Gov. Maggie Hassan urged lawmakers to expand a state program that rewards homeowners and businesses using solar panels to generate electricity, despite protests from utilities that the program is being paid for by non-solar customers.
Hassan yesterday urged the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to approve a bill that would salvage the state’s so-called “net metering” program in the short term, while stakeholders and regulators work on a long-term solution.
Her letter arrived as the committee began hearings on the controversial bill before a packed room of utility representatives, regulators and advocates for the solar industry.
Under net metering laws, in place in 44 states, the owners of solar panels can sell electricity back into the grid on those days when they generate more than they use, and get a credit on their electric bills for the full retail rate per kilowatt hour sold.
So many have taken advantage of the opportunity in the past year that a statewide limit on net metering in place since 1998 has been almost totally exhausted.
“New Hampshire’s families and businesses have invested millions of dollars in our local economy by installing solar arrays and other renewable generation facilities that make us more independent and keep our money closer to home,” Hassan wrote. “This consumer-driven progress must continue, and I support efforts to lift the cap on net metering as soon as is possible.”
Under current state law, no more than 50 megawatts of solar energy can be accommodated in the program. New Hampshire consumes more than 4,000 megawatts on a hot summer day.
Many of the states with net metering laws have no limit on how many megawatts can be accommodated, and that’s where solar advocates would like to see New Hampshire go.
Utilities have lobbied against such a move, warning that the cost of maintaining the utility poles, wires, transformers, circuit breakers and the like have to be paid by someone. If too many customers become power producers, a shrinking number of consumers will be left to maintain the transmission and distribution system that benefits everyone.
Solar advocates counter that renewable energy produced right where people live reduces the need for transmission and, in the long run, will save money on transmission and distribution.
SB 333 would raise the cap from 50 to 75 megawatts, for the time being, while the Public Utilities Commission conducts a series of hearings to develop a more permanent solution, most likely by lowering the rate paid to solar panel owners for the electricity they sell back into the grid.
Compromise won’t come easy, as Wednesday’s hearing indicated. A spokesman for Borrego Solar, one of the largest commercial developers in the state, suggested a 200 megawatt limit, while others in the industry would like to see no limit.
In 2014, more than $10 million was invested in solar installations in New Hampshire, according to Hassan, who warned that failure to reform the state’s net metering law could slow or even reverse the fortunes of a promising industry.
“As we have seen with the opening of the SolarCity facility in Manchester, the arrival of other national companies like Sunrun, and the growth of many small local businesses, the solar industry is also creating good-paying, high-quality jobs, spurring economic development and boosting New Hampshire’s growing clean energy economy,” she wrote.
Richard Labrecque, supplemental energy sources manager for Eversource, told the committee the current program amounts to a $3 million to $4 million annual subsidy at the expense of non-solar customers.
“While there are benefits of increasing this cap, we need to make sure that in a region with some of the highest energy costs in the nation, energy customers who do not take advantage of residential solar are not burdened by high electric rates due to renewable energy subsidies,” said Sen. Jeb Bradley, committee chair and sponsor of the legislation.
An attorney for the Public Utilities Commission estimated that it will take about a year after the bill is signed into law for the PUC to complete its hearings and issue a new net metering tariff.