Departing Light Advisory Chair Slams Light Board, Solar Advocates; ‘Pay to Play Politics’

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Photo: Ashley Brown, former chair of the Municipal Light Advisory Board. (Youtube.com image)

In an incendiary farewell address, Ashley Brown, the departing chair of the Municipal Light Advisory Board, blasted members of the Light Board – made up of the Board of Selectmen – and advocates of a progressive solar power policy in Belmont for trading political contributions and influence to advance an energy plan which would force Belmont Light consumers to pay an unjustified subsidy to a small number of “solar zealots.”

In a 20 minutes statement at his final meeting as chair of the advisory board, Brown targeted his wrath on the Light Board’s Sami Baghdady and its newest board member, Jim Williams, who “pay attention to the Light Board only when politics and campaign contributions are involved, and pay little or no attention to matters of much greater financial stakes and risks,” said Brown.

“Their actions clearly demonstrate that their primary concern is self-interested politics not the best interests of Belmont and its citizens,” said Brown, who along with fellow veteran, Robert Forrester, were informed last week by the Light Board, made up of Baghdady, Williams and Mark Paolillo, they would not be reappointed.

When asked after the meeting about the harshness of his comments, Brown said “it’s the truth. I stand by every word.”

Read Brown’s full statement at the end of the article.

Brown and Forrester, who have served on the advisory board for more than a decade, were strong advocates for a modest payment to solar power household – which number less than 20 in a town of nearly 9,000 consumers – for energy recaptured by Belmont Light while asking for payments for infrastructure and maintenance. 

Solar advocates have said Belmont is an outlier to other neighboring communities who have long held robust payments (or tariffs) to solar users – representing “pennies” to consumers while supporting alternative clean energy – which attracts solar installers to those towns. They point to hundreds of homes in Arlington, Lexington and Concord who are taking advantage of their town’s policies. 

For Brown, the debate over solar policy has been hijacked by money and politics to a degree that it will impact the running of Belmont Light, which is considered a “well-run” utility by nine of ten consumers, only four years after a managerial scandal that threatened the utility’s existence. 

Brown weighed in on Baghdady and Williams, saying “they have zero interest” on the operations of Belmont Light, noting that Paolillo has taken the time to understand electrical rate structures and the need for strong management. 

Brown claimed Williams “cut a Faustian bargain to get himself elected” in April’s town election with the support of “the solar lobby” to advocate policy that in a round about way violated a central tenant of his run for selectman, supporting an unfunded mandate to solar advocates.

Brown said Williams has been promoting “a solar tariff that was surreptitiously written by the founder of a solar company with the objective of maximizing the author’s profits by unnecessarily raising the rates of consumers in Belmont and elsewhere, and, indeed, the costs of installing solar itself.”

Since Williams’ campaign treasurer – while unnamed by Brown, public records identify as Claus Becker of Poplar Road – who was also the leading campaign contributor is a member of the solar lobby and would benefit from a progressive tariff, Brown claimed that involvement is a clear violation of “conflict of interest” laws.

The exiting chair said Baghdady has shown an “astonishing lack of decisiveness, backbone, and policy direction” as board chair, his position on solar power dictated by reading the “political tea leaves.”

Brown specifically pointed to an April meeting with the Light Board and the staff of Belmont Light, coming a month after the Light Board voted to indefinitely delay the start of a new rate schedule – known as the Residential Rate APV –which was approved by the board in December. 

Brown said Baghdady “resorted to  unconscionably berating and humiliating in public, a dedicated young women staff member at Belmont Light” (later identified as Lauri Mancinelli, Belmont Light’s energy resources manager), for “thoughtfully [trying] to implement the very policies on which [Baghdady] had himself signed off before becoming the head of the Board.”

“At no point, in this dramatic reversal of position did, did he ever offer a rationale that was based on policy, economics, or anything else of substance. It was raw, money and influence-driven politics,” Brown claimed. 

Brown was equally scathing in his view of  “a tiny fraction of customers who have been heavily subsidized by their neighbors because of a flaw in the tariffs, hold[ing] the town hostage to their demands for continued subsidies from their neighbors.”

“They have propagandized, spread misinformation, made innumerable and completely fabricated, ad hominum attacks,” in their efforts to secure a solar policy that could provide upwards of $20,000 to each solar household over a decade, financed by Belmont Light consumers. 

Brown claimed the solar advocates “turned to the traditional, and ethically suspect, methods of special interests, namely pouring even more cash into a political campaign to buy themselves a seat on the Light Board,” referring to Williams. 

The result of the politicizing of the town’s electrical utility is when “Belmont consumers receive their electric bills they may well be paying not only for electricity, but also involuntarily contributing to a funds that Light Board members use to reward campaign contributors,” said Brown.

Belmont Light will not and cannot survive such a regime, he said, advocating that the Light Board be transformed into an independent body whose charge “is held accountable for quality of service, productivity, and sensible policy.”

The town’s government structure review committee drafted legislation in Dec. 2012 an outline in which the Advisory Board would be a separately-elected commission. While it was received with a great amount of support from the Board of Selectmen at the time, the proposal was never advanced to Town Meeting.  

“Politics, especially of the cash and carry type is neither tolerable nor sustainable in running a municipal electric system,” said Brown.

Ralph Jones, a former Light Board member and soon to be a new member of the Advisory Board, agreed with Brown that solar advocates have dominated the agenda – “swallowing up all the oxygen in the room” – so that ambitious and creative carbon reduction programs, such as a climate action plan being developed by the town’s Energy Committee “can not get traction.”

In his final statement, Forrester said the Belmont Light “brand is sound” with its finances “is much improved” since he came on board.

“We have come a long way since the time when respected citizens of Belmont were advocating the sale of the department,” he said.

But he joined Brown in criticizing “the divisive and petty issue of small time politics” in which he unfortunately found himself at the end of his tenure. 

For the handful of surprised solar advocates attending the meeting, the Brown’s “rant” was “largely unsubstantiated,” said a solar proponent who wished to speak off the record. 

In fact, Becker, who was singled out by Brown, told the Advisory Board that he hoped that each side “could see each other as opponents and not as enemies, and I do note that when we talk one-on-one, it centers on what would be good for Belmont.”

Statement by Ashley Brown, former chair, Municipal Light Advisory Board. 

The governance structure for Belmont Light is dysfunctional.  We now have two boards, the Light Board made up of the Board of Selectmen, and the Municipal Light Advisory Board composed of appointees who are well versed in business, energy policy, and in the electricity market. One board holds all the power and virtually no expertise, while the other has vast experience and knowledge but no authority. 

When MLAB was established, the members of the Light Board realized that the electricity market had become increasingly complicated and that the town needed a governance structure that included industry- and business-specific expertise. The Selectmen concluded that a board of laymen was simply inadequate to protect Belmont ratepayers and the town’s investment in the system. It created MLAB to serve that purpose, with the expectation that eventually it, rather than the Light Board, would become the governing body.

While that never happened, the members of both Light Board and MLAB collaborated very closely.  While there may have been disagreements from time to time, members of both bodies shared a common objective of acting in the best interests of the town in overseeing a commercial enterprise entirely owned by our citizens. It was a shared sense of serving the public interest, not narrow political objectives, that forged an effective oversight arrangement.

That shared dedication to the public interest has now evaporated into a highly politicized, and frankly, ethical , morass, that threatens the viability of Belmont Light. What is particularly troublesome about this development is that it has developed at a time that Belmont Light is doing extraordinarily well. A very recent customer survey indicated a 91 percent satisfaction rating by customers, the record of service quality and reliability is absolutely superb, the energy portfolio is above the state’s standards for renewable energy, even though it is not legally obligated to be in compliance, and it is managing the biggest capital project in the Town’s history on an on schedule, on budget basis.

The management team, led by [General Manager] Jim Palmer, that has been assembled is highly competent and highly motivated. Moreover, because of management’s commitment and because of the frequent public meetings of MLAB and Light Board, the operations and finances of Belmont Light are more transparent than they have ever been.  Finally, Belmont Light has developed, in collaboration with the Energy Committee and very effective demand side management/energy efficiency program, as well as in the process of deploying smart meters and a new billing system that will enable customers to use energy even more efficiently and with less adverse environmental consequences. It is a record to take pride in.

Rather than taking pride in these accomplishments, we have seen a tiny fraction of customers who have been heavily subsidized by their neighbors because of a flaw in the tariffs, hold the town hostage to their demands for continued subsidies from their neighbors. They have propagandized, spread misinformation, made innumerable and completely fabricated, ad hominum attacks, … and argued, almost literally, that the planet would not survive if their Belmont did not continue to provide them with substantial cross subsidies from their neighbors, to help them pay for their investment in highly inefficient rooftop solar panels and to unjustly enrich the vendors who sold or leased them. 

They demand these subsidies even though they were already heavliy subsidized through tax credits and renewable energy credit programs, and despite the fact that  Elon Musk, the founder of the nation’s biggest solar vendor, Solar City, told the Edison Electric Institute last week that solar no longer required subsidies to compete once carbon was internalized into electricity prices, as all of new England has done. 

The debate over whether non-solar Belmont ratepayers should provide cash to solar customers (in some cases as high as $820 per year) has raged for four years. Despite the intensity, the governance system for Belmont Light remained intact and functional. In 2011, and then through implementing action last December, the Light Board made a decision that, would, over time, have phased out the local cross subsidies, while at the same time affording a seven year pay back for Belmont customers who chose to invest in solar.

In short, it would have lowered rates for non-solar customers while maintaining an attractive payback for solar hosts. At the urging of one member of Light Board, now the chair, there were also cash gifts bestowed on existing solar customers, compliments of the other ratepayers of Belmont.  Not coincidentally, several of those receiving the cash handouts, for which no economic justification was ever provided, were either contributors to his campaign or were relatives of contributors.

In a public meeting he said he was giving out the cash because the recipients were “pioneers.” That contrasted to his private statements, only minutes before, that those very same people were “bullies.”

The solar lobby, not content with getting a partial loaf, then turned to the traditional, and ethically suspect, methods of special interests, namely pouring even more cash into a political campaign to buy themselves a seat on the Light Board. 

They funded a very substantial part of the campaign of a candidate for the Board, who dogmatically supported the solar lobby’s party line in public, even though they were in direct conflict with his oft repeated opposition to unfunded liabilities and to local subsidies, and contrary to statements he made in private to members of MLAB. In effect, to get campaign contributions, that candidate cut a Faustian bargain to get himself elected.

Once elected, he tried, to have the Board adopt a solar tariff that was surreptitiously written by the founder of a solar company with the objective of maximizing the author’s profits by unnecessarily raising the rates of consumers in Belmont and elsewhere, and, indeed, the costs of installing solar itself. 

The Light Board member has also been trying to repeal a provision of the 2011 solar tariff that requires that solar generators eventually be compensated at market value rather than artificially high rates, paid for by imposing higher prices on non-solar customers. He quite explicitly advocated that non-solar Belmont customers should pay higher rates than they would otherwise be compelled to pay in order to heavily cross subsidize his campaign contributors. He has been doing so at the behest of his campaign treasurer, and biggest non-familial contributor to his campaign also a contributor to the campaign of the current chair of Light Board, who had the gall to state in an Light Board meeting, that solar pricing was a purely political matter, devoid of technical issues, in a public meeting of Light Board. That made transparently clear that his campaign contributions were intended to buy himself a subsidy, which in his case, amounted to approximately $820 per year for  the life of his solar panels, thus, probably amounting to  more than $20,000 paid entirely by his neighbors in town.

Curiously, the Light Board member pursuing the contributor’s agenda, never fully disclosed the identity of the person who provided the “tariff he provided. He also failed to disclose the fact that the “tariff” he was pushing, was written by a man whose business stood to be enriched by the measure being pushed. What is particularly striking about the Light Board member’s heavier is that he ran a campaign based on opposition to unfunded liabilities, but his first action as an Light Board member was to create even bigger unfunded liabilities by not allowing Belmont Light to recover all of its fixed costs from several of his campaign contributors.

Given the conflict of interest and the failure to disclose – that fact was also not disclosed by another contributor to the same campaign in his transmittal of the proposal to the other Light Board members in which he describes the author as a “resident” of the town, and failed to identify the fellow’s business interests, an act typical of the dishonesty of the subsidy seeking  lobby in town – that member of the Light Board should be prohibited from voting on any measure having to do with solar pricing in Belmont. His conflict of interest is patently clear, as is his links to the “pay to play” tactics of those who seek to put their hands in the pockets of everyone else in our town.

Intimidated by the outpouring of money and a false reading of the political tea leaves, as well as an astonishing lack of decisiveness, backbone, and  policy direction, the new chair of the Light Board, decided, without giving any explanation of his rationale, to retract the December decision. 

While he was unable to publicly articulate any policy reason for doing so, in private, he fulminated about the political consequences for himself if Belmont did not reinstate heavy cross subsidies for solar hosts and their vendors.

To disguise his inability to articulate any reason his complete reversal of position, he resorted to  unconscionably  berating and humiliating  in public a dedicated young women staff member at BL, later telling her “it was just politics.”

The deed for which he berated her was that she had thoughtfully tried to implement  the very policies on which the chair had  himself signed off before becoming the head of the board. The young woman, as a result, felt compelled to resign her position, a critical loss for Belmont Light, because she was [its] central person in establishing and coordinating energy efficiency and carbon reduction programs. 

What made the [chair’s] posture so bizarre was that he took her to task for, among other things, limiting the town’s liability for flaws in privately owned solar units, for requiring performance in exchange for payment, and for documenting the size and scale of the solar units, a matter made necessary by the nature of the cash gift the [chair’s] has bestowed on solar hosts. In effect, he not only wanted to subsidize the solar hosts, but also to relieve them of any liability for unsafe operation and to pay them regardless of whether they performed. 

At no point, in this dramatic reversal of position did, did he ever offer a rationale that was based on policy, economics or anything else of substance. It was raw, money and influence driven politics. Moreover, he refused to follow a prearranged schedule of joint Light Board/MLAB meetings to discuss these matters. He made it clear that he, who by his own admission, knows virtually nothing about electricity was going to work his political agenda and would not tolerate any input from experts either MLAB or staff.  Simply stated he did not want his political objectives interfered with by anyone who knew something about the subject. In short, he was insisting on governance by the uninformed, and subject to being heavily influenced by those who opened their checkbooks to clueless politicians willing to commit themselves to the self-serving agenda of those writing the checks.

Largely at the urging of some prominent people in town, including the third member of the Light Board, the chair, looking for political cover in a storm caused by his move to rescind the December, 2014 decision, announced [at] Town Meeting that a special expert committee would be appointed to come up with a compromise between net metering and the December tariff approved by the Light Board. In effect, the chair was telling an as yet unknown committee of experts what conclusion they should reach. Subsequently, the Committee was appointed.

Obviously, its recommendations remain to be seen, and the final actions of the Light Board are not yet known. Given past performance by the two members of the Light Board, it seems highly unlikely, regardless of what the committee recommends,  there is little reason to be confident that the Light Board will do anything  other than what is politically expedient.

For that reason, Belmont residents who do not wish to pay cross subsidize the campaign contributors to members of the Light Board, who object to the toxic effects of money and politics, should make their positions clear. For two member of Light Board, politics is all that matters when it comes to electricity tariffs., and so far the only people who are lobbying are those seeking to dip into their neighbors’ pockets.

What makes all of this even a more terrible omen for the future of Belmont Light, is that neither of the two Light Board members discussed have ever asked more than cursory questions about the large substation project, never uttered a single question about gaining pool status for the new transmission line, a multi-million dollar issue for the town, nor have they ever made any inquiry into Belmont Light’s energy purchasing or hedging strategies, one of, if not the biggest procurement activity conducted by the town. They have never even asked about pricing policy and the basis on which our customers, their constituents, are billed. Neither has any experience in or knowledge of energy markets, and neither has ever expressed any interest in learning about them, and unlike their predecessors, make no pretense of exercising due diligence in the way that corporate directors are required to do. Their oversight is strictly limited to issues they find to be of political value. 

Watching their meetings, one would have to presume that the only issue of consequence is solar pricing and that that is a purely political matter devoid of substance. Simply stated, these two members of the Light Board pay attention to the Light Board only when politics and campaign  contributions are involved, and pay little or no attention to matters of much greater financial stakes and risks. Their actions clearly demonstrate that their primary concern is self interested politics not the best interests of Belmont and its citizens.

Belmont Light has been able to serve the town because it has been run on a business like, non political basis, with a sharp focus on community service. The current majority of the Light Board, are now attempting to use Belmont Light as a vehicle for political patronage and favoritism. Amazingly, they do so without regard to, or even acknowledgement of, public policy or equity considerations.

While the pricing of solar energy is a public policy issue, neither of the two Light Board members being discussed have ever shown any interest in or even articulation of a policy or economic perspective. They simply pursue a course that they think is in their political interest and which rewards their campaign contributors. 

So when Belmont consumers receive their electric bills they may well be paying not only for electricity, but also involuntarily contributing to a funds that Light Board members use to reward campaign contributors. Belmont Light will not and cannot survive such a regime. 

The governance of the system must be reformed to assure competent, informed, and apolitical oversight. There needs to be a Board put in place that is run on a fully commercial basis and is held accountable for quality of service, productivity, and sensible policy. Politics, especially of the cash and carry type is neither tolerable nor sustainable in running a municipal electric system. 

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Comments

  1. wrd says

    So far, not one person has debunked Brown’s contention that Belmont taxpayers will be giving $20k over a decade to each residential solar install. This is typical for progressives who have no compunction to give away taxpayer monies to their special interests.

  2. BelmontResidentsWantOpenness says

    Ashley Brown is using Belmont Light’s lawyer to fight a simple public records request for his correspondence on the development of the town’s
    et metering policy (http://tinyurl.com/npzosml). Why would he go to
    such great lengths to fight a public records request unless he has
    something to hide? What do you suppose he’s hiding?

    If Ashley Brown is an attorney himself, who works for Greenberg Traurig LLP, why didn’t he use his firm to send the letter, but used Belmont Light’s Attorney’s services to send the response letter and run up a bill for the people of Belmont? This isn’t right.

    How can he say his emails regarding Belmont’s policy net metering creation are exempt from disclosure when he has volunteered to be on MLAB and work for the benefit of Belmont Light and the residents of Belmont?
    He is also trying to convince us that he isn’t part of a Board or committee when he was the Chair of MLAB through 6/30/15.

  3. Asthma Mom says

    What a wonderful through-the-looking glass experience it is to read Mr. Brown’s view of the world. A world where vested interests working for utility monopolies (and for Harvard centers funded by oil tycoons) are disinterested public servants, where average people who want cleaner air for their kids to breathe are “zealots,” where Selectmen struggling to represent the views of their constituents (oh the horror!) stand accused of selling their souls to the devil, and where rapacious solar installers seek to enrich themselves at the expense of society at large (seriously? solar installers? I mean, you have heard of the fossil fuel industry, haven’t you? they’ve been known to make a small profit here and there, with some minor consequences for the rest of us…I mean, have you ever witnessed an oil spill? or visited a fracking wastewater pond? or held the hand of an asthmatic child struggling to breathe?). It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. All I can say is, congratulations to the Light Board for finally standing up to Mr. Brown and all of his hot air.. It can only be regarded as one small step for the restoration of civility and sanity in Belmont.

  4. LowerGreenhouseEmissionsNow says

    What would be the principles of a good tariff design?
    1. A good tariff should be clear and easy to understand to a member of the general public who should be able to read the tariff and understand the financial implications to him or her installing solar panels without seeking experts to translate a tariff’s implications to decide to pursue installation or not.
    2. A tariff should be designed in a way that is consistent with the town’s goals of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. BL’s missions can be providing reliable electricity at a good price while also providing support for renewable energy.
    3. A good tariff should be as equitable as possible without undue burden to low income people, covering its fixed distribution and transmission costs, and neither overburdening non-solar customers nor discentivising solar to the point it makes solar non-viable. Balancing these goals is achievable without proposing and/or implementing a discriminatory policy toward solar customers, but not discriminating against a customer that decreases their electricity consumption through any other means.

  5. Belmont says

    The temporary net metering working group should take a look at this publication by the Regulatory Assistance Project for their recommendations:

    Sustainable Rate Design for a Modern Grid
    Page 32 more specifically at
    http://www.raponline.org/search

    The RAP is global, non-profit team of experts

  6. Jo says

    If you’re looking to understand the roots of Mr. Brown’s arguments, please read this Washington Post article

    “Utilities wage campaign against rooftop solar”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/utilities-sensing-threat-put-squeeze-on-booming-solar-roof-industry/2015/03/07/2d916f88-c1c9-11e4-ad5c-3b8ce89f1b89_story.html

    It is a multi-year strategy by the utility industry to disempower private citizens from powering their own homes with solar. Like the tobacco industry, they are spreading fear and misinformation. Importantly, as uncovered by the Washington Post reporter, they are intentionally trying to divide communities. Looks like their strategy is working in Belmont! Thanks, Mr. Brown, MLAB, and Belmont Light, for pushing it here!

  7. Travis says

    All of the talk about ‘efficiency’ and solar being unfair is ill conceived. These arguments are from the perspective of an investor owned utility like NStar. Not a municipal lighting department that we have.

    As a muni, we can consider things that are better for the town, not just for Belmont Light’s bottom line. That is one reason we give the town and schools discounted electricity rates. Bad for Belmont Light, but good for the town. In Belmont, like everywhere else, rates are set based on priorities. In Belmont, the town’s priorities, not the priorities of Mr. Brown or MLAB, should help determine the rates.

    Mr. Brown and MLAB have tried to run Belmont Light as a normal utility. Like NStar. If we as a town wanted NStar we would have decided differently several years ago. Instead we want a lighting department that is responsive to it citizens and supportive of town goals.

  8. Martin says

    Belmont is literally bordered on all sides by towns who support their citizens investing in renewable energy via the policy of net metering. Net metering is the mainstream policy across MA and most of America. And, while Ashley Brown seems to think his opinion is the one and only acceptable stance on the matter, there are many experts and studies which show that solar provides benefits for all ratepayers which justify a net metering policy. Yet, for the last several years, Ashley Brown has pushed for anti-solar policies in Belmont, never allowing for the hearing of the views of experts who don’t see the world the way he does. He is directly responsible for the vast amount of time that has been wasted on this subject for years now.

    And let’s be clear, despite Mr. Brown’s smears, there is nothing nefarious about a group of concerned citizens organizing via political action to elect leaders (our Selectmen) who will implement policies consistent with the values of the majority of citizens in our town. If it were possible to simply buy a Selectmen’s seat, then Andy Rojas’ contributors would have carried the day since Mr. Rojas raised significantly more money than Jim Williams. What actually happened in the election was good old-fashioned motivated citizens pounding the pavement and talking to their friends and neighbors about why they thought Jim Williams would be best for Belmont and that was enough.

    Ashley Brown thinks a Belmont where not a single home has rooftop solar is best. The majority of voters in the last election (along with many experts on the subject) disagree. In the recent “Power to the People” New Yorker article that Jim Williams mentioned in his comment, the author sees the rise of regular citizens using their rooftops to make the world a little more environmentally friendly as one of the more hopeful developments of recent years. I agree. Ashley Brown would prefer that we’d all just wait for the notoriously slow-moving utility industry to move towards less-polluting ways of generating electricity and that not a single family had solar panels on their roof. What a tragic cause to have spent so many years fighting for. He could have been doing a lot of good for Belmont during his time of service instead of waging such a small-minded battle.

  9. Sam says

    I meant to say Nstar not Ngrid. Also, it’s worth noting that most of the other MLAB members also contributed financially to the anti-solar BoS candidate’s losing campaign. MLAB has been clearly out-of-step with town sentiment on solar. If Belmont Light can’t get it right on solar, then it can’t get it right on its other carbon reducing efforts either. We need all the tools in the tool box to fight global warming. MLAB and Belmont Light need a serious attitude adjustment.

  10. Sam says

    In Mr Brown’s over-the-top claims of “a tiny minority of solar zealots”, he conveniently fails to mention that just last month over 450 residents signed a petition calling for retail net metering. His anti-solar candidate to which he contributed financially lost by a stunning 500 votes. Mr Brown needs to get over it and get with the program. Even Mr. Brown’s mighty ally Eversource (National Grid), isn’t opposed to residential(’25kW) full retail net metering. Mr Brown is fighting a futile, nasty rear guard action. Hasn’t he done enough damage to our town?

  11. Ashley Brown says

    Jim Williams comment is both disingenuous and uninformed. First, as is widely known, net metering, which he trumpets, is grossly inefficient, socially regressive, and contrary to the long run value of solar energy. Governor Baker just recently pronounced that the Commonwealth can meet it renewable energy goals without lifting the cap on net metering. The American Public Power Association, the national trade organization for all municipal electric systems in the U.S., is opposed to it. In fact, other than those who stand to directly gain from it, it is very hard to find anyone defending it as a pricing method. Even Elon Musk, the founder of Solar City, the largest solar installer in the country, has stated that solar power needs no further subsidies to thrive, ass long, as is the case in Massachusetts, the is a price on carbon. Mr. Williams, however, seems blissfully unaware of all of this. Indeed, he is is willfully unknowledgeable because that’s is what his campaign contributors want him to be.
    He claims to have had discussions about solar policy with me. While we did meet on a couple of occasions, most of the time was taken up with his explaining his views on Belmont’s unfounded was pension and health care liabilities. When I tried to explain to him that retail net metering created a whole new set of unfounded liabilities for fixed assets in which the Town invested, he literally said, “I don’t care about that.” In fact, when we talked about the fact that rooftop solar is the least efficient form of renewable energy, the least cost effective means of reducing carbon, was a transfer of wealth from less affluent to more affluent people, his answer was the same: “I don’t care about that.” the specifics policies that he told us he supported in regard to rooftop solar, we’re getting rid of local subsidies and banning solar leasing in town (a posiBelmont Light has never taken) both of which positions he recanted after talking with his campaign contributors and with parties with vested interests in driving up electric costs in Belmont and elsewhere.
    Me. Williams claims to have led an effort broker a resolution of th issue. That attempt can only be described, charitably, as a sham. He asked us for a draft proposal, and said the discussions wee solely between himself and two members of MLAB, Patty DiOrio and me, he asked that we not talk with anyone else about our discussion and requested very specifically that we not talk with his two colleagues on the Light Board. Patty sent him a proposal. What he sent back was the same position his campaign contributors have taken all along, a proposal he intended to take to the Light Board. He told us that was what “the boys” wanted. In short, misrepresented the process to us, violated his own ground rules about who would be involved in the discussions, and failed to budge an inch from the position his campaign contributors told him to take. The process was a ruse, pure and simple.
    What is worse is the sheer ignorance of the issue. He talks about the possibility of Belmont having 500 to 200o solar units, which, priced and situated correctly, would be a positive development. priced the through net metering, however, it would produce , based on the size of the unite Mr. Williams’ campaign treasure has, that would leave the Town with an unfounded liability for of $400,000 to $1.6 million per year on its fixed asset base. To make matters worse, Mr. Williams proposed in a recent meeting of the Light Board, that the units would be southern facing, a positioning that would increase profits for the solar interests while imposing increased costs on everyone else. There is a very broad consensus that wee facing solar is more efficient economically and more advantageous for th environment, but, of course, Mr. Williams is completely unaware, or at least, purports to be, because that is what his campaign contributors want home to say. Their self interest would be ill served by efficient positioning of solar panels and by pricing that rewards productivity and not not mere physical existence.
    Mr. Williams claims that uncerstainty is keeping solar out of Belmont. What he fails to note is that he has added immeasurably to the uncertainty. The Light Board approved a specific and clear tariff in December of last year, and then, at the prodding of Mr. Williams, ever faithfully looking to serve the interests of those who donated money to his campaign, led the charge to rescind that tariff. He then made an effort, wisely rejected by his colleagues, to,put in place a temporary tariff, drafted surreptitiously by a solar company who stood to gain from it, before the special committee appointed by the Board could make its recommendation. Apparently, the multiple tariff changes advocated by Mr. Williams created no uncertainty, but the idea advanced by the 2014 tariff that prices should be market based, did.
    The fact is that Mr. Williams, who, to be fair, makes no claim to expertise, knows almost nothing about electricity markets, nothing about cost effective carbon reduction, does not care about socially regressive prices, and is completely unversed in the very rich literature on the subject of pricing rooftop solar. Mr. Williams is correct when he says he ran a two issue campiaign, both of which were rooted in his principled opposition to untended liabilities. Unfortunately, his first initiative since taking office is to create even more unfounded liabilities.

    • jim Williams says

      For any one who is still interested in this dialogue, The New Yorker Magazine, published an article written by Bill McKibben, an environmentalist, entitled “Power to the People” with the subtitle “Why the rise of green energy makes utility companies nervous”. in its June 29, 2015 issue. I recommend this article to you as a clearer articulation (both pro and con) of the matter than you will read in these pages. With regard to Mr. Brown’s most recent reply to his own article, he continues to label and conduct personal attacks (i.e. ad hominem) as rhetorical devices to support his various positions. For example, it is, in fact not widely known or agreed that net metering is grossly inefficient, socially regressive, or contrary to the long run of solar energy as you will read in the referenced article. Also, the American Public Power Association is also known as an anti solar lobbying group similar to other utility groups. Also, Belmont’s own production limit at 2% will not have to raised either to permit a buildout of residential solar in Belmont. Also, Elon Musk is referring to the lowering of solar panel costs as the reason solar power no longer “needs” subsidies. Otherwise, Mr. Brown’s further assertions or hypotheses about what I think or what the solar residents (i.e. his”solar zealots” ) want are pure speculation and, at the end of the day, just his opinion without any basis in fact.

      As I recounted earlier, we did have lunch, but he reports our conversation out of context when I told him my only concern with regard to residential solar in Belmont is that it be available under a reasonable tariff to those residents in Belmont who wish to pursue it. Also, my position was that it should be subsidy neutral at the local level if possible. i , also, told him i was not concerned about leasing companies, social engineering, or electric cars in Germany when our conversation drifted in those directions. I mention that these topics will be familiar distractions from the central point of residential solar in Belmont for those who have engaged Mr. Brown in past discussions. I did lead a permitted effort to reconcile the solar resident group’s position with that of MLAB’s and we came very close, but were finally unable to get agreement. As a result, I had the solar installer who is working a solarization project supported by Cambridge come to my house and make a bid based on the tariff proposed by the solar residents and that of MLAB’s latest submission to the State’s DPU. The difference in my installation would be just over $200 per year which supports Elon Musk’s commentary above.

      Otherwise, as for criticism, my view is that it should always be welcome. My process is to listen and, if the criticism is factual, relevant, well intentioned and justifies a change, I make it or support it because there is no good reason not to. However, if the criticism is not factual or a change is not justified even if it is, the criticism and the critics are now themselves subject to criticism just as the original target was. In my experience, this part usually doesn’t go very well because the first movers usually don’t agree with that outcome. Then, matters become tiresome and so it goes. I think this is where we are in this dialogue. The next steps will be for the Light Board to consider in the ordinary course of business the findings of the Net Metering Committee which are expected before the end of this month.

    • Eric says

      Mr. Brown continues to repeat and repeat the same flawed arguments. Most importantly, he continually exposes his true feelings, “It is my way or the highway.”

      Over and over again Mr. Brown asserts that he and MLAB have the expertise to make ‘correct’ decisions (see article and many of his comments). This implies that NO ONE else in Belmont knows anything about energy and economics. Boloney. Citizens who have strong expertise have been trying to include evidence about the value of solar and refute various claims MLAB made. All of which have fallen on deaf ears. Why? Mr. Brown knows best, of course. He knows what is best for solar and knows what is best for Belmont. Ignoring town voices for other knowledgeable people is not someone I want guiding our town policies.

  12. Jim Williams says

    I believe the first paragraph of the article sums up the misunderstanding at the source of the dispute about residential solar in Belmont and that is Mr. Brown’s characterization of the citizens who opposed the residential solar policy imposed on Belmont during his tenure as MLAB Chair as “advocates of a progressive solar power policy in Belmont …to advance an energy plan which would force Belmont Light consumers to pay an unjustified subsidy to a small number of “solar zealots.””.

    Unfortunately for all of us, what Mr. Brown didn’t and apparently still doesn’t understand is that the so called “progressive” solar policy he refers to represents the current status quo solar policy in Massachusetts which is supported by both State and federal subsidies and retail net metering tariffs for roof top solar installations. The so called “solar zealots” are instead a group of concerned residents who tried to for more than a year to influence Brown’s MLAB to abandon a phased tariff approach developed by Mr. Brown which was, in fact, woefully out of step with current State, local and Federal policies. In fact, Phase 3 of Mr. Brown’s policy stream has been described a “bridge too far” and has effectively been abandoned as a policy option for that reason by his supporters.

    So, we are left to consider the “Phase 2” tariff which was approved by the then Light Board in December 2014. What happened next did result directly from the April 7, 2015 election, but not for the reasons Mr. Brown carelessly asserts. As a result of my election, Sami Baghdady was duly elected Chair of the BOS on April 8 by myself and Mark Paollilo. The solar resident group then complained to [Baghdady] about the impending filing of the Phase 2 tariff and a generation “agreement” that the solar residents were meant to sign by April 23. [Baghdady] was apparently inclined to support the group’s complaints as the Light Board had previously instructed Mr. Brown to negotiate a compromise with the solar residents and the generation agreement and the Phase 2 tariff did not reflect any such compromise. Accordingly, the newly constituted Light Board voted in the April 22 open meeting to extend the proposed deadline for the generation agreement indefinitely and to withdraw the Phase 2 rate filing that had been sent to the Department of Public Utilities on April 17.

    Subsequently, I had lunch with Mr. Brown and gained his permission to attempt to broker an agreement between the solar residents and MLAB to be represented by Patty D’Orio. Unfortunately, this effort was not successful. However, each side’s “must have position” was accurately determined and it would fall to the Light Board to vote on a new 2015 tariff. Under Mr. Bagiadhy’s leadership. a new committee with a short deadline has been voted by the Light Board and it is expected that we will hear their recommendation with 6o days of their appointment. Additionally, Jim Palmer and I were permitted by the Light Board to develop a solar communication piece that the Light Department could issue to encourage any residents considering roof top solar to sign up under the current tariff which continues to be retail net metering. We hope to have this in place by before July 1.

    This pretty much sums up the Belmont solar story. What actually happened as a result of including reference to Phase 2 in the 2011 tariff to improve transparency is that anyone considering a roof top solar installation was put off by the “threat”, if you will, of a new tariff on the horizon which would negatively affect their payback period. This is what solar installers refer to as the “uncertainty” factor of Belmont’s solar policy since 2011. In fact, it is this single item that has effectively prevented solar installations in Belmont since its adoption in 2011 Thus, the estimated 2,000 residential roof top solar possible home owners in Belmont have been prevented from having solar choice by Mr. Brown’s anti solar advocacy as Chair of MLAB for nearly three years. It is estimated that up to 500 homes of the 2,000 may choose roof top solar once a sensible rate policy is adopted. However, the Federal subsidy is set to expire 12/31/2016 and so time is of the essence. So, in truth, it is these 500 possible roof top solar installations and their obvious impact on Belmont’s carbon footprint that have motivated Mr. Brown’s so called “solar zealots” to action in the face of his obdurate opposition since 2011.

    As for the rest of Mr. Brown’s accusations with regard to politics and process around this matter, it’s obvious that he truly has no idea what he is talking about. As an example, under open access law, the Belmont BOS are literally not permitted to discuss anything related to the Town governance unless it’s announced two work days in advance, agendized, and conducted in an open meeting. So, I’ve actually had more discussion with Mr. Brown about solar policy than I have with either Sami [Baghdady] or Mark [Paolillo] and whatever’s been discussed with them has properly been in open meetings. So much for conspiracy. Also, for those know me, my candidacy and my campaign, I started on the road to Selectmen as a two issue candidate concerned about the Town’s unfunded pension and healthcare obligations. What I found on the campaign trail instead was that there are other urgent issues to be addressed as well such as solar. Also, I made sure no one gave more than Melissa and I did to the campaign at $1,000 per individual. We also didn’t raise as much money as we could have because we didn’t think we needed it as we were not electing President of the United States; we had enough to do what we wanted to; and we’ve paid all of our bills except for one for $50. Finally, the campaign received over 4,000 votes including the 30 or so members of the solar resident group. So much for quid pro quo. In fact, if Mr. Brown has the courage of his convictions, he should file a complaint with either the State’s ethics authorities or the Attorney General’s open access office. I wish Mr. Brown well even though I know his accusations are groundless. The sadness of this situation is the obfuscation of Mr. Brown’s own status and his many accomplishments by his final remarks which, in my opinion, are truly regrettable.

  13. Ashley Brown says

    There are plans developed by MLAB, which include dynamic pricing, smart meters, aggressive energy efficiency programs, expand transmission access, new substation, staff reorganization. Anyone following MLAB would know this. in contrast, for the past few months, the Light Board has ignored all of this, and focused solely on rooftop solar. Part of that is the result of songle issue zealots who have besieged them and poured campaign contributions on a specific Selectman, and part of it relates to the fact that 2 of the members of the Light Board have absolutely no knowledge of electricity and make no effort to inform themselves. The Light Board simply holds all of the power and possesses no knowledge or interest in overseeing Belmont Light. That is why the governance is absolutely dysfunctional.

  14. Ashley brown says

    The amount of money spent that is referred to above had nothing to do with lobbying. [Belmont Light General Manager] Jim Palmer was very clear. Belmont Light spent $50,000 to draft and flush out the details of the tariff decision made by the Light Board last December. The money was spent two implement a decision that was already made, so there was no one and nothing to be lobbied. The Light Board wasted that money when it rescinded the decision without giving any reason for doing so. The $35,000 paid to Sagewell, also had nothing to do with lobbying. Sagewell is the consultant that Belmont Light employs to develop and implement its energy efficiency and carbon reduction programs. Claiming that Belmont Light spent money lobbying on solar policy is a complete and total fabrication.
    In regard to planning, as Ralph Jones pointed out, getting the Light Board to pay any attention to anything other than solar pricing has been impossible. The combination of single-issue zealots and a Board, whose majority makes no effort to informs itself and never looks beyond parochial politics has mad it impossible to do planning at the Board level. MLAB, however, has been quite active, deploying smart meters, moving toward dynamic pricing, developing sophisticated energy purchasing policies, establishing and implementing effective energy efficiency programs, supporting Palmer in his complete staff reorganization, pursuing the substation/ transmission project on time and on budget, stepping up our renewable energy purchases and a host of other matters. Anyone who has attended MLAB meetings knows that to the the case.
    It is bizarre that anyone could deny that MLAB has been doing all of these things. The problem is that the current Light Board has refused to meet with MLAB and refused to take up any issue other than the net metering being sought by single-issue zealots who have no idea of how all of these matters interrelate to each other.

    • Belmont says

      “The $35,000 paid to Sagewell, also had nothing to do with lobbying. Sagewell is the consultant that Belmont Light employs to develop and implement its energy efficiency and carbon reduction programs”

      . Ashley, If you are such an expert on all things energy, including energy efficiency and carbon reduction programs, an you were advising BL for 10 years on MLAB, then why did BL need a consultant such as Sagewell?

      This proves that you are neither knowledgeable nor interested in energy efficiency nor carbon emission reduction programs, or you are getting a kickback from Sagewell.

      Since you are answering to comments, why don’t you tell us how much BL spends on lobbying or their muni light trade association?

  15. Belmont says

    franklin, did you get back up and evidence for any of Mr. Brown’s assertions?

    The BL manager stated that over $50,000 has been spent on the solar issue since December, and another $35,000 was paid to Sagewell. Did you get details on how this money was spent? How much has been spent on lawyers and lobbyists this year and in previous years? Belmont residents would be interested to know and compare this to the measly amount of energy a few solar hosts are not purchasing, which is being sold as a “subsidy”.

    This idea of a “subsidy” comes from energy companies, monopolistic utilities and their well funded lobbyists. Please research and present facts backed by reports and research.

    • says

      I believe the creation this month by the Light Board of a new three-member working group is being seen by the board as an independent arbiter of the wide array of claims and facts that both sides of the issue.

  16. Belmont says

    Brown said Baghdady “resorted to unconscionably berating and humiliating in public, a dedicated young women staff member at Belmont Light” (later identified as Lauri Mancinelli, Belmont Light’s energy resources manager), for “thoughtfully [trying] to implement the very policies on which [Baghdady] had himself signed off before becoming the head of the Board.”

    My Comment: This is patently false. Mr. Brown was NOT at that meeting but over 30 individuals were who can disagree with this statement. There was a meeting and a 4-page contract sent to 19 solar hosts written by lawyers was being discussed for clarification and a various questions were asked so people can understand in plain terms what 4 pages of a legal document included. Belmont Light’s lawyer was in the room and he could have jumped in to help her but did not.

    • Frank says

      Dave, I read the article and have attended some the meetings and disagree with Mr. Brown’s reading of the facts. (I’m not a solar owner, btw. Simply concerned about the planet we’re leaving for our children.)

      People that I know supported political change (contribution of time and money) not because they were going to get something in return, but because Belmont needed new leadership. (Mr. Brown seems to agree with the ‘leadership’ point.) This is as simple as someone contributing to either political party because it aligns with the ideals more so than the other. They want leaders that align with their values.

      The 20 (only 20 in a whole town!) existing solar owners have nothing to gain by giving money on the issue. As Mr. Brown’s diatribe clearly says, existing owners already where grandfathered for several years. They were not drastically effected by the new policy. So for them, there is no ‘kickback’.

      What is clear, though, is that the new rate policy that Mr. Brown supports limits solar adoption and hurts the town. It doesn’t line up with the town’s long-term climate and energy goals.

      Mr. Brown asserts a big conspiracy theory with lots of money flowing around in all directions. That just isn’t the case. Those people with the strongest existing interest, existing solar installations, already got their money.

      What Mr. Brown doesn’t do is provide any vision or insight into how the town, supported by Belmont Light, can reach its long-term goals. For a decade that he led the MLAB advisory board and there still isn’t a plan.

      So maybe I do agree with Mr. Brown:

      There has been a lack of leadership on IMPORTANT issues.

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