshore wind producers to the same market tests he’d like to put Canadian and domestic hydropower producers to as well as firms who offer wind and hydro as a backup or solar and hydro as a backup.

“If they give us proposals that don’t make sense economically obviously we won’t pursue them, but if they give us proposals that do make sense economically we’ll take them pretty seriously,” Baker said.

Some environmental activists are skeptical, arguing that the tracking of any hydropower power sources must be verifiable, or else the state could end up buying Canadian coal-powered electricity during periods of high demand in the Eastern Canadian provinces.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg both say they want to pass legislation. Baker said getting a solar bill passed is particularly important given that a federal solar energy tax credit program runs out at the end of 2016.

State House News Service and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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