Massachusetts legislators and activists are pushing a proposal they say is necessary to make solar power more accessible for low-income communities. The legislation aims to reverse some provisions of a 2016 law that lowered the price community solar projects receive for the energy they send into the grid.
“I want to fix it because it is just plain unfair,” said state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate.
Some solar advocates, however, worry the details of the bill will steer development to affluent towns instead of the underserved neighborhoods it is meant to help.
At issue are the rates paid by the state’s net metering program. Net metering is a system in which owners of renewable energy sources get paid when they generate more energy than they draw from the grid. In essence, it allows homes with solar panels to sell power back to the grid.
Until 2016, net metering customers could receive credits for all the energy they sent into the grid. Then, three years ago, a new law scaled back credits to 60% of excess power for most new projects, with exceptions for municipal and residential customers. The change was promoted as a way to control costs for ratepayers, though some in the solar industry argue it was more about utilities’ desire to limit the growth of solar.
The result, say environmental justice advocates, is that low-income households now have an even higher barrier to adopting solar power. Because so many residents of low-income neighborhoods rent homes in multi-unit buildings, they don’t have the option of simply installing solar panels on their roof. Instead, they frequently turn to community solar, larger scale projects that allow a group of subscribers to buy power that is cleaner and often less expensive than standard utility service.
However, community solar projects are subject to the new, lower net metering rates.
“How could we be allowing compensation rates to be higher for people who are better off?” said Mark Sandeen, president of MassSolar, a nonprofit that promotes equitable solar development. “It seems hard to understand.”
Sen. Chang-Diaz and Rep. Russell Holmes have filed legislation in the Senate and House, respectively, that would restore the full net metering credit in “environmental justice neighborhoods,” defined communities with substantial populations of households that are low-income, minority, or lacking proficiency in English. The bill also includes a provision directing the state to include specific plans for reaching low-income and environmental justice communities when designing any future solar incentive program.
The situation as it now stands is simply unjust, Chang-Diaz said. But there are also practical reasons to make the law more inclusive of underserved residents, she said.
“We are not marshaling all the resources available to us in order to achieve a smaller carbon footprint if we are defining out of the participation an entire swath of our population,” she said.
The bill originated in the efforts of Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, an environmental activist and the pastor and founder of the New Roots AME Church in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. When the legislation reducing the net metering rates was passed, she was in the middle of a project to install solar panels on the church where she was then working, located in a community targeted by the new proposal. The change almost sunk the project.
Determined to remove the obstacle from future projects in neighborhoods like hers, White-Hammond contacted Chang-Diaz, her state senator.
Bringing solar to underserved communities is not just about the immediate environmental and financial benefits, White-Hammond said. The fight against climate change requires engagement from everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, she noted. Historically, however, solar developments have been few and far between in low-income neighborhoods, often leaving residents feeling outside of the renewable energy movement.
“As long as some communities are locked out of solar, they’re not going to advocate for it,” White-Hammond said. “If we basically need a citizens’ revolution, we’ve got to make sure that everyone feels bought into it.”
The definition of “environmental justice,” however, causes some concern for Jonathan Abe, the founder and chief executive of Sunwealth, a social investing firm that supports solar projects in underserved areas. State maps of environmental justice communities include sizable portions of towns like Lexington, Acton, and Wellesley, which are affluent, largely residential communities that also have significant minority populations.
The intent of the legislation is good, he said, but he would like to see minority status removed from the screening criteria.
“Otherwise you are fracturing the intent of where you want to funnel the benefits,” he said.
Chang-Diaz, however, noted that a map can’t tell the whole story of a neighborhood, even if it is located in a high-income town. And, she said, it is more important at this point to make sure the higher rate covers underserved areas than to worry about excluding neighborhoods.
“I think the more important question is making sure that we err on the side of defining in rather than defining out,” she said.
If the bill succeeds, attempts to develop solar in underserved areas will still face a logistical obstacle. The state has a cap on the amount of power eligible for net metering and the limit has been reached in many territories statewide. Even though her bill would not remove this barrier, Chang-Diaz said fixing the net metering rate is still an essential step.
“I don’t think it’s an either-or,” she said. “We can do both.”
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"It’s going to be a game changer," Chang-Díaz said. "I know it's going to take time for the MCAD to fill the staffing shortages that they've been experiencing in recent years, but this is a huge step forward."