Massachusetts State Representative Robert DeLeo (follow him on Twitter), Senate President Stan Rosenberg (also on Twitter!), and others should all be applauded for separating the States net-metering caps from the rest of the energy-related legislation that’s currently winding its way through Capitol Hill. The filling of the caps has stalled several solar projects across the state, due to the lack of certainty on the issue, so the sooner there is clarity on that, the sooner they can proceed.

That net-metering, on its own, can not break Massachusetts’ dependance on fossil fuels, is certain. What it can do though is dramatically reduce our consumption of those fuels – Bloomberg recently confirmed that solar and wind power are LOWERING the amount of time fossil fuel plants are running – and we can push this success even further by allowing solar panel owners fair compensation for clean energy generated and sent to the grid.

Not only does this allow for reasonable returns by solar panel owners, it brings with it broad benefits to the local grid (greater stability, less infrastructure upgrades) and society at large through better air quality through the reduction of pollutants and greenhouse gasses, and through local job creation. Lets not forget that solar power has created far more jobs than the fossil fuel industry in recent years.

Without net-metering, homeowners and business owners alike would have little incentive to install more capacity than they consume during their peak usage hours. Homeowners, whose peak usage is typically in the late afternoon or evening, could find it entirely uneconomical to  install solar panels at all if not for net metering. Is this the message we want to send? We need to continue our current path to move people from fossil fuels for their energy usage, not kill off a successful program that has already shown itself to be working exactly as hoped.

Net-metering, or distributed generation (to use energy-company parlance), is something we should encourage, not discourage, because it allows us to build out our energy infrastructure now, rather than wait years and years for the completion of a gas pipeline across the forests of the western part of Massachusetts or for new power lines, clear cutting large swaths of land, to deliver energy from Canada.

It is unfortunate – but expected – that energy company have been pushing back against net-metering, both in Massachusetts, and across the country. From proposing a special surcharge that would only apply to the owners of grid-connected solar panels, to trying to play the class warfare card by saying that wealthy solar panel owners are taking advantage of the less advantaged, – it’s clear that the utilities are pulling out all the stops to quash net-metering. The utilities Fear Solar Power. They’ve said it themselves.

Why do the utilities fear Solar Power and Net-Metering?

We know the answer – the utilities are pretty clear about their disdain for net metering. Solar power does what the utilities do – but cleaner, cheaper and smarter. It’s true, solar panel owners receive a subsidy from the “system” (from utilities and State and Federal Governments), but studies find net-metering to be a net benefit for ALL consumers rather than the detriment that utilities portray it as. In fact, some studies find that the benefit that solar panel owners receive from net-metering is exceeded by the value they deliver to society.

Seeing that energy is a subsidized industry, and that the fossil fuel portion is a huge recipient of both direct and indirect subsidies it is beyond hypocrisy for Big Energy claim that solar is being given an unfair advantage. In fact, when looking at a breakdown of subsidies received, what’s received by solar is truly a drop in the bucket.

On the surface of this first commonly used graph it would seem to bolster the energy companies arguments…

Comparison of energy subsidy by fuel type - 1999 vs 2007 Source:

Comparison of energy subsidy by fuel type – 1999 vs 2007

It’s only when you drill further that the picture becomes more clear:


Renewable Energy subsidies 2007 breakdown Source:

Renewable Energy subsidies 2007 breakdown

Yes – the vast majority of renewable subsidies have flown to corn producers (ethanol), hydropower and wind. Solar doesn’t even register against the other renewables, let alone against the direct subsidies that coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear have all received (The IMF says the United States gives $699 billion to fossil fuel companies EVERY YEAR in the form of subsidies, incentives, avoided health care costs and avoided external costs, for little things such as climate change).

Seriously? The Fossil Fuel industry needs quiet themselves about tax breaks. Their lawyers and lobbyists have literally written the laws in many of the states that they operate in.

We, the people, have provided the utilities near monopoly-power, with the understanding that their role is to build out and maintain the electric grid and provide power to those who need it. Those utilities never argued against the protected position the were given, and they took full advantage of deregulation when it served their goal of increasing profits. But it’s clear they only were for deregulation when the additional profits would accrue to their sole benefit.

We know we need the utilities to do their job. The utilities are have a unique business model that allows them to to make money with very little risk. Grid needs an upgrade? A one time special charge. Fuel costs going up? Increase the price per kWh. Cold winter coming? Increase rates. Hot summer coming? Increase rates. More users connecting? Special charge. Less usage due to efficiency? Increase the rates. Profits STILL not high enough? Ask the regulators for a rate increase.

We have evidence that net-metering is a win for everyone connected to the grid, whether they own panels themselves or not. And there’s ample evidence that the electrical grid can handle it. We can’t let big energy derail our quest for a cleaner, greener and more efficient future.

About John Fitzgerald Weaver

John Fitzgerald Weaver is a solar developer; known digitally as the 'Commercial Solar Guy.' As a project developer and installer, he’s sold and managed 50+ solar projects, valued over $25 million, ranging in size from 5kW to 1500kW. He’s been involved in many aspects of the solar supply chain –- as a company founder, developer, project manager, manufacturer, permit runner, salesman, contractor and financier. In his free time he tries to get away and clear his mind by climbing mountains, or more regularly by enjoying an IPA or scotch, and really loves the strange connection between politics, energy, finance, and environment in the energy world.