Every state in New England is reconsidering their subsidies to solar power

By Jason Hopkins

Facing exorbitant electricity costs and other billing controversies, state regulators all across New England are reassessing the way they subsidize residential and commercial solar power.

Solar power, considered an integral part of the burgeoning renewables industry, has been widely adopted by progressive leaders in the Northeast. Not only does every state in this region implement some form of incentive for solar technology, but lawmakers have taken great strides in increasing their renewable energy industries altogether.

However, such an embrace of this intermittent power source has not come without its costs. The region pays far more for electricity than any other region in the U.S. and New England’s grid operator determined it was at risk of rolling blackouts due to continual closures of more reliable power plants. Additionally, lawmakers are being forced to respond to growing complaints from utilities and ratepayers on the implementation of net metering — a subsidy program that compensates panel owners for the amount of solar power they send back to the grid.

Many state governments implement some form of net metering. Under such programs, a utility company must compensate a solar panel owner for any excess power that is sent back to the grid, typically at a higher value than it’s actually worth. This provides an incentive for people to purchase solar panels. However, this arrangement has attracted controversy. Such a system of paying panel owners more for their power than it is worth ultimately raises rates for non-net metering ratepayers. Customers are paying more for their power even if they aren’t involved in a net metering program.

New England leaders have taken notice and are changing the rules.

Connecticut — rated in 2017 as the most expensive state in terms of its energy costs — was one of the latest to reform its solar subsidies. A bill that reduces the amount solar panel owners are compensated for the energy became law after it sailed through the state legislature and was signed by the governor in May. Maine had taken similar measures in 2017, with regulators putting in place a buy-all/sell-all system meant to streamline the process. The governor of Maine has twice vetoed legislation passed by state lawmakers to undo this.

“Rooftop solar has grown from a funny little blip to a mainstream industry that employs (nationally) hundreds of thousands of people and generates significant amounts of power,” Sean Gallagher, vice president of state affairs at Solar Energy Industries Association, said in a statement to Energy News Network. “Utilities have started to become concerned about the impact of rooftop solar on their business models.”

New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has been proactive in fighting the expansion of solar subsidies. He said he was saving his state between $5 and $10 million after vetoing legislation that would have raised net metering caps. Sununu’s office in April called on the state to move away from renewable energy subsidies and embrace more reliable sources of power, like natural gas and nuclear.

The Vermont Public Utility Commission determined in May that compensation to solar panel owners needed to be scaled back in order to balance growth of the program.

“These financial incentives also make net-metering the most expensive of Vermont’s renewable energy programs because the utility is essentially ‘buying’ the net-metered output at substantially more than market rates for comparable renewable energy,” the commission said in a released statement. “[A] number of Vermont utilities expressed concern about the effect on rates of continued high net-metering prices.”

Both Massachusetts and Rhode Island have adopted programs to help balance net metering costs.

The compensation program in Rhode Island, called Renewable Energy Growth, is an alternative that allows solar users to be paid at a fixed price that is even higher than the retail rate, but those who are involved are not allowed to benefit from various other solar subsidies. A program in Massachusetts, called the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target, or SMART, reduces incentives the more solar owners are compensated.

“It’s a tough time for utilities trying to figure out how they move forward in this world,” Janet Gail Besser, executive vice president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council, said of the changing landscape in New England.

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5 thoughts on “Every state in New England is reconsidering their subsidies to solar power

  1. Interesting things happen when it gets to -25° at night and the temps rise to -5° in the day.Think not? December ’89 had just this condition. Snowed some each day and was cloudy for just about the whole month. Granted I lived in Plainfield that year. You can just stack the old folks like cord wood until the mud season roll around.

  2. Mediocre Wind and Solar Conditions in New England

    Here is a summary of wind and solar conditions in New England, which apply to most of northern Europe as well.

    Wind and Solar Conditions in New England: New England has highly variable weather and low-medium quality wind and solar conditions. See NREL wind map and NREL solar map.

    – Wind electricity is zero about 30% of the hours of the year (it takes a wind speed of about 7 mph to start the rotors)
    – It is minimal most early mornings and most late afternoons/early evenings (peak demand hours), especially during summer
    – About 60% is generated at night, when demand is much less than during the late afternoons/early evenings
    – About 60% is generated in winter.
    – During winter, the best wind month is up to 2.5 times the worst summer month
    – New England has the lowest capacity factor (about 0.262) of any US region, except the US South. See URL.

    – Solar electricity is strictly a midday affair.
    – It is zero about 65% of the hours of the year, mostly at night.
    – It is minimal early mornings and late afternoons/early evenings
    – It is minimal much of the winter months
    – It is minimal for several days with snow and ice on most of the panels.
    – It varies with variable cloudiness, which would excessively disturb distribution grids with many solar systems, as happens in southern California and southern Germany on a daily basis.
    – During summer, the best solar month is up to 4 times the worst winter month; that ratio is 6 in Germany.
    – New England has the lowest capacity factor (about 0.145, under ideal conditions) of any region in the US, except some parts of the US Northwest.

    Wind Plus Solar:
    – Wind plus solar production could be near zero, if a multi-day wind lull were to occur, with snow and ice on most of the panels, as frequently happens during December, January and February.

    If we were to rely on wind and solar for most of our electricity, massive energy storage systems (GWh-scale in case of Vermont, TWh-scale in case of New England) would be required to cover multi-day wind lulls, multi-day overcast/snowy periods, and seasonal variations. See URLs.


    Shortcomings of Wind And Solar

    Variable and intermittent wind and solar electricity cannot exist on any electric grid without the traditional, dispatchable generators performing the peaking, filling-in and balancing. Battery systems could be used, but the cost would be well in excess of $400 per kilowatt-hour delivered as AC to the high voltage grid. See Note.

    NOTE: Wind and solar (before and after the meter) were 2.7 and 1.97 percent of all electricity on the NE grid in 2017, per ISO-NE. Total RE electricity was 10.17 percent (including before and after the meter solar), after about 20 years of subsidies. It should be obvious, past RE development was very slow, and future development likely will be just as slow. See URL.

    Wind and Solar as Dominant Electricity Sources Would be Too Expensive

    Very High Capital Costs for Wind and Solar: New Englanders will need traditional generators for at least several decades while RE would become the major energy source of the NE grid.

    The current plan is to increase solar from 2390.5 MW to 5832.9 MW by 2027, which would cost about (5832.9 – 2390.5) x $3.5 million/MW + 10% for transmission = $13.2 billion.

    The current plant is to increase wind from 1279 MW to 8493 by about 2035, which would cost about $36.2 billion.

    Very High Electricity Costs for Wind and Solar: Renewable energy proponents want to close down existing coal, gas, oil and nuclear plants, all produce electricity at less than 5 cent per kilowatt-hour, and they continue to obstruct increased, domestic, low-cost natural gas supply via pipelines.

    NOTE: According to her press release: Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey concluded in 2016 that “no new pipelines are needed” and that we “can maintain electric reliability through 2030 even without additional new natural gas pipelines”. See Appendix.

    The prices of wind and solar paid by NE utilities to producers are much higher than in the rest of the US, because of New England’s mediocre wind and solar conditions.

    Onshore/ridge line wind about 9.5 cent per kilowatt-hour
    Offshore wind at least 18 cent
    Large-scale, field-mounted, competitively auctioned solar about 13 cent
    Residential, rooftop solar about 15.1 cent

    The above prices would be about 30 to 50% higher without the subsidies, and even higher without cost shifting to ratepayers and taxpayers, such as for:

    1) The filling-in, peaking and balancing, due to wind and solar variability/intermittency;
    2) Grid-related, such as grid extensions and augmentations to connect and deal with wind and solar;
    3) Utility-scale energy storage, which is presently provided by the world’s fuel supply system.

  4. Hey I’ve got a better idea than solar and wind. How about installing a tread mill in every home and hook it up to generator? Then every one in these homes is assigned an hour of exercise to generate their electical needs. The more folks at home the more power. It’s a win win. The folks get in great physical shape, emotionally they will feel nice and warm with their “green” activity, electric rates would plumit, and the grid would not be overly taxed. Huoray, every body wins. Stupid, I know but the clowns in Montpelier might buy it.

  5. I truly believe highly variable and intermittent net metered energy is nearly always bonus energy on the grid. It’s the energy that’s nice to have in your back pocket but quite useless and hard to integrate. This is why utilities are concerned that mandatory integration of renewable projects puts baseload generators out of business, and sets us up for rolling blackouts. If renewables were reliable this wouldn’t be a concern. If you can’t lean on renewables then you have to keep baseload capacity online to fully support the grid. That ain’t free and neither is the overpriced netmetered power. We pay for both. Doesn’t make sense to me.

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