- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 6, 2016

BOSTON (AP) - Renewable energy advocates are offering lukewarm support to a compromise solar energy bill that could be headed to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk, calling it a short-term fix.

The bill raises caps on the state’s net metering program, which allows homeowners, solar developers and municipal governments to sell excess power they generate back to the electrical grid in exchange for credit.

Solar power activists and municipal officials have pushed to raise the caps. Existing caps have been reached in much of the state and some larger solar projects have stalled.

Environmental League of Massachusetts President George Bachrach said Wednesday the group is urging lawmakers to approve the bill only because it would raise the caps.

But Bachrach said the rest of the bill falls short. He said the state will likely hit the new caps before the end of the year and will have to raise them again.

“The marketplace requires stability and certainty, which this limited cap increase does not provide,” he said.

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 use to send power back to the grid.

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

Rep. Thomas Golden said House and Senate negotiators crafting the final version of the bill tried to strike a balance between the demands of activists, the state’s budding solar power industry, utilities, and consumers who don’t have solar panels.

The Lowell Democrat said the bill will continue the state’s embrace of solar power.

“We have been extremely generous in our incentive programs with the solar industry,” Golden said on the House floor before the 159-1 vote in favor of the bill.

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

The House had pushed for those with excess solar energy 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 commercial or community projects.

That element of the bill drew the criticism of Rep. Jonathan Hecht. The Watertown Democrat said the bill doesn’t offer the same opportunities to lower and middle class people living in apartments or urban areas.

“This bill will slow the development of solar energy in Massachusetts,” he said.

The measure now heads to the Senate, which could take it up as early as Thursday.

If the Senate approves the bill, it will be shipped to Baker for his signature.

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