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Solar Developers Say N.H. Lawmakers' Compromise Doesn't Go Far Enough

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 The future of solar power in the Granite State was front and center in the New Hampshire statehouse Wednesday, as law makers presented a deal to extend a program that has been crucial to the development of the state’s solar energy industry called net metering.

All of the state's utilities are either approaching or have reached statutory limits on net-metering, which is the policy that gives renewable energy generators better rates for their surplus energy. Net-metering is lets solar panel owners spin their meter backwards by selling excess energy back to the grid at the same rate as they pay per kilowatt hour.

The program has been seen as an essential ingredient in every state that has a solar market of any size, and fights around net-metering (the most recent example of which can be seen in Nevada) have flared up all around the country.

Currently the statewide cap on how much solar can take advantage of this arrangement is 50 megawatts, and a proposed bill would increase it to 75 in the short-term. In the mean-time the Public Utilities Commission would be tasked with creating a long-term replacement to net-metering.

The deal is the result of months of talks between in an informal group of legislators and energy interests.

“This is not the bill I would have written. This is probably not the bill that any member of that working group would have written by themselves,” explained Bill Baber, a democrat in the House of Representatives from Dover, “It’s a legitimate fair compromise, it makes good sense.”

Developers not satisfied

Of the additional 25 megawatts added to the cap under the bill, 60 percent would be set aside for residential customers, meaning that only 10 megawatts would be available for large commercial developers. These types of installations have been a major factor in the state’s recent solar boom, and a number of large-scale solar installers told lawmakers that the extension of the cap was too small.

Ryan Black, from Massachusetts based Borrego Solar, said he and other developers have “multiple megawatts in their personal development pipeline,” and when you add up all the projects waiting in the wings “you see very, very quickly that 10 megawatts would be exhausted in a short period of time.”

Several solar installers suggested that removing the cap entirely while the PUC worked on a new tariff would provide them the certainty they needed to keep business flowing.

“Everyone has their opinions”

Electric utilities insist that net-metering results in higher electric rates for non-solar customers. This is because when solar customers are able to sell power back to the grid, they are often paying for most of their electric bill. So despite the fact that they use the poles and wires of the grid, they aren’t paying as much for their upkeep.

Rick Labrecque of Eversource said by his calculation that results in a subsidy worth somewhere between three and four million dollars to solar customers, though he noted “when we go to the PUC there will be a mountain of testimony to discredit that number.”

“Everyone has their opinions,” he added.

Labrecque didn’t get into how he came up with that figure, but suffice to say calculating the costs and benefits of solar is not uncomplicated.

For instance, Clifton Below, a former state senator and PUC commissioner pointed out since solar power is often being generated during times of day when electric power is most needed (especially on hot summer days, when air conditioning drives up the demands on the electric grid) the value of that energy would actually be quite high if sold onto regional energy markets.

“Solar systems, including those in New England tend to produce at higher than average priced hours, and many of those customers take energy back at lower than average priced hours,” Below explained, “So there’s an argument on the other side that [solar owners] are undercompensated on the energy and capacity side.”

The bill also includes a provision that envisions the end of net-metering as we know it in New Hampshire once and for all. Under the proposal, on December 21st, 2040 any customers who are still taking advantage of net-metering would have to transition to whatever new solar policy the PUC cooks up.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.

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