Will Massachusetts Solar Net Metering Caps Continue?

Solar energy is thriving in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, but the clean energy trend has slowed considerably due to the current cap on solar net metering. Contributing to the decrease is the imminent expiration of Federal incentives for installation of solar energy. Solar net metering allows customers who generate their own electricity from solar power to feed their surplus into the grid, calculated as a percentage of peak electrical usage.

Solar Net Metering Caps Create Backlog

The current caps particularly affect the MetroWest service grid, which is already buying back the maximum amount of solar-produced electricity produced by commercial customers required by state law. This situation has created a waiting list of commercial customers who would like to install solar panel systems but are delaying installation until the caps are raised to make the projects economically viable.

Local business leaders have expressed hope that the solar net metering caps will soon be raised. In late June, the Massachusetts Senate voted 37–0 to raise the caps to 1,600 megawatts, up from the current caps of 1,000 and accounting for approximately 4–5% of the total energy generated statewide. The decision was passed as a part of a larger climate change preparedness bill. Another positive indicator is Governor Charlie Baker’s recent announcement that he plans to file legislation regarding the caps.

Solar Panels Collonial

Solar Detractors Speak Up

Not everyone is in favor of the solar initiative. Associated Industries of Massachusetts has spoken out against the Senate’s move, indicating it could add up to $600 million to the total electric bills of Massachusetts customers who do not have access to solar power. The group has indicated a lift in the solar net metering caps would only put money back into the pockets of the companies installing the solar arrays. Solar advocates say that AIM did not take into consideration the benefits associated with solar energy and merely weighed the up-front costs. Massachusetts has the fifth highest electricity cost in the continental United States.

Unless the Federal government acts, incentives for businesses that adopt solar energy systems will be scaled down in December 2016 and Federal incentives for residential projects will be eliminated. The incentives have spurred the Massachusetts solar industry as the state ranked second in 2014 with 9,400 solar industry jobs. The cost of installing solar arrays has come down in recent years, making them more feasible even without incentives.
Although the initial cost of installation has gone down, solar supporters advocate that it is still too early to remove government incentives as a motivating factor.

Solar Debate Heats Up As Massachusetts Raises Net Metering Cap

The Massachusetts Senate convened last week and responded to on-going pressure by solar supporters with a vote to raise the solar power net metering cap. Net metering, part of the incentives offered to consumers to encourage clean energy development, allows utility users to sell their excess energy back to the grid. The cap represents a percentage of the peak energy usage and limits the amount of energy that solar power users can amass and sell back. Utility companies have argued against attempts to raise the limit, on the basis that consumers without solar power end up paying the difference. The decision to raise the cap was made to help facilitate the state’s goal of developing 1,600 megawatts of solar power by 2020.

The solar energy stipulation was a component of an expansive climate change preparedness bill, sponsored by Senator Benjamin Downing, who believes that the passage of the bill would approximately double the cap. The current cap limits net metering to 4% of a utility’s peak load for private consumers and 5% for public consumers with no limit on residential.

“There’s been a lot of discussion in the theoretical, but not enough in the actual, and the hope is that this is something concrete for people to react to, and I would hope that if the House or if the administration has a different way of going about this that they would put it on paper and we can get to what is our broadly shared goal,” Downing commented to reporters. The bill, which advocates the development of a plan for reacting to the potentially damaging effects of climate change and cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions, is headed to the House of Representatives. Its prospects remain unclear.

Regional utility companies have proposed that Massachusetts legislators support the imposition of a minimum fee on all electrical bills to include customers who generate most or all of their own energy in the cost of maintaining the electrical grid. If the bill is passed, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities would have the authority to disperse the costs associated with additional solar energy generated to other providers and service regions, thus relieving any single utility of the burden of the overall expenditures. The legislation would also shrink the gaps between service areas.

Currently, the cap has already been reached by National Grid, with Eversource close behind. According to Downing, the lines drawn between service territories are fairly arbitrary, and solar development in one county has the ability to benefit nearby towns covered under other service zones. Since the net cap was met this spring, green energy advocates have warned that enthusiasm and available solar projects may begin to disappear, putting Massachusetts at risk for losing its leadership position in the solar industry.

Since solar production began in 2007 under Governor Duval Patrick, the state has added 860 megawatts of solar energy to the power grid. With the end goal of 1,600 megawatts still looming, the solar community has been advocating for a lift to the net metering cap. Although unrestricted residential projects continue to move forward, larger projects for private and public properties have been put on hold. Janet Besser, vice president of the New England Clean Energy Center, has stated that while the sudden increase in solar power was not entirely expected, it is a good sign for the future, and her organization will work diligently to convince House lawmakers they would be prudent to encourage solar power expansion in the state by lifting the cap.

US Oil Fracking: Friend or Foe?

At least two decades of market uncertainty have kept Americans worried about the future of production costs and world market dominance. Fracking in the American Plains and middle regions have influenced a huge transition from complete reliance on near-Asian production, to the re-emergence of US-based goods and services.

The boom in the Dakotas and other fracking regions has reduced the gap between costs of production between the US and countries like China to a paltry 5%. This means, from the popularity of new domestic oil production, that it is absolutely viable for companies to stay in America rather than export production elsewhere. Fracking has been good for technical- and labor-intensive jobs in the field, but it has been meeting significant resistance from state officials concerned about the health of their lands and their constituents—New York has banned fracking in the state because of its potential health risks.

US Oil Fracking Is Our Foe

Fracking has been the source of some controversy. Its supporters champion its financial benefits, while its critics emphasize its environmental and economic hazards. For example, in early June, roughly 3 million gallons of the potentially toxic saltwater produced in fracking pipelines leaked into a North Dakota creek that flows into the Missouri River. Also, Kansas, Ohio, and Texas have all reported that they are experiencing many small earthquakes that rated approximately three on the Richter scale. There is substantial evidence that these quakes are in fact related to fracking.

There are also economic costs to consider, in addition to the problem of the “bust” following the “boom,” which North Dakota is now learning. While North Dakota has experienced a population boom, the development of the infrastructure has not kept up and officials are looking into “surge funding” to help pay for the cost of the expanding infrastructure—in one case, up to $1 billion. That funding is already in jeopardy because the taxes paid by energy companies are declining.

US Oil Fracking Is Our Friend

There is however, tremendous hope for American fracking. A glut of capable and skilled workers is available and waiting to make new US oil fracking wells produce oil like no other wells in the world. According to many reputable sources, the US markets are inclined toward supporting companies that use domestic supplies rather than imported oil sources. It is a magical market relationship that could spark a revolution if the right economic conditions fall into place. Whether the naysayers want to believe it or not, American fracking is an economic giant that could wipe out many modern economic concerns.

Statistics show that thousands of people are flooding to regions with fracking companies and the jobs they promise. Though many of the jobs are being put on hold because of temporary adjustments to international oil–trading indicators, the jobs have not been eliminated. With the foresight of leaders in the domestic oil futures market, US oil fracking dominance could outpace the production in other countries, put tens of thousands of Americans to work, and entice a revolution in domestic manufacturing.

Opposing Foreign Forces in Domestic Oil

Unfortunately, there are a number of reasons the American oil boom is being countered by market forces. Worldwide oil prices are in free fall. Fracking enterprises are creating the perfect conditions for the US as a whole to pull back reliance on foreign oil sources and look to the wells in its own backyard.
The highest echelons of market expertise are indicating that oil-producing nations sense a slowing of economies all over the world. This is even true in the United States. No matter how much cheap, new oil is discovered and put on the market, the lack of an industry to buy it will mean that prices will sink.

Does Massachusetts Need a New Pipeline?

Last year, plans from a Houston energy company to introduce a new natural gas pipeline in New England sparked fierce debate, and the conversation is ongoing. Kinder Morgan, introduced The Northeast Energy Direct Project, which is a proposal to build a pipeline that would connect Massachusetts to abundant natural gas sources in Pennsylvania shale fields. However, the plan has met with significant resistance from local communities.

The initial proposal had the pipeline entering Massachusetts in Richmond at the border with New York. The pipeline would then skirt the upper western edge of MA and end in Dracut. Local residents of the towns that would be affected were quick to fight the idea of subjecting their communities to the construction and potential danger for explosions. In the face of such intense opposition, Kinder Morgan has since replotted the course of the pipeline. It now veers north into New Hampshire before coming to an end in Dracut.

Although the pipeline now bypasses many Massachusetts communities, it still faces avid disapproval from locals.

Massachusetts uses natural gas to heat about half the homes in the state, with two-thirds of the state’s electricity also being fed by natural gas. The share is only expected to increase as dilapidated coal plants shut down. Last year, two of MA’s coal plants ceased to function with a third expected to die out in 2017.

In a state where hard winters are a commonality, this is a disturbing trend. Gordon van Welie, head of ISO New England, the region’s power grid operator, said the region is already running out of available pipeline capacity to provide power during times of high demand. This has created issues such as shortages and spikes in wholesale prices of natural gas.

The volatile fluctuation in heating costs can cause havoc for residents and businesses, not to mention chilly living conditions. Without a steady estimate of fuel costs, business owners have a hard time budgeting and allocating funds to shipping and wholesale costs. According to the Beacon Hill Institute, the introduction of the new pipeline would save small businesses $1,238 annually. Industrial businesses would save an $25,415 annually.

Opponents of the pipeline believe that introducing another source of fossil fuels to the state is not the answer. Shanna Cleveland, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said the region should pursue energy efficient practices more aggressively and find ways to keep the demand for natural gas steady. A study conducted by Black & Veatch has shown that another pipeline would be unnecessary if renewable power and energy efficiency can keep natural gas demand flat.


Quincy Officials See New Project Jumpstarting Downtown Redevelopment

In recent years, the city of Quincy has demonstrated an impressive commitment to its economic growth and revitalization. It was, in fact, the first city in the Commonwealth to receive District Improvement Financing (DIF), a state program that enabled the city to create a district improvement financing zone in Quincy Center. The plan is to use the newly generated tax revenues from businesses moving into the refurbished district to fund other important city infrastructure projects.

A Master Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program has also been designated for the downtown area since 2005. This program awards those businesses who invest in Quincy Center and create new jobs a 5% local real estate tax exemption.  These businesses also become eligible for a state tax credit.

The City’s downtown redevelopment plan has been in the works for some time and, in contrast to the huge downtown redevelopment plan announced at the start of 2014, the current plan seems financially sound and quite modest in scope. Quincy’s City Council established a new zoning district, increasing the height allowances, easing density and parking requirements, and instituting a streamlined permitting process. This zoning district encourages mixed-use development that should add to the vitality of the downtown.

Quincy Mutual Fire Insurance and Gate Residential Properties are financing a 400-unit apartment building and $100 million retail project which will be the first portion of the redevelopment. Construction on a six-story apartment building containing 169 units will begin in early 2015 with completion targeted for 2016. This building will have 12,000 square feet of both retail and commercial space. A second building will follow which will have retail space and 220 apartments.

The mayor of Quincy, Thomas Koch stated that “Quincy Mutual’s commitment to the city and its persistence in seeing this vision through to reality is nothing short of extraordinary. This plan confirms what we’ve known for some time — that Quincy Center’s potential is ready to be captured. The joint venture between Quincy Mutual and Gate Residential brings together two companies with tremendous expertise and who are committed to getting this project completed”.

Quincy Mutual has been in Quincy since its establishment in 1851. Quincy Mutual President and CEO K. Douglas Briggs also prepared a statement “Quincy is our hometown. More than half of our employees are residents of Quincy and adjacent communities, so what happens here has always been important to our company and the community. We are now partnered for West of Chestnut with a developer in which we have great confidence”.

The news release also included a statement from James Moran the executive vice president of Quincy Mutual: “We have the right team in place, and with Gate Residential we have a developer who fully understands this market and knows how to build projects with luxurious amenities that will appeal to individuals who value easy access to Boston in a relaxed urban environment.”.

Gate Residential, which is a division of Redgate Holdings LLC, also made a statement through its principal, Damian Szary, which said “West of Chestnut offers residents outstanding amenities and vibrant urban living in a historic community, conveniently located on the Red Line. West of Chestnut marks a new chapter for Quincy Center, and we’re excited to announce this terrific team that will build the type of project that will attract a new wave of young professionals to Downtown Quincy.”.

Other companies participating in the project are Graffito SP of Cambridge and Landworks Studio Inc., Sheskey Architects, and Duffy Design Group, all of Boston.

Quincy Center was due for a $1.6 billion overhaul by Street-Works, a developer from White Plains, New York, but the plan was deemed unfeasible and was terminated in April, 2014.

Worcester Chamber to Host Debate of Boston Olympics Bid

The Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce is about to host a debate discussing the pros and cons of Boston winning its bid to host the 2024 Olympics Games. The debate will be held as two separate functions, and is intended to discuss the possible implications for Worcester should Boston become the host city.

Representatives from the Boston 2024 Partnership, sponsors for the bid to bring the Olympics to Massachusetts, as well as their opponents, No Boston Olympics, will present their arguments to chamber members. This debate will address the potential impacts of Boston becoming the host city and Worcester’s potential level of involvement should that occur.

The discussion will begin on Tuesday, March 10, with opening statements from Richard Davey, former state transportation secretary and CEO of the Boston 2024 Partnership group. He will be discussing the partnership’s plan to run a cost-effective event using private funds, existing facilities and temporary venues. He will also discuss the organization’s belief that hosting the Olympics will greatly contribute to the commonwealth’s long-term growth.

On Friday, March 13, the debate will continue with statements from Chris Dempsey and Kelley Gossett, co-chairs of No Boston Olympics. The group believes that a pattern of overspending, years of construction, and few proven economic benefits for past host cities, make hosting an undesirable choice for Boston. They will discuss their view that the state should maintain its budgetary focus on schools and rebuilding transportation infrastructure.

A first time bidder in the Olympics, Boston beat out other major cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington D.C. to become the official U.S. entrant. While its bid is heavily dependent on the use of existing facilities such as Gillette Stadium and the TD Garden, several venues would have to be constructed before Boston could host an international event on the scale of the Olympics.  This list would have to include – at a minimum – a temporary stadium able to seat more than 60,000, a velodrome, and an aquatics center.

Boston’s bid was privately funded by the Suffolk Construction Company, and has continued to gather more than $11 million in private funds.

Unfortunately, attendance for these debates is restricted to Chamber members only and will not be open to public. If you are unable to attend, watch this space for further details as they become public after the debates.


Massachusetts a Leader in LEED-certified Construction

For the third consecutive year, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts ranks among the U.S. Green Building Council‘s Top 10 in the US.

The rankings consider sustainable building design, construction, restoration and rehabilitation and, in terms of square feet per capita, Massachusetts is fifth-best in the country for projects that adhere to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, adding 99 LEED-certified projects last year.

The top four states, from bottom to top, are: Virginia, Maryland, Colorado, and Illinois.

Matthew Beaton, the state’s Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary, said that the ranking was an endorsement of Massachusetts’s requirement that all new construction and major renovations meet the state’s LEED Plus green building standard. “Clean energy is yielding significant economic benefits with 10.5 percent job growth in the last year and 47 percent growth since 2010,” said Beaton.

The standard demands that energy performance for the new or renovated building be at least 20 percent better than the state’s building energy code, that the outdoor water consumption must be reduced by at least 50 percent, and that the indoor water consumption be reduced by at least 20 percent. In addition, principles of smart growth and smart energy must be promoted.

Presently, there are 37 LEED-certified buildings in the state, with 70 percent of them certified either gold or platinum.

Beaton said in a statement, “This recognition is another example of Massachusetts’ commitment to strengthening our economy, shaping our energy future and protecting our environment through clean jobs and technology.”

The numbers bear those comments out, with almost 6,000 clean energy-related businesses in Massachusetts, employing a total of over 88,000 workers.

Beaton also pointed out that Massachusetts was again – for the fourth consecutive year – named by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy as the top state in the country in energy efficiency.

Snow Throws Wet Blanket on Economy

Starting in late January, Massachusetts has been battered by major snowstorms that have blocked roads, buried parking spaces, and caused widespread power outages. MBTA service has been limited, and even shut down in places. Snow and ice continues to block roads, keeping people away from shops and restaurants and impeding industrial and agricultural operations.

According to Christopher Geehern of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, employees are having trouble getting to work, and companies are having difficulties distributing their products. Industrial businesses are also spending a lot of time on snow removal.

Here are some other ways the snow is impacting the economy.

The Mystic Generating Station, an eight unit oil and natural gas power facility on the Mystic River across from Charlestown, lowered output to keep snow and ice in the river from making the plant malfunction. Workers also shoveled the flat roofs on the facility constantly. Kevin Thornton, a spokesman for the plant’s owner Exelon, said that the plant put workers in a hotel and provided food to make sure that they could get to work despite the snow. The plant has about 100 workers and the ability to power roughly two million homes. “The biggest costs have been snow removal,” Thornton said.

Insurance broker Marsh & McLennan in Worcester is seeing more claims for ice dams on roofs that have caused leaking and collapses. Jerry Alderman, president of property and casualty in New England, expects an increase in auto claims from snow and ice as well. Snow removal services are stretched very thin.

Economist Michael Goodman said that all the bad weather in January and February could cost the state billions of dollars while, according to a study by IHS Global Insight, a one day shutdown due to snow in Massachusetts would cost the state’s economy about $265 million.

Beaton Plans to Lower Energy Costs By Implementing Solar

With his focus on “energy justice,” the new state Energy Environmental Affairs secretary, Matthew Beaton’s main objective is reducing energy bills with a plan for installing solar power on city apartment buildings.

At a roundtable meeting, Beaton said, “We need to look at the fiscal realities. A lot of folks are being really pinched right now by the cost of electricity, and we need to look at identifying any and every opportunity to address that price element, but at the same time make sure we’re staying on our path to a cleaner and greener energy source along the way.”

In response to Gov. Baker’s identification of a midyear budget gap of $765 million, Beaton noted that his budget team is working toward reducing that deficit as environmentalists applauded his team’s efforts “to restore environmental programs to 1 percent of the state budget through his [Baker’s] term.”

Beaton describes himself as both an avid fly fisherman and a rower. As a man who has hiked Mount Greylock and “read ‘Walden‘ on the shores of Walden” Pond, he hopes to build on the urban parks program. Save the Harbor/Save the Bay’s Bruce Berman praised Beaton’s approach toward the advocates, saying Beaton set “a really great tone.”

In response to several environmental advocates recommending that the state adopt efforts to adapt to the issue of climate change as well as efficient green energy, Beaton stated that he and Baker understand that “climate change preparedness” needs to be implemented in “coastal and inland areas.”

Although Baker stated that he would not raise fees or taxes, he did not restrict new fees recently implemented by the Patrick administration that raised the cost of visiting a state beach or park.

Elizabeth Saunders, the State Director of Clean Water Action Massachusetts, said that the fees associated with the state’s toxic chemical program would be worth “looking at” as they have remained unchanged since 1991, even though the law requires the fees for the program to “be kept in line with inflation.”

Worcester Groups Pitch Transportation Solutions – Seek Backers

In an effort to provide much-needed transportation solutions in Worcester, seven groups provided ideas for a National Science Foundation program. This program, which was also shared with the cities of San Diego and Chicago, seeks to provide solutions to the cities’ transportation issues that arose out of growing populations. Some of the innovative ideas included skyline transportation and environment scanning apps.

The groups present labored over their proposals for ten months. Though there was a grant program, the groups involved share the creative credit. Participants in the program suggested that the groups might benefit from partnering with businesses.

The Art of Science Learning as well as Worcester’s Incubator for Innovation sponsored the event. Worcester’s focus was on transportation while San Diego handled water resources and Chicago handled urban nutrition. Professionals, students and a healthy cross-section of people from around Worcester were represented.

One of the interesting things about the program is that each of the represented groups presented a unique approach. One idea was to make the bus system more demand-driven than it is presently. One of the groups crafted a middle school curriculum about transportation. Another came up with the idea of converting volunteer service hours into usable bus passes. One proposed program uses predictions about walking patterns to determine which sidewalks and walkways to repair. Another proposes helping patients coordinate bus trips according to their appointments.

One of the things that participants took away from the experience was that, if the desire actually existed, the community could adopt these options immediately, with experts predicting better momentum for the work will make a difference.