Time To Learn About Time Of Use Rates, A Pilot Program For Belmont Light Customers

Photo: Poster for the Time of Use Rates

Over the past two years, Belmont Light, the Light Board Advisory Committee, and the Municipal Light Board have joined together to explore an innovative rate design called Time of Use Rates for Belmont Light customers. 

The coalition is currently planning to run a pilot rate program to begin late this autumn and would like to invite customers to an informational public forum to introduce the community to the concept of Time of Use Rates, to give an overview of the progress already made, and to answer any questions you might have. 

The public forum will take place Monday, July 26 at 7 p.m. in the Select Board Room at Town Hall and will be live on Zoom, as well as broadcast on Belmont Media Center channels (Comcast – ch. 8; Verizon – ch. 28). The public forum will also be recorded for future viewing. A page has been set up on the Belmont Light website with information on the public forum, a feedback form, and many more details on Time of Use Rates. 

Light Board Names Asst. GM Craig Spinale To Belmont Light’s Top Post

Photo: Craig Spinale, Belmont Light

Craig Spinale will be dropping the “assistant” from his title as he was named the new General Manager at Belmont Light.

The eight-year veteran of Belmont’s independent electric utility was appointed to Belmont Light’s top position by the town’s Light Board – which is made up of the three members fo the Select Board – at a brief meeting on Monday, June 22.

“I really appreciate the confidence you putting me,” said Spinale, who will be the acting general manager on July 14 when Roy leaves until a contract is agreed.

“I’m excited to continue my work at Belmont Light and to lead the organization” in regards to green energy and Energy Saving Motors programming that we go to great pains to put in place, he said.

Negotiations on Spinale’s contract will get underway next week.

Spinale is the director of operations overseeing the day-to-day internal operations including utility line functions, customer service, meter operations, line operations, and engineering operations.

Spinale takes the helm from Chris Roy who accepted the GM’s position in Shrewsbury. Spinale was a finalist for the GM’s position in 2018 but lost out to Roy.

Before coming to Belmont in 2012, Spinale spent 14 years with National Grid as a Lead Design Engineer and a Supervisor of Distribution Design. Spinale holds an associate’s degree and bachelor’s of science from Wentworth Institute of Technology.

Belmont Light’s Chris Roy Leaving To Run Shrewsbury’s Utility

Photo: Chris Roy, Belmont Light GM

Belmont Light’s General Manager Christopher Roy, who brought much needed stability to a sometimes troubled utility, is leaving his post to take over the running of the Shrewsbury Electric and Cable Operations.

Roy told the Light Board at its Monday, May 18 meeting that his first day in his new position will be Monday, July 13. He is replacing Mike Hale, who spent 32 years managing the utility.

“I’ve really appreciated the things we’ve been able to do so far and really enjoy the opportunity to talk transition planning,” said Roy, who was hired two years ago last month. Roy said he’s willing to provide his suggestions on the transition including personnel moves in executive session.

“I guess I can speak for the rest of us that we were surprised and disappointed but also wish you well because when you’re good, you get outside offers and that’s the way the world works,” said Belmont Light Board Chair Roy Epstein.

Concord’s Assistant Director Selected To Head Belmont Light

Photo: Christopher Roy.

Christopher Roy, the assistant director of the electrical utility in neighboring Concord, was selected Monday afternoon by the town’s Light Board.

Roy “is a rising star in the field. He’s got a vision, a drive and the ability to take Belmont Light to the next level,” said Light Board Chair Adam Dash as the board voted unanimously for Roy who was interviewed by the board, April 9, along with the other finalist, acting Belmont Light General Manager Craig Spinale.

According to Rick White from Groux-White Consulting who facilitated the candidate search, Roy will be hired once a successful negotiation of a contract is finalized, The contract will be from three to five years with a salary ranging from $140,000 to $180,000. 

Tall and confident, Roy carries himself like the athlete he was a 6’4″, 240-pound tight end playing for Tufts back in 2004. In fact, Roy said he values the discipline and respect that a sports background provides him.

The assistant director in Concord for the past five years, Roy said he comes to Belmont knowing the way municipal utilities are structured today may not fit that same way in the future.

“The role of the general manager is to oversee your operation and make sure the utility is growing. In the short term, it’s personnel” with career paths and succession plans while long term, it’s rate adjustments and implementing the greenhouse gas reduction programs” in 2050. “But you have to establish a foundation today.” 

Rates in Belmont, Roy said, are poised to provide revenue for progressive initiatives … “everything is there, the potential is there. It just has to be unlocked.”

The board struggled with the decision saying the decision was “a close call; it would be a tough choice” noting how Spinale took over the general manager’s position in September after “a very difficult and tumultuous time,” said Dash, while also taking up the task of decommissioning the town’s three retired substations.  

I don’t know what more [Spinale] could do and he has done a really, really great job,” said Dash.

If there was one area that impressed the board was Roy’s ability to break down an issue and produce a solution. The members each pointed to Roy’s answer of one of the interview questions which required each candidate to make a seven-minute presentation on Belmont’s electric rates which are higher than surrounding communities and how to maintain or lower them as residents demand energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gases.  

Member Mark Paolillo – a self-professed “numbers guy”  – was “fascinated” how Roy dug deep into the Belmont data with an “in-depth analytical analysis of the rates” that showed many areas where Belmont could make great savings. Dash said Roy looked through the numbers and “saw the issue and called it out … and that shows some level of sophistication and then took the numbers and ran with it.” 

Roy also stated while under state general law he has the ability to set policy apart from the board, he would always first look to town government and residents priorities in a collaborative manner rather than strike out on his own. 

“He’s someone who is focused on building a team, the importance of cultivating that team … and a keen idea of making it succeed,” said new board member Tom Caputo. 

“Chris seems really passionate by public power and where he wants to go,” said Paolillo. 

Light Board Cuts Ties With Belmont Light GM, Will Not Renew Contract

Photo: Jim Palmer before the Light Board.

The Belmont Light Board announced Monday, July 31, that it would not extend an offer for a new contract to Belmont Light General Manager Jim Palmer. 

The decision by the three member board – the Light Board is made up of the Board of Selectmen – was made after an hour-long executive session. 

“The parties have reached a mutual understanding that the general manager’s contract will not be renewed,’ said Board Chair Jim Williams reading from a statement. A severance agreement and a possible part in the transition to find a new general manager was provided to Palmer.

The decision came two weeks after a contentious meeting between the board and Palmer during the general manager’s performance review which revealed a growing chasm between Palmer and other department heads in town. 

“It was time for a change,” Board member Mark Paolillo told the Belmontonian. “It was the right breaking point with the contract up and the substation complete.” 

“We need a general manager that is willing to work with the town and collaborate with department heads and because of that change was necessary,” he said.

An emotional Palmer told the board that he took over the general manager’s position seven years ago, Belmont Light “was in turmoil” and he accepted the job to protect his fellow workers. “I wasn’t taking the job for me but for the employees,” he said.

Palmer was the Light Department’s director of operation when in October 2010 he took over for Tim Richardson who was pressured to resign after irregularities in the department.

“Everything I’ve done has been being to the betterment of the town of Belmont” and that Belmont Light is now “like a jewel and you don’t want to lose it.” He recalled the construction of the new Blair Pond substation which will meet the town’s electrical needs for nearly 40 years as “the pinnacle” of his time as manager but the “stress of that project probably led to my demise, and that’s fine. I’m OK with that.” 

After the brief meeting, Palmer told the Belmontonian that the department had a lot of positive accomplishments in the nearly seven years since he was named interim manager, including the difficulties of building and then selling the new substation. Palmer reiterated that the stress of the work did create problems with others official in town, “at the end of the day, there is only so much you can do.” 

“You can’t dance with everybody,” said Palmer.

“I did the best I could do but … people want a fresh start,” he said. “And if you want a fresh start, you replace the top executive. It happens all the time in business. That’s what it is.” 

Palmer said all his memories in Belmont had been good ones, and it has been a “learning experience. And I’m going to take what I’ve learned with me and applying it where ever I may end up.” 

Sparks Fly At Belmont Light GM Performance Review

 Photo: A tale of two cities at Town Hall: (left) Jim Williams, Adam Dash, James Palmer.

Tempers flared, and accusations flew between the governing board of the town’s electrical utility and its general manager James Palmer as the two sides tussled during a discussion of Palmer’s annual performance review on Monday, July 17.

Residents would have thought they had entered Charles Dicken’s novel, “A Tale of Two Cities” as the overriding theme at the meeting of the Light Board – made up of the Board of Selectmen – was “the best of times” and “the worst of times” of Palmer’s tenure running the 119-year-old independent electrical utility.

Light Board Chair Jim Williams laid out board’s conundrum with Palmer in a nutshell; the general manager is “outstanding” running the utility that services 11,250 customers, but as a member of town management, “not so much.” 

With the review to be the foundation of upcoming multiple-year contract negotiation with Palmer – delayed by six months due to a misunderstanding – the Light Board noted it would weigh Palmer’s expertise in running a successful service while alienating many town officials.

Unlike a standard top down employee appraisal which was conducted in the past, Palmer’s assessment was a 360 review which enables a group of coworkers and officials to provide feedback on his overall performance. (The complete report is available via public records to request through the Town Clerk’s office)

The review demonstrated Palmer’s highest quality is his self-confidence including a positive attitude and an “I can do it” way of thinking. The Light Board gave high marks for Palmer’s take charge approach overseeing the construction and commissioning of the new Blair Pond substation, completing it on time and nearly $3.4 million under budget. 

But the analysis also spotlighted Palmer’s peers view the general manager isn’t the best at people skills, receiving “very low” marks in showing respect for other’s opinions and ideas while not creating an open atmosphere within the department and around town. 

According to the board, Palmer’s brusk attitude has alienated the general manager from nearly everyone in town. Light Board member Mark Paolillo said over the past three years, “I can’t name one town department which you don’t have problems with” then listing half a dozen agencies off his head.

“We need someone in this role with strong people skills, and you don’t get along with anyone in town,” noted Paolillo. 

That “go-it-alone” approach resulted in was one of Palmer’s biggest missteps in the board’s view when this year he unilaterally rejected a memo on clean energy regulations from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection on the grounds the state did not have the authority to impose those rules on a municipal utility.

Dash noted he and other members only heard about Palmer’s solo action through a media report.

“Maybe if it were brought to us we would have agreed, but we never had that conversation,” said Dash, who said his decision goes against the town’s Climate Action Plan which was voted overwhelmingly by a past Town Meeting.

“You had no right to do that,” said Paolillo as Palmer countered that he followed other utility decision.

Also, the board noted Palmer’s reluctance earlier this year to inform the Board of Assessors of the value of the new substation, which when it was released, provided Belmont a sizable tax advantage as well as “significant deficiencies” and delays in providing information during the annual audit process.

Palmer said he was shocked by the degree of the negative comments from town departments coming from the 360 review process that he said was used for the first time by the town in evaluating town officials. 

From Palmer’s perspective, the “cause of this strained relationship” is due to the lack of scheduled time between him and the board to discuss business, which relates directly to the series of disputes he has had within the town. 

He said one  “solution” included moving forward with a past suggestion of creating an independent commission that isn’t part of town government to oversee the Light Department.

He recalled when becoming general manager in 2010, which he said was in turmoil at the time, he worked closely with the then Municipal Light Board Advisory Committee, a 10-member board which acted as an unofficial conduit between the Light Board and the department. 

Under guidelines established by the Advisory Board, Palmer said he built trusting relationships with the MLAB and town officials. He expected the town to approve the new independent board in 2014, but due to changes to MLAB membership and mission which caused its virtual collapse, the Light Board has taken a greater oversight role over the Light Department which Palmer believes has sowed the seeds of distrust.

But Light Board Chair Williams told Palmer that while he can advocate for a new governing structure, “when you meet with the board, that’s the government” he has to work with now. Pointing to a conversation he had with a Belmont Police official, Williams said that agency “figures a way to manage” with the structure they have at the time.

Palmer said he was willing to “go more than half way” to work with town departments in a new open

With so much tension in the Selectmen’s room, even board members were snipping at each other on points of discussion. By meetings end, the board and Palmer had not resolved how they would “move forward” or if they could. 

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 (tinyurl.com/NBRTMArt9a). 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 (tinyurl.com/ResRep0815) 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

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

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. 

Arrivals, Departures and ‘Great Urgency’ to Solar Power Debate

Photo: Solar power in Belmont.

Last Tuesday’s meeting of the Municipal Light Board resembled Terminal A at Logan Airport: a place for arrivals and departures all in the same place.

Landing into the contentious debate to create a long-term solar power policy for the town-owned utility Belmont Light, the Light Board (which consists of the members of the Board of Selectmen) announced the formation of a new committee at their meeting held at the Chenery Middle School, on June 15.

Christened with the somewhat unyielding moniker of the “Temporary Net Metering Working Advisory Group” – or TNMWAG for short – the charge of the new three-person body will provide the Board that will be “somewhat independent view” on developing a policy which will “promote solar” in a “responsible” way, according to Light Board chairman Sami Baghdady.

The group, which include three voting members and two alternates “is a balanced group” to accomplish the board’s goals, said Baghdady

While the new group’s arrival was expected – it was negotiated on the floor of Town Meeting earlier in the month – the Light Board’s next move was a sudden, seismic change to the influential Municipal Light Advisory Board as Baghdady announced the board would not reappoint the current chair and vice chair of the influential group when their terms expire at the end of the month.

Chair Ashley Brown and Vice Chair Robert Forrester have each served for more than a decade on the committee. They also have been the leaders of those seeking to limit the size of the tariff that would benefit solar power users, contending that Belmont Light customers

After the meeting, Brown sternly addressed Baghdady after the meeting in a somewhat heated –albeit quiet – conversation centering on why the Light Board had requested both Brown and Forrester submit applications for re-appointment just last month. Brown contended their removal was political in nature, rather than a need to put “new blood” in the MLAB system.

The MLAB departures were in start contrast with the arrival of the appointed group. The body, which will take six-to-eight weeks to review and analyze a new net metering policy, was need as past attempts to structure a framework had created “this massive mistrust” among all factions in the solar power debate in town, Baghdady said.

The three voting members – with two non-voting associates – have heavyweight credentials, starting off with 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.

Joining Jacoby in the group will be 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.

The final appointed voting member is 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 appointment of the new members drew a wary eye from the dozen or so solar power proponents sitting in attendance. One solar power supporter questioned the political nature of the selections, pointing to Epstein’s public statements opposing a robust subsidy being advocated by proponents of great solar use in Belmont.

The supporter pondered if Epstein ever took money from oil companies in his employment as an expert witness, unaware Epstein was sitting behind him. The long-time Warrant Committee member took considerable umbrage to the accusation of being a “hired gun” for the petroleum industry.

For the proponents, the new committee will only stall an already delayed policy which, on its face, will affect a small number of users and costing the town – which they contend is overwhelmingly supportive of solar power usage – “pennies.”

“Why such Sturm und Drang” on supporting solar power, asked Claus Becker of Poplar Road.

Light Board member Jim Williams said solar proponents has crafted their proposal evaluated by a research firm for its fairness to non-solar ratepayers. Further delays will only promote uncertainty among solar panel installers that have written off Belmont as a viable community for their work.

“Just do it now,” said Williams, urging his fellow board members to support the solar proponents proposal that focuses on a series of charges, buybacks and tariffs that would subsidize residents use of solar power.

While his two colleagues were willing to make small changes to the existing policy, they did not appear ready to abandon the TNMWAG they just created.