Letter to the Editor: Ruban’s Call To End Solar Tariff Wrong For Belmont

To the editor: 

Belmont is on track to have the most successful solarization campaign in Massachusetts. This is the result of the solar tariff and buyback policy adopted unanimously last year by the Board of Selectmen, acting as the Light Board. The policy has been highly praised by some of the most committed solar energy advocates in town.

The hallmark of the new tariff, after years of debate, is fairness. It provides a large incentive to install solar panels. The return on this investment is likely to be in the 14 percent to 18 percent range, and is virtually risk-free. Try to match that anywhere else in the world today. At the same time, it is equitable to the other Belmont residents who cannot or wish not to install solar, for whatever reason. It is equitable because the tariff will result in a modest payment to Belmont Light to help cover the cost of the local distribution system that is still needed by every solar host. This system is only paid for by local residents and other Belmont Light customers.

As the chair of Belmont’s Temporary Net Metering Task Force, I helped design the tariff.  I am proud that it resolved a very divisive policy problem efficiently and fairly and has already led to more than 120 new solar hosts. I am in fact one of those new solar users. 

So I was very surprised to hear Alexandra Ruban state in the League of Women Voters’ Candidate Forum last night [Wednesday, March 30] that she wishes to end the solar tariff. Instead, she wants to impose a different policy called “full retail net metering” that is not fair to Belmont as whole at all.  Her proposal would give an even larger payment to the solar hosts, even though it is obviously not necessary because they have already chosen to install solar under the current plan. Her policy would also drastically reduce or even eliminate the modest contribution by solar hosts to cover the cost of the local distribution system.  

This is all the more surprising because Ruban also said last night that she wants to save money for the town. Then why pay a windfall to the new and existing solar hosts?  That windfall just has to be made up by other residents. That is unfair and brings us back to the divisive debate that we were able to end last year.

Roy Epstein

Cushing Avenue

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. 

The Return: Solar Power Article To Be Reconsidered by Town Meeting

Photo: Belmont Town Meeting.

The solar power article – effectively killed off by an amendment postponing indefinitely a vote on the measure on the first night of the Belmont Town Meeting, Monday, May 4 – has returned from the grave after newly-elected Selectman Jim Williams requested the Town Meeting revisit the contentious initiative possibly one more time. 

While voting for the amendment submitted by former Ralph Jones, Williams told the Belmontonian that the decision didn’t “sit well the day after” so he approached Belmont Town Clerk Ellen Cushman early Tuesday to request “a motion to reconsider” which is allowed under town meeting rules.

While Town Moderator Mike Widmer will inform Town Meeting on the reconsideration on the send night of Town Meeting, Wednesday, May 6, the earliest the actual vote on reconsideration will take place is in June, according Cushman.

At that time, Williams will speak on his request, discussion will take place before Town Meeting takes a vote on the reconsideration, which must pass by a 2/3 margin to be placed back before the members. 

If it does reach that plateau, Article 9 will be debated and will need to reach the standard 50 percent plus one vote to be adopted.

William said he believed his vote Monday, which passed overwhelmingly by Town Meeting, was “basically a ‘timeout’ for all parties to settle down and let the new Light Board do its work,”  referring to the board made up of the Selectmen which approves policy for Belmont Light, the town’s public electric utility. 

“[I] learned that the motion to postpone indefinitely was primarily used as a motion to dismiss and is normally employed by town officials when an article has been overcome by events and should be dismissed,” said Williams.

“This clearly was not my voted intention and so the decision to file for reconsideration was straight forward,” he said in an email Tuesday, May 5, 

Williams said, in his opinion, Town Meeting deserve to hear all sides debate the article “and … vote up or down on what [Town Meeting] want to do or should not be able to do.”
The article, which came to Town Meeting as a citizen petition, would place on the town ballot a non-binding resolution to request the town’s state legislators to vote for state legislation that would require Belmont and other municipal utilities to provide solar users favorable treatment when crediting solar owners for the electricity they add to the grid.
Yet many Town Meeting were incredulous with the measure when they discovered there is not state legislation for the legislators to vote on, and that the measure was presented to Town Meeting as a method to begin a discussion on promoting solar power. 

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.”

As Town Delays Policy, Town Meeting Considers Solar Power Resolution

Photo: Solar panels.

Just two weeks after the Belmont Light Board – made up of the Belmont Board of Selectmen – decided to delayed the start of a payment plan for residents who use solar power, Town Meeting will debate placing a non-binding resolution on the town ballot to ask if the town should support as policy a higher subsidy to homeowners who choose the solar route.

While Sami Baghdady, the chair of the Light Board and the Selectmen, said the delay was so legal language could be clarified in the documents homeowners are required to sign, he did not dismiss the possibility the Light Board – which oversees Belmont Light, the municipal electric utility – could lead to a change in the Residential Rate APV, the new set of rates for customers who use solar panels to generate electricity which was approved in December. 

“At this point, it’s a delay. May it result in a re-evalutation of the policy? I think it might,” said Baghdady after a Selectmen’s meeting on Monday, April 27. 

The Light Board OK’d the postponement after several of the 18 residents who are entitled to participate in Belmont Light’s new program voiced concerns on understanding the legal language in the agreement including a very strong indemnity provision that needed to be signed and returned by April 24. 

“So when [the board] met (on April 22), we raised several questions regarding the packet that went out to residents that were still unresolved. So we agreed to delay the implementation. Concurrent with that, so that necessitated a delay in the filing [by Belmont Light] to the Massachusetts Department of Utilities,” said Baghdady. 

With the new residential rate delayed, Town Meeting will likely take up on the first night of the annual meeting, Monday, May 4, a citizen’s petition from a group of solar power advocates seeking members approval to place a non-binding referendum to gauge the community’s support for either the newly-created buy back pricing program or one which provides a greater payback to households using solar energy. 

Under the newly-delayed plan – which took nearly two years and sometimes contentious debates between advocates and the Municipal Light Advisory Board which drew up the blueprint – residents who install solar power would pay the standard monthly fee every household pays to be hooked up to the Belmont Light system, and a new monthly charge of about $14 for installed capacity.

The new plan also reduces the money homeowners receives as a credit for energy Belmont Light “buys back” when the solar system is generating excess energy as the utility pays for electricity over the course of the entire month, without crediting the homeowner if the electricity is generated during peak-times and how much greenhouse gas emissions they are savings.  

Solar advocates contend they should receive additional credits, (or as the utility calls subsidies) for a myriad of energy and pollution savings.

While the debate in Belmont continues, a state task force on net metering and solar power issued its own report on April 30 concluding that it did did “not support raising the net metering caps in the short term absent a long term sustainable solution.”

“Rather, we believe it is extremely important that any adjustments to the caps be accompanied by meaningful changes to the mix of incentives and proper consideration of the role of the ratepayers,” it read.