January 14, 2016: Belmont Goes Solar: A Matter of Perspective

Belmont Citizen-Herald: January 14, 2016

Now, tell me truly. Did you think the dress was white and gold or was that dress blue and black? This difference in perception captured the imagination of the Internet in 2015.

The Belmont Goes Solar campaign now unfolding in town poses a similar question of perspective. Is the installation of solar panels on your roof best viewed as a way to prevent global climate change; is it best viewed as a way to earn a good return on your money; or is it best viewed as a way to minimize your long-term electricity bill?

In reality, the answer to that question should have little impact on whether you participate in Belmont Goes Solar. Any one of those answers presents a reason unto itself to avail yourself of the benefits of Belmont Goes Solar.

Let me fully disclose here. When the Board of Selectmen decided last fall that they wished to have a Belmont Goes Solar campaign in town, they asked the Town’s Energy Committee to organize it. As co-chair of the Energy Committee, I have also been chairing the group of volunteers that has organized Belmont Goes Solar and is promoting it. Having said that, let me tell you why I think that campaign is not only a good idea, but a great idea.

Ask yourself the following questions. Do you believe that, as the federal government imposes stricter clean air quality standards over the next 20 years, electricity will become cheaper or more expensive? If you respond “more expensive,” you should be interested in installing solar panels. The electricity produced by those panels is yours. That electricity will not be subject to any future price increases due to environmental clean-up costs. As electricity prices increase to pay for cleaner electricity, the electricity produced by your solar panels will be unaffected.

Are you earning 14% on your investments today? My wife and I surely are not. If you install solar panels today, taking advantage of state and federal tax credits, in addition to the time-limited price discount offered through Belmont Goes Solar, you will experience a payback of between six and seven years. The “payback period” is the number of years over which the savings generated by your panels exceeds the amount you spent on them; after that, it’s all profit. A seven year payback equals a 14% return on your investment. No other safe place exists today where you can earn that return.

Do you believe the earth’s climate is changing due to the pollution humankind dumps into the air? If you have noticed that the incidence of severe weather (think 2015 snow storms) has increased, or that the Western U.S. has been hammered with drought, or that the Arctic ice cap is melting, you should be interested in installing solar panels through Belmont Goes Solar.

The point is, however, that you need not believe in all of these. It’s a matter of perspective. Whether or not you believe in global climate change, Belmont Goes Solar will maximize your investment returns. Whether or not you have money tucked away in stocks and bonds, Belmont Goes Solar will help you make your own individual contribution to prevent catastrophic global climate change.

Belmont Goes Solar has its next “meet the installer” gathering at the Beech Street Center on the afternoon of Saturday, January 23, 2016. Whether you saw a white/gold dress or a blue/black dress, you should be there. Whether you want long-term financial security or want long-term security for the earth’s climate, you should be there. Whether you are fully committed to solar or merely curious, you should attend.

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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.

September 18, 2014: Let’s find a middle ground for Belmont Light solar customers

September 18, 2014: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Belmont Light has recently proposed a new pricing scheme for electricity that is much less favorable to residents who install solar panels on their homes.  Solar advocates have objected, saying the new rate will impede continuing solar development in our community.

At issue is a process called “net metering,” a process Belmont Light proposes to eliminate.  Under net metering, residents don’t pay Belmont Light for the electricity they receive from solar panels they have installed on their own rooftops.  Belmont Light, the argument goes, should not be allowed to charge homeowners for electricity they produce for themselves.

If you plant your own garden, the solar advocates reason, Wilson’s Farm can’t continue to charge you for the tomatoes that you used to buy, but now grow yourself.

Belmont’s solar advocates, however, want an even more expansive net metering system.  Under their proposal, if a homeowner’s solar panels produce more electricity than needed for his/her own use, the owner would sell that extra electricity back to Belmont Light and be paid at the full retail rate. Belmont Light rightfully says “no.”  At that point, the utility reasons, the solar owner is just another wholesale supplier of electricity and should be paid the same wholesale price as any other power provider.

Belmont Light is also worried about covering its costs.  Some costs, it notes, are incurred no matter how much electricity a customer uses.  Called “fixed costs,” these costs are included in the rates charged to all customers. Because solar owners are now buying less electricity from the utility, since they are getting some of their electricity from their own solar panels, Belmont Light says those owners no longer pay their fair share of the utility’s fixed costs.  Belmont Light proposes to charge solar owners a special rate to make-up for that lost revenue.

That argument, however, doesn’t completely hold water.  My wife and I bought a new energy efficient refrigerator this past spring.  Our new fridge uses one-third the electricity that our old refrigerator did, and we receive a correspondingly lower bill.  Belmont Light does not charge us for the electricity that we no longer use to ensure that we continue to pay “our share” of fixed costs.

The concern about fixed costs is legitimate.  But if Belmont Light is worried about fully recovering its fixed costs, it should respond to the actions taken by all customers, not simply to those actions taken by owners of solar systems.

The solar advocates argue finally that since solar energy is a clean energy source, they should be paid for reducing the air pollution that is otherwise produced by power plants. They’re right.  Everyone who uses electricity contributes to causing air pollution; everyone should pay to reduce that pollution.  That’s not a solar subsidy. It’s cleaning up your own mess.

That doesn’t justify net metering though.  The dollar value of the environmental benefits produced by solar energy is roughly one-third the full retail price of electricity.  Solar owners should be fairly, but not excessively, compensated for the environmental benefits they produce.

An alternative exists that addresses the concerns of both sides of Belmont’s solar debate.  Called a Value of Solar Tariff (VOST), this approach pays solar owners a credit for the environmental benefits they produce, in addition to paying the wholesale price of electricity.  Except for this credit, solar owners would continue to pay the same electric rates that everyone else pays.

This approach has been endorsed by many solar advocacy and consumer groups nationwide as a sound middle ground to support solar, while also protecting ratepayers. It should be pursued by Belmont Light.

July 31, 2014: How Belmont can lower electric bills

July 31, 2014: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Sky high. The temperature on a hot New England summer day.

Even more sky high. The electricity prices that accompany those hot New England summer days.

Under the leadership of former Selectman Ralph Jones, Belmont Light, our local municipal utility, recently moved forward with constructing a new electric substation. That construction will ensure Belmont Light’s ability to reliably deliver the highest levels of electricity used by Belmont residents each summer (called “peak demand”).

The new substation, however, addresses only part of the problem. What still needs to be addressed is the high cost of our electricity supplies caused by Belmont’s summer electricity usage.

As usage increases on very hot summer days, the cost of producing electricity increases as well. Wholesale electricity prices at times of peak demand are substantially higher than at other times. Belmont Light must then pass-on those costs in higher rates to customers. In addition to being the most expensive, the electric generating stations used to meet peak demand on very hot days are the dirtiest as well. Hot summer temperatures also increase the immediate public health dangers posed by air pollution.

Belmont is in an enviable position to address both the cost, and the environmental degradation, associated with high electric use. We run our own municipal electric utility, with Belmont Light under the direction of our Town’s Board of Selectmen.

Using that local oversight, Belmont Light has programs available to it, should it choose to pursue them, to reduce the adverse impacts caused by high summer electricity usage. One such program that Belmont Light could and should implement involves a simple technology called Direct Load Control.

Under such a program, Belmont Light would install a small radio transmitter on a customer’s central air conditioning system. On the hottest summer days, Belmont Light could reduce its peak demand, lower costs, and reduce air pollution emissions, by cycling residential air conditioning off.

The most common Direct Load Control program involves cycling air conditioning off for 12 to 15 minutes per half hour during a four to six hour period on the hottest summer afternoons. Even while the air conditioning is off, however, the fan remains on. Most customers don’t even realize their air conditioner has been off for a few minutes.

Participation in such a program is purely voluntary. In fact, the benefits are so great, utilities pay customers to participate. Payments range from $5 – $20 a month for the summer months (June – September). Payments are made whether or not the utility needs to control its load in any particular summer month.

Utilities large and small use Direct Load Control programs. Utilities offering such programs range from very large companies such as Consolidated Edison (New York City), Commonwealth Edison (Chicago), and PECO Energy (Philadelphia), to 33 small electric cooperatives serving rural Indiana.

Indeed, one of the first utilities to offer Direct Load Control was an Oregon municipal utility much like Belmont Light. The Milton-Freewater municipal utility, which began its Direct Load Control program in 1985, serves just over 4,500 customers, about half the size of Belmont Light,.

Operating its own municipal utility gives Belmont the ability to pursue initiatives delivering benefits to the local community. Direct Load Control is one such initiative. It is a proven technology. It is both simple and inexpensive. It offers rate rebates to program participants, and reduced rates to all Belmont ratepayers. It produces distinct environmental benefits.

Belmont Light will soon begin planning its 2016 energy efficiency programs. Through that process, the Board of Selectmen should approve the roll-out of a Direct Load Control program for the Summer of 2016.