A GROUP OF 100 state representatives broke ranks with House leadership on Tuesday, urging six lawmakers trying to broker a legislative compromise on solar energy to hew more closely to the Senate approach on the bill.
A letter, signed by the 100 lawmakers, was sent to the three House members of the legislative conference committee trying to reconcile radically different House and Senate versions of the solar legislation. The conference committee has been meeting since last November.
The letter was unusual not only because nearly two-thirds of House lawmakers signed on but because all but two of them had voted to support the House legislation last November when it passed by a 150-2 margin. The letter’s signatories included Democrats and Republicans and 22 members who serve in House leadership. One signatory was Rep. Stephen Kulik of Worthington, the vice chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, which crafted the House’s solar legislation.
“This is very unusual,” said Rep. Cory Atkins, Democrat of Concord, who sent out an email to colleagues about three weeks ago inviting them to join her in signing the letter. She said another House member joined the group after the letter went out, bringing the total to 101.
Atkins chalked the House’s flip-flop on the issue up to several factors. She likened the House vote in November to a town meeting vote, where members endorse a measure even if they don’t support everything in it because they want to move it along to the next stage. She said she and other lawmakers who voted for the House bill also had been promised “another bite at the apple” when the House unveils its omnibus energy bill next month, but it is now unclear whether that bill will include solar in it.
Solar receives two types of incentives. The one targeted in the legislation is net metering, which is the rate at which solar power generators are paid for the electricity they deliver to the power grid. The other incentive is the solar renewable energy credit, or SREC.
The Senate passed a net metering bill last summer that raised the cap on how much solar power could be net metered but left the existing rate – the retail price of power, or about 17 cents a kilowatt hour – intact. The House waited until the day before the end of the legislative session last year to unveil its bill, which raised the cap slightly and called for dramatically reducing the net metering rate to about 5 cents a kilowatt hour. The Senate countered with a proposal that would have established a tier of net metering rates – 17 cents for residential and small commercial and industrial projects; 12 cents for low-income, public, and community solar projects; and 8 cents for all other generators.
The six-member House-Senate conference committee couldn’t agree on a compromise in the waning hours of the session and has been meeting ever since trying to find common ground.
Atkins said the point of the letter sent Tuesday was to clearly tell the House negotiators where most of the branch’s lawmakers stand. “Solar is here to stay and we want to do more to support it, not less,” Atkins said.
Atkins’s attitude is very different from the stance taken last fall by House leaders, who paid heed to warnings from utilities and business groups that solar power developers were making big profits off of subsidies financed by electric ratepayers. A letter circulated by seven state business groups said “the current solar subsidy program is unfair, unaffordable, and unsustainable.”
The letter sent by the 100 lawmakers on Tuesday took a very different tack. The letter said that a strong net metering policy at a minimum would maintain the 17-cent rate for community-shared solar, low-income, and municipal projects until an analysis of the costs and benefits of net metering can be done.
“We support your desire to reduce costs,” the letter said. “However, it is important to note that net metering credits are not subsidies but rather compensation for the value provided by solar generation exported to the grid….We hope you will look to reduce costs not by arbitrarily cutting the net metering credit value, but rather by reforming the SREC program, which was designed to be an incentive for solar development.”