March 5, 2015: Solar argument impedes shared goal

March 5, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

The ongoing “debate” over Belmont Light’s solar net-metering tariff has gone beyond reasonable.  It’s time for participants on both sides of that debate to stop arguing their positions, and to start looking for common ground.

I hardly need to establish my solar credentials.  I worked for years to get solar panels installed on the Wellington School.  I represented Belmont on a regional collaborative to hire a solar contractor for a consortium of 19 communities in Metro Boston.  I worked in Town Meeting to limit an unreasonable solar zoning by-law prepared by Belmont’s Planning Board, and then helped author a replacement by-law that was approved by Town Meeting.

From the perspective of someone who has committed hundreds of hours to concrete steps in developing solar projects for Belmont, the argument over Belmont Light’s solar policy needs to be put to bed.

I say this because we must keep our eye on the goal.  That goal is not adoption of a solar-friendly Belmont Light tariff.  The objective is to clean-up our air by reducing carbon emissions from Belmont residents.

Avenues other than a solar tariff are readily available to do that.  Here are three:

First, Belmont Light offers its “Green Choice” program.  Through Green Choice, Belmont Light customers can purchase “green power” through their electric bill.  For $6 a month, Belmont Light customers can support the production of 100 kilowatt-hours from renewable energy sources in New England.  Customers may buy as many blocks as they wish.

Belmont Light’s Green Choice program, however, is grossly under-utilized.  Belmont residents paid only $14,208 toward the Green Choice program for the year ending December 2013. That was actually a reduction from the $15,774 paid in 2011. ($15,000 is roughly 200 customers buying one $6 block of green power per month.)

If the same effort that has been devoted to the Belmont Light solar tariff would have instead been devoted to promoting the Green Choice program, the resulting carbon emissions would have been much greater.

Customers can enroll in the Belmont Light Green Choice program by accessing an enrollment form on the Belmont Light website.

Second, while Belmont Light’s Green Choice program is currently directed toward displacing electricity generation in New England (where relatively carbon friendly natural gas is primarily used as fuel), the program need not be designed that way.  The program could instead be designed to purchase solar generation in regions to displace more carbon-intensive coal-fired generation.  From a global environmental perspective, it makes no difference whether reduced greenhouse gas emissions occur in New England or elsewhere.

Solar advocates who seek carbon emission reductions can (and should) make common cause with Belmont Light to target its purchase of green power to displace the most carbon intensive generation possible.

Third, one of the least expensive (and most effective) ways to reduce carbon emissions is by reducing energy usage.  The Better Homes Belmont initiative has resulted in 20% of the town’s residents pursuing a home energy audit in the past two-plus years.  That means, however, that four-of-five Belmont residents have not taken the simplest, least expensive, and most effective step to reducing their carbon footprint.

The same level of effort that has been devoted to the Belmont Light solar policy, if directed toward promoting energy audits, would generate a far greater carbon reduction than adoption of a net metering solar tariff.  The fact is that there is no “greener” power than energy conservation.

The time has come to stop arguing about who is “right” on solar net metering, and to start talking about how we can collaboratively pursue the shared objective of cleaning up our environment.

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