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. 

Net Metering Working Group Begins Under Solar Supporters’ Glare

Photo: Henry “Jake” Jacoby.

After more than 18 months of fits and starts, failed proposals and increasing acrimony, a newly-appointed working group made up of heavyweight experts created by the Board of Selectmen to craft a new solar power policy for Belmont, will kickoff its efforts Monday.

Yet even before the Temporary Net Metering Working Advisory Group is gaveled into existence tonight, July 6, at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall, solar power advocates have called into question the group’s make up and preserved views, even hinting to the Selectmen (which also makes up the Light Board that will vote on any new subsidies) to set aside any new policy in favor of its own tariffs.

“Once the Working Advisory Group delivers its recommendation, there is no reason to believe that it puts an end to the discussion,” Vera Iskandarian of Waverley Street commented to an article in the Belmontonian.

Yet Sami Baghdady, chair of the Selectmen and Light Board, said last month the group members were “independent” and “balance” and would provide much needed guidance to the Board and public on examining technical aspects to create a right-sized pricing schedule for residential solar panel electricity production.

Under its current guidelines, the working group has a mid-August deadline to present recommendations to the Light Board.

The working group’s three voting members include:

  • Henry “Jake” Jacoby, the William F. Pounds Professor of Management, Emeritus at MIT Sloan School, a leading expert on national climate policies and the structure of the international climate regime who Baghdady called “a big policy person and someone with a big-picture view” on the subject.
  • Stephen Klionsky, an attorney with Northeast Utilities, and an alternate member of the Municipal Light Board Advisory Committee. Klionsky has a law degree from New York University and a Masters in Planning and Public Policy from Harvard.
  • Roy Epstein, a long-serving member of the town’s Warrant Committee who is an economic consultant (PhD from Yale) and an adjunct professor of Finance at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management .
  • Attending the meetings as associate members will be Tony Barnes and Robert Gallant.

The group will attempt to develop a policy which will “promote solar” in a “responsible” way, according to Baghdady.

But solar advocates have criticizes the working group’s members for appearing in past writings to lean towards a less progressive price structure for solar owners. 

Many advocates are pushing a proposal they said was evaluated by a research firm for its fairness to non-solar ratepayers. Further delays will only promote further uncertainty among solar panel installers who have effectually abandoned the town.

Approximately 20 Belmont households and a pair of commercial sites have solar panels supplying electrical power for their homes and businesses and gives excess energy back to Belmont Light.

Solar power advocates believe recently proposed tariffs which required a higher level of payment from solar owners for infrastructure upkeep while providing lower overall payment for energy they produce has stifled the growth of solar in Belmont compared to the level of activity in neighboring communities. 

Those calling for a less progressive tariff believe solar needs to pay its way without relying on excessive subsidies. 

Letter to the Editor: Questioning Net Metering Working Group’s Bias

To the editor:

The last two weeks saw a flurry of activity as the Light Board moved ever closer to embracing solar. Last week, 450 signatures of residents demanding simple retail net metering was submitted to the Light Board and, in my opinion, the Light Board started changing the Municipal Light Advisory Board (MLAB) membership to be more responsive to resident sentiment.

The need for a membership change was made apparent at Tuesday’s [June 23] MLAB meeting when the outgoing chair launched into an ideological and unsubstantiated diatribe attacking residents and elected officials alike. As much as he is ideologically opposed to rooftop solar, residents clearly want more solar not less as manifested in three packed  public hearings, 130 letters, and two petitions. Residents simply want the same Net Metering policy that is practiced successfully in 98 percent of Massachusetts towns. The town doesn’t need such divisiveness, close-mindedness and unprofessionalism from an appointed official.

Jim Williams, the new Light Board liaison to Belmont Light, asked residents for a proposal and residents provided it to the Light Board. The Light Board didn’t deliberate or vote on the residents’ compromise proposal but it agreed to Williams’ suggestion to strike language from the 2011 policy in order to jump start solar installations this summer while a newly-appointed Temporary Net Metering Working Advisory Group decides on the residents’ proposal.

The Light Board’s method to create the Working Group was problematic, however. There was no prior public request for resumes, no written mandate and the deliberation didn’t include many names of qualified people who applied.

The Light Board decided that the Working Advisory Group has three voting and two non-voting members. The Light Board may have thought it was forming an unbiased Working Advisory Group but I found that two voting members opposed Town Meeting’s Article 9 ( One voting member is as ideological as the MLAB chair and has written publicly in opposition to retail Net Metering. Another voting member criticized residents’ 35-page comment letter to MLAB ( in writing last year. He favors utility scale solar not residential solar. Obviously, utility scale solar is not an option in Belmont. Thus, the biased creation and make-up of the group undermines the credibility of whatever the Working Advisory Group ultimately recommends. Once the Working Advisory Group delivers its recommendation, there is no reason to believe that it puts an end to the discussion.

It’s not too late for the Light Board to change the voting status of the Working Advisory Group members or add ordinary residents to the group to counterbalance the Working Advisory Group’s anti-residential solar bias in a majority of the voting members.

Vera Iskandarian

Waverley Street