Light Board Approves New Solar Power Policy; Tariffs Run Until 2017

Photo: The Working Group shaking hands with the Light Board after turning in their recommendations. 

On a dank and rainy day in which solar panels wouldn’t have a chance to work, the Belmont Light Board – made up of the members of the Belmont Board of Selectmen – approved unanimously a new solar power policy for homeowners and small commercial businesses on Sept. 30. 

The policy and tariff, set forth in a series of recommendations by the Temporary Net Metering Working Group, was filed with the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs the next day, Oct. 1.

The recommendation’s acceptance ends years of contentious debate – including a bitter debate at the annual Town Meeting in May – between solar advocates who sought a progressive tariff to promote its use in Belmont and those who questioned subsidizing homeowners who installed solar power panels which they decried as an inefficient and a costly method to reduce carbon usage.

Holding 17 public meetings in a little less than two months, the Working Group – made up of economist and Warrant Committee member Roy Epstein who served as chair, attorney Stephen Klionsky and  “Jake” Jacoby, the William F. Pounds Professor of Management, emeritus at MIT’s Sloan School – worked meticulously creating the policy and setting the tariff, hearing from those who advocated for a highly progressive subsidy but always following its own scholarly course, rejecting the political rancour that fueled much of the previous debate.

“[The recommendations] are a triumph of economics,” said Epstein two weeks ago when the group presented to the Light Board a draft of the recommendations.

“What I’ve seen and what I’ve heard, you’ve helped unite people on this issue,” said Light Board Chair Sami Baghdady, of the Working Group which the board appointed in June.

The establishment of a stable tariff is expected to lead to more solar arrays on Belmont rooftops as it will provide solar companies “a level of financial certainty” as they provide their service in town.

In addition, the town will start an aggressive public information push promoting solar power to residents. 

The recommendations to Belmont Light included:

• Creating a tariff which will only apply to solar arrays with a capacity of 250 kilowatts (kW) or less, which encompasses residential and most commercial sites.  Potential industrial scale solar is not included.

• Each solar user will pay the same rate for the electricity it receives from Belmont Light as any other rate payer.

• When a solar user generates more electricity than it uses, it will be paid a “buyback” price of 11 cents per kWh by Belmont Light. That rate will be in effect until Dec. 31, 2017 when the price will be adjusted once a year using a formula created by the Working Group.

“It’s fairly automatic,” said Epstein.

• The amount due to the solar household for the electricity it delivered back to Belmont Light each month will be credited to the household’s bill. If the amount of the bill is negative, the household will not make a payment to the utility and the “negative” amount becomes a credit used towards the customers next bill.

• The policy has a limit of one megawatt on the aggregate solar capacity in Belmont. The Working Group said that would equal about 280 residential homes. Once that level is reached, the Light Board will assess if there are any problems and can then bump the benchmark upwards.

• The group also recommends that Belmont immediately capitalize on a 30 percent federal tax credit that is likely to expire at the end of 2016 by organizing a “Solarize Belmont” campaign, involving residents, citizens groups as well as the utility’s energy consultant, Sagewell, to encourage residents to “go solar.” 

The Group was split on addressing possible compensation for moving away from retail net metering.   The majority recommends a potential one-time credit to about six households who were the earliest adopters while the minority would allow retail net metering to continue for all current solar households for the next three years.  The Light Board will decide on a compensation policy at a later date. 

“[The Working Group’s] charge had two pieces to it; be fair and don’t discourage solar … and I think we did that,” said Jacoby. 

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