Massachusetts legislators reaches deal on solar power bill

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BOSTON (AP) — A legislative committee has reached a deal on a bill designed to help shape the future of solar energy use in Massachusetts by making it easier to get credit for generating extra power from solar panels.

Lawmakers have been debating proposed changes to the state's net metering program, which allows homeowners, solar power developers and municipal governments to sell excess power they generate back to the power grid in exchange for credit.

A six-member House and Senate conference committee agreed on the bill's final language late Tuesday.

Renewable energy activists and city and towns officials have pushed to raise the caps, saying existing caps have been reached in much of the state and some larger solar projects have stalled without access to the guaranteed revenue.

The deal would increase the caps, allowing more projects to go forward with the help of the credits.

Utilities have said they're concerned about lifting the existing caps, arguing that customers without solar panels are helping foot the bill for those who use net metering, saying that they're not helping cover the cost of the wires and poles they are using to send power back to the grid.

The compromise bill would allow utilities to impose a charge on solar users to help maintain the grid.

Another sticking point in the debate has been the reimbursement rate utilities must offer those who ship excess solar energy to the grid.

The House had pushed for solar developers to be compensated at the lower wholesale rate while the Senate favored a higher retail rate pushed by renewable energy activists.

Last year, the average retail reimbursement was around 17 cents per kilowatt hour.

The final bill would let residential and municipal projects continue to benefit from the higher retail reimbursement rate but would provide a less-generous wholesale reimbursement rate for community or commercial projects.

The bill now returns to both chambers for a final up or down vote before being shipped to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker's desk for his signature.

The bill cannot be amended.

The debate over the solar bill has heated up in recent weeks, and negotiators hammered out the final details.

In April, dozens of Massachusetts mayors and town managers sent a letter to lawmakers, warning that a change to a lower wholesale net metering rate could jeopardize planned municipal solar projects across the state.

The effort to raise the solar net metering cap is part of a larger strategy to increase the reliance on renewable energy in Massachusetts.

Baker has pushed a separate bill that would allow Massachusetts to tap into Canadian hydropower by authorizing long-term contracts between utilities and hydropower producers.

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