Gov. Baker pressing lawmakers on solar, hydro power bills

massachusetts state house elp

BOSTON (AP) — Gov. Charlie Baker is pressing state lawmakers to take action on two of his energy priorities before the end of the year.

Baker said one of the proposals would encourage Massachusetts utilities to enter into long-term contracts with renewable energy producers provided that the interests of ratepayers are properly represented.

Baker said the plan is aimed at helping Massachusetts tap into Canadian hydropower.

The second bill would raise existing caps on the state's "net metering" program that allows homeowners, businesses and local governments to sell excess solar power they generate back to the electrical grid in exchange for credit on their bills.

Baker said moving forward on that bill is particularly important given that a federal solar energy tax credit program runs out at the end of 2016.

According to renewable energy activists, 171 communities across the state have reached the cap and some larger solar projects have stalled because of it.

The Massachusetts Senate has passed legislation to lift the net-metering caps and direct the Department of Energy Resources to create a new solar incentive program when the state reaches its goal of 1,600 MW of installed solar capacity by 2020. That's enough to power about 240,000 homes per year.

Baker said his plan will help the state meet that goal as early as 2018.

"We've talked to a lot of folks in both the House and Senate about this and those have been pretty positive conversations," Baker told reporters after discussing his administration's energy strategy at Thursday's annual meeting of ISO-New England, the region's grid operator.

"If you install solar right now and you're in a capped area, you can still bill back to the system on the wholesale price, you just can't do it on the retail price," Baker added. "Our bill would raise the cap and make it possible for people to continue to bill back to the system at the retail price."

Caps are calculated as a percentage of each utility's highest historical peak load — the most electricity consumed by their customers at any one time. Private facilities are capped at 4 percent, public facilities at 5 percent in the amount of solar energy available for net metering credits.

Baker would raise those private and public net metering caps 2 percentage points each.

Baker has also long expressed interest in Canadian hydropower.

His bill would require Massachusetts utilities to work with the Department of Energy Resources to pursue long-term contracts for bringing hydropower into the state.

In a meeting with New England governors and eastern Canadian premiers last week in St. John's, Newfoundland, Baker said he hoped to make progress over the next few years bringing hydropower to Massachusetts, saying it would help meet electricity demands and increase the state's reliance on renewable energy.

Some environmental activists are skeptical, arguing that the tracking of any hydropower power sources must be verifiable, or else the state could end up buying Canadian coal-powered electricity during periods of high demand in the Eastern Canadian provinces.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, like Baker, has also expressed interest in adopting a more regional approach to energy costs. House lawmakers are currently working on energy legislation that could include some of Baker's concerns.

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