Advocates on Thursday urged lawmakers to consider access to solar energy as a civil rights issue.
The Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee held a hearing on bills dealing with solar power and the credits that solar producers can earn from selling their energy back to the grid. Among them was a bill that seeks to ensure low-income communities and renters receive the same level of compensation as homeowners.
The bill (S 1831, H 3396), filed by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Reps. Russell Holmes and Michelle DuBois, would also create an incentive program for low-income and community solar projects, lift the solar net metering cap to allow for more community solar projects, and direct the Department of Energy Resources to develop a strategy to promote clean energy programs in multiple languages, according to a summary.
Richard Juang, a staff attorney for the Roxbury-based Alternatives for Community & Environment, told the committee the bill and related legislation represents "a new civil rights movement for the green economy."
"The Solar Access for All bill expressly remedies the intentional exclusion of low-income communities and rental households from full benefits of the solar energy revolution," Juang said. "It also remedies the unintentional, but no less real, exclusion of communities of color from that solar energy revolution. To my mind, this exclusion serves no real purpose other than to bolster the short-term profits of a handful of utility companies who are heavily invested in the increasingly obsolete fossil fuel infrastructure."
In April 2016, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a solar energy law raising the caps on the amount of excess power that can be sold back to the grid at retail rates through what is known as net metering. The law also decreased the value of the power credits by 40 percent for some solar producers -- including low-income developments and community shared projects -- while preserving the retail rates for residential customers, municipalities and small commercial projects.
According to Clean Water Action, which backs the Chang-Diaz/Holmes bill, the differing rates result in low-income residents getting paid less for the energy they generate, and make it harder for community solar projects to deliver meaningful savings.
Chang-Diaz said the bill is a priority for the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, which is led by Rep. Frank Moran, the House vice chair of the Energy Committee.
She said Massachusetts has experienced "huge growth" in clean energy, but not everyone is benefitting from it.
"Renters, communities of color, people of modest means face barriers to access," Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, said. "These are barriers like income, credit, housing barriers like apartment and rental units rather than being homeowners, language barriers...They are problems that can be solved and overcome by relatively simple changes in policy."
Dr. Martha Nathan of the group Climate Action Now said low- and moderate-income people make up 40 percent of the country's population, but account for less than 5 percent of all solar customers.
"An equitable and complete transition to renewable energy cannot occur without the full participation of low- and moderate-income households," she said.
Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, asked the committee to support his bill (S 1848) that would allow publicly assisted housing projects and their residents to receive the full retail reimbursement for solar net metering and exempt solar projects at publicly assisted housing from net metering caps. He gave the example of an apartment building in Shirley where all tenants receive housing subsidies and many have trouble paying their electric bills.
"I spoke to the landlord, the owner of the building, about the possibility of putting solar on the roof of the building she owns, and she raised the point that the changes that both the governor and the Legislature made last session make it more difficult for her to put up solar on top of that building, and therefore her residents, almost all of those who are very poor, have a disadvantage from most of the single-family homes in that same town of Shirley."
In response to Eldridge's testimony, committee member Rep. Randy Hunt said he noticed another equity issue lawmakers might wish to address, this one dealing with tax credits awarded for solar projets.
Hunt, a Sandwich Republican, said that if he spent $20,000 on a solar project, he could receive $7,000 in credits, but someone whose income was so low that they did not have to file tax returns would not be eligible for the same credit. He suggested working with the Revenue Committee to find a way to make the state's solar tax credit available to that group of people as well.