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.


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.”

New Electrical Substation, Transmission On Line for Spring 2016 Launch

After listening to Belmont Light General Manager James Palmer at public meeting Tuesday, Sept. 23, the best way to described the work to bring on line a new electrical substation and laying out a transmission route through town is “hunky-dory.”

Since being approved by Special Town Meeting in Feb. 2012, the town-owned electric utility proposal to meet the town’s increasing power requirements has been steaming along right on schedule, Palmer told a meeting of the joint meeting of the Belmont Light Board (made up of the Board of Selectmen) and its Advisory Board held at the Beech Street Center.

“Progress has been made, and we are hard at work to have this project up and running by the Spring of 2016,” said Palmer.

While the multimillion dollar project will effect everyone who turns on a switch in their home or business in Belmont, only a handful of rate paying residents showed up for the presentation which reviewed the steps taken so far by the utility and some of the challenges it could face in the future.

Since 2012, Belmont Light has moved on finding a location for the substation and obtaining the property, clearing regulatory hurdles and laying out the best route for the new electrical lines after securing easements and state approval.

“As you can see, we’ve made great progress in a short amount of time,” said Palmer.

The new Belmont Light substation. (credit: Belmont Light)

The new Belmont Light substation. (credit: Belmont Light)

Palmer said the project’s most noticeable accomplishment can be seen at the substation’s new home off Brighton Street on Flanders Road. The building that was once the home of Crate Escape, the dog day care business, has been demolished as the location is being readied for construction.

The town issued a Request for Proposal to build the $5 million, 10,000 sq.-ft. structure with bids due by Oct. 31 with a contract awarded soon afterwards.

“These are huge milestones,” said Palmer.

The new substation – which will house a new 115-kV single loop transmission line – is being built in partnership with the regional utility NSTAR. Rate payers will be on the line for $26.1 million in long-term bonding.

While out of sight, the transmission line bringing power from the substation to homes and businesses is also proceeding, although at a much slower rate. While Belmont Light will lay the line on the south side of the MBTA/Fitchburg commuter rail line, the utility will need to coordinate with the MBTA, which currently has a construction project at the site.

“This could impact our schedule,” said Palmer, saying it’s doubtful both projects could simultaneous work “side-by-side” at the same time.

As part of meeting the project’s regulatory requirements, Belmont Light made an initial presentation to ISO-New England, the independent, non-profit regional transmission organization that operates New England’s power grid and oversees the wholesale electricity market.

“If the project is deemed a benefit to the surrounding communities, which it is, then the cost of the transmission lines will be shared regionally,” said Palmer.

When asked by Slate Street’s Roger Wrubel if a positive ISO response to Belmont Light’s presentations would save either Belmont Light or NSTAR money, Palmer said both entities would benefit in the cost cut.

Moving forward this fall, Palmer said the town has issued a RFP for the transmission lines, and new major electrical equipment will be purchased along with the substation’s contractor named.

And while changing market conditions could increase the cost of construction, Palmer said he believes the contingency set aside in the budget will sufficiently meet any future “surprises,” said Palmer.