Solar Flare Up: Town Meeting Rejects Petition as Members Voice Concerns

Photo: Town Meeting.

Tempers flared as Town Meeting members rejected an article hoping to spark a conversation about the future of solar power that one member called “too squishy” on the first night of the annual Belmont Town Meeting held Monday, May 4, at Belmont High School.

Tensions rose to a point unseen in recent years when the presenter of the solar power article accused some members of being too scared to debate the subject.

“What are you afraid of? A conversation? An argument? Having different opinions? It’s sort of like ‘let’s not talk about this’. ‘Let’s keep it under the table’,” queried Roger Wrubel, Precinct 5, as fellow members shouted out “point of order!” to Town Moderator Mike Widmer – who previously sternly rebuked a few members for straying from the narrow nature of article – who moments later admonished Wrubel for making accusations against a member of the Board of Selectmen.

Former Selectman Ralph Jones, who filed an successful amendment to the article to delay indefinitely the citizens petition, said bad blood has been boiling over in the past year during the crafting and implantation of a new set of rules for solar customers approved by the Light Board (which is comprised of the Board of Selectmen) in December, only to be set aside two weeks ago.

“[B]oth sides on this issue really want to fight tonight. A fight to the death … A fight to the pain,” Jones said, referring to a quote from “The Princess Bride.”

Jones than quoted a citizen who said “… Fighting over this issue is not helping our efforts to reduce carbon emissions. It’s just getting in our way.”

In the end, while the majority of members did not appear hostile towards solar energy, the legislative body once again was reluctant to support an article which was, at best, confusing and apparently counter to the true nature of the measure.

Wubel said just that, noting that the article’s aim, to bring a non-binding resolution to the voters that would ask the town’s state legislators to vote for a legislative measure that doesn’t exist.

“[The article] is to start a conversation on solar energy at Town Meeting,” said Wrubel.

Town Meeting also sent a message that it wished to follow the advice of the newly-constituted Light Board – with the inclusion of newly-elected Selectman Jim Williams and chaired by Sami Baghdady – to allow it to write a Belmont-specific plan to assist in promoting greater solar usage.

“This was a wake-up call for Belmont,” said Baghdady.

And while proponents of the measure – which would have placed a non-binding referendum on the town’s ballot – left the Belmont High School auditorium in a huff after its defeat, it was pointed out that the status quo in Belmont today gives the pro-solar power what they have long been seeking.

“Until a new policy is created, Belmont has full net metering. Isn’t that what they want?” said Baghdady after the meeting. 

Wrubel’s presentation spoke of the success of solar statewide but how past and future policies were affecting progress in Belmont.

The goals of this non-binding resolution is to ensure that Belmont Light [the town’s electrical utility] “treat their solar customers the same as solar customers as they are throughout the state,” said Wrubel, pointing out that 30 of 40 municipal utilities uses a concept called net metering that credits solar owners for the electricity they add to the grid.

Unlike other utilities in the state, Wrubel said what Belmont Light is doing is not providing retail pricing but a small fee to solar generators. That is one of the reasons Belmont has only 20 residents with solar arrays.

“The effects of the policy that the Light Board has been discussing and eventually pass really has a chilling effect on people willing to take on solar in Belmont,” said Wrubel.

Jones introduces Patty DiOrio, of the Belmont Municipal Light Advisory Board – which wrote the draft plan that is no longer being used – who said the article “effectively says that we shouldn’t decide for ourselves whether or not we have certain policies surrounding solar or any other type of green energy.”

DiOrio said many utilities are currently questioning net metering “so we are in good company” and much of that has to do with all customers paying a “subsidy” to allow solar users to use the grid but not pay for the systems upkeep that has a lot of fixed costs.

DiOrio noted that a state task force on solar power released a report last week saying “people using the grid should pay their fair share; it was a consensus agreement.”

“So you can vote no on this article and know that you are not anti-solar,” said DiOrio. “Why do we want to give up our local control? Why would we want to endorse a policy that is neither market-based nor cost based?”

Jones, who spent the previous weekend in a “shuttle diplomacy” to find a compromise between the two sides which proved unsuccessful, presented his amendment to the article tabling the measure indefinitely.

“I proposed postponing this for a while to let tempers cool down,” said Jones, pointing out the Light Board decided on April 22 to indefinitely propose a draft policy approved back in December that would have set a new policy on net metering long opposed by solar supporters.

“Article 9 in a non-binding sort of way instructs our legislators to vote in favor of legislation that does not exist and also asks you as Town Meeting members to vote for legislation that you can not read. That’s fairly rare,” said Jones.

Since any state legislation on solar power – none is being proposed currently – won’t be filed until the next legislative year, “it would be prudent to me to allow our Light Board to act. They have been elected to govern … local officials adopting local policy to meet local needs,” said Jones.

After making his “fight to the death” comment, Jones asked residents “to put down our verbal weapons, stop this fight and postpone Article 9” which the Board of Selectmen asked for favorable action.

During question time, Fred Paulsen, Precinct 1, said he would have voted “yes” on an up-or-down amendment that said are we in favor of net metering. “But [this amendment] is not that simple, the language of this resolution is complex and brings in the state level so we ought to work on this locally.”

Anne Mahon, Precinct 4, said that solar companies will not come to Belmont since the current conditions are preserved to be so anti-solar. “11 cents a household a year to support the people with solar. Is that really going to kill you? If it is, call me. I’ll pay the bill.”

Then, suddenly, things got heated. Paul Roberts, Precinct 8, said he wasn’t going to talk to Jones’ amendment but rather “we need a municipal electric company that really represents the values and priorities of this town” while this issue was “foisted upon this town by some ideological leadership on the Municipal Light Advisory Board.”

That’s when Widmer told Roberts he had moved beyond the scope of Jones’ amendment. When Roberts objected, Widmer would not have any more discussion on the matter.

Claus Becker, Precinct 5, questioned the claims by DiOrio that subsidies are provided to solar users. When Widmer asked that he returned to the narrow question before Town Meeting, Becker asked to “please allow the conversation that we’ve been elected to have to proceed.”

Widmer said while there are worthy questions to ask about global warming and solar power, “we are considering a motion for indefinite postponement, and it is incumbent for us to stick to our business.”

Baghdady, in answering a question on when the Light Board would begin debating new rules, said that Belmont Light is currently operating “right now pure net metering” and was going to remain that way until a new policy is adopted.

Despite given an opportunity earlier to speak against the postponement of his article, Wrubel asked to address the meeting.

“The reason that we brought this because at meetings that we … ” Wrubel attempted to say before calls from the members rang out of “point of order” as they felt Wrubel had veered off the subject.

Widmer allowed Wrubel to continue until he made an accusation that one of the Board of Selectmen told solar supporters “that you don’t matter” when drawing up regulations.

Widmer sternly told Wrubel his statements were “inappropriate” and “[T]his kind of accusation, I’m not going to put up with it. So, please, sit down.”

Julie Crocket, Precinct 5, and Phil Thayer, Precinct 6, supported continuing debate to help determine the sentiment of Town Meeting towards solar power.

But Bob McLaughlin, Precinct 2, said he supported Jones’ amendment “because I don’t know what we’re voting on. This is too squishy for me.”

“This has to come into a lot more focus on the vote of this board means anything,” said McLaughlin.

Nearly 70 percent of Town Meeting voted to determinate debate and Jones’ amendment was approved overwhelmingly. 

For Baghdady, it is now up to the Light Board “to come up with a plan that truly meets all the demands from both the solar supporters and Belmont Light. We have this opportunity which I believe we can accomplish.”

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