By John Laidler | Globe Correspondent
ACTON — A group of local solar power developers and advocates urged the state Monday to promptly extend programs that have nurtured solar power in Massachusetts, warning that continued uncertainty over the rules could stall the industry’s momentum.
At a forum in Acton, solar supporters sounded a note of urgency about the need for the state to expand net metering credits and solar renewable energy certificates, both of which are at or facing state caps.
“As an employer, nothing scares me more — I have 35 people that I may have to put out on the street,” said Mark Durrenberger, president of Hudson-based New England Clean Energy and one of about 50 people who turned out for the forum at the Acton Public Safety Center.
Democratic state Representatives Cory Atkins of Concord and Jennifer Benson of Lunenburg jointly organized the event to hear from residents about how the state should advance the future of solar energy.
Debate over the future of the two programs has made solar energy a front burner subject on Beacon Hill.
Net metering allows residents and businesses to sell excess solar power to utilities at about the retail price. Much of the state has reached the cap on how much of that power utilities have to buy. The House and Senate passed bills lifting the cap but disagree on the details.
Utilities purchase solar renewable energy certificates from solar panel owners to meet minimum state requirements on how much of that power they must offer. The program is also nearing its cap and there is no defined plan on either extending it or establishing a new program.
The net metering cap in most cases applies only to projects over 10 kilowatts, according to the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. So it does not affect homeowners who have existing solar panels or want to install them — they remain eligible to sell their excess power to utilities at current net metering rates. Existing large-scale projects are also not affected, but the cap makes it difficult for new ones to be built.
Homeowners with projects that are already qualified for renewable energy certificates would similarly continue to receive income from utilities for the 10-year duration of the certificates even if that cap is reached, state energy officials said. For residents installing new panels, there are still certificates available. But once the cap is hit, no more will be given under the current program.
Residents could also be affected by other possible changes being discussed to the net metering program, including pricing adjustments and setting a minimum electric bill.
Atkins and Benson said they were not satisfied with the House solar bill approved in November but voted for it in hopes of keeping the industry going while a more comprehensive bill was crafted. But with the incentives now in limbo, some in the audience said net metering needs to be addressed now so planned projects can proceed.
Durrenberger warned that until the net metering issue is resolved, the state Department of Energy Resources will not extend the solar renewable energy certificate program. And if the process were to drag on another month, “the solar industry will effectively collapse in Massachusetts.”
Haskell Werlin, from Solar Design Associates of Harvard, urged lawmakers to ensure that the energy certificate program can continue as plans for its update are worked out.
“Once companies are spooked, you are going to create a lack of confidence in the marketplace,” he said. “It’s going to say Massachusetts is not solar-business friendly. . . . The industry right now is looking at New York, Vermont, and elsewhere to work because we can’t do work in our own state. It’s not right when we have 15,000 jobs.”
Mark Sandeen, a solar developer from Lexington, said he is working with a company whose efforts to build a rooftop solar project in Acton have been stalled by delays in securing an agreement to tie in to utilities and, more recently, by the energy certificate cap. “You can’t do business with this much uncertainty,’’ he said. “This is where we are for the solar industry; we don’t have certainty.’’
Others at the forum urged the two lawmakers to press for a state study examining the true costs of solar relative to fossil fuels. Benson said she and Atkins ran out of time trying to amend the House bill to provide for a study, and planned to push for it again when the next bill comes forward.
“We are at the tipping point on changing the energy paradigm on energy,” Atkins said later, a reason she said a true independent study was vital.
“The biggest issue is clarifying the market so that projects can move forward,” Benson said after the meeting. In addition to extending the two solar programs, she said that meant having the Department of Utilities require utilities to modernize their infrastructure to better accommodate solar.