In this episode of energywakeup Yann is joined by Senator Boncore, the Massachusetts State Senator representing a large part of Boston and Cambridge. He is the sponsor of the net metering cap increase bill that would raise the cap by 5% across the board, clearing a large amount of backlog for SREC II projects.
Senator Boncore provides valuable insights on where the policy is going and how it may or may not progress. This interview was recorded at SolarWakeup Live Boston, which means that your competition that attended the event already has this valuable information.
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YANN: So our first speaker Senator Joseph Boncore. This is his district, we are in his market. He represents Cambridge Winthrop. [inaudible 00:00:08] you are– either you are his customer or he is your customer, depending on if it’s election season or not Winthrop Revere and Boston senator Boncore has served on the Winthrop Housing Board, and was elected to the state Senate about 18 months ago in a special election. Most importantly, and the reason we have him here today is he’s the sponsor of Senate bill 1824, which raises the net metering cap by 5%. This is a vital aspect of the solar market and clearly something that we want to hear about the bill has not been signed by the governor yet and it hasn’t passed. But that is what we want to find out about. Welcome to solar wake up live senator.
SENATOR: Thank you, thank you for having me.
YANN: So, you have in front of you a nice crowd of what represents the Massachusetts solar market. And most importantly, these are the people that are running businesses. They would probably have a couple thousand jobs represented here of solar companies. You’re not on the Energy Committee, but yet you sponsored Senate, Senate bill 1824. Tell us the story of how that happened.
SENATOR: So, I am not in the energy committee I don’t have much of background in solar obviously you know as millennial, which I am, I can put myself in that category. It’s something I see some fellow Millennial’s here in the front row. It’s something that Millennial’s are definitely concerned about. I represent a district that encompasses, you know, it’s a very coastal district, so people in my district are very concerned with climate change things of that nature. But I also represent a very innovative district, where in my district, I represent all of Vinnie Street, I represent all of the financial district in downtown Boston, also part of my district.
So, these are two places where solar has kind of you know taking a lead. It’s obviously important to the district, not just I don’t have a lot of manufacturing, and I think you know, when we talk about solar, and on the legislative level, you know, we like to talk about manufacturing. But there’s so much more around innovation I think, and around obviously capital and financial, financial companies that are investing in solar. So as I would say, though I wasn’t a you know, you know, proponent so I believed in solar you know, my district, my life experience as a public defender, you know led me to a criminal justice background and to work on bills like that.
You know, my housing background led me to be, I’m now chair of the housing the Senate’s Housing Committee. But just looking at my district, the people I represent, the companies I represent, you know, and knowing the 2020 goals that we’re trying to get to here in Massachusetts, and how woefully inadequate we are in getting there or, where our track has been, I thought that solar was a was a good position for me to take and obviously, raising the net metering cap by 5% for public and private industry, is it’s going to help and get us to 2020 goals.
YANN: So, tell us where the bill stands now, where it goes from here and sort of some of the barriers that you’re encountering in the legislative process.
SENATOR: So, you know, I would say the bill as it currently stands I filed it in January, at the beginning of the session, we should all understand there’s over 2000 bills filed in the legislature. So that bill was reported to the Telecom utilities and Energy Committee short for TUE, if I reference that, that’s what it means, that’s shared by Senate Barrett on this, and the Senate side, and representative golden on the house side. So we were able to get the bill heard. So the bill was heard last month. So we’re rating the legislative process is that, after a bills reported out it will be– after it’s heard it’ll be reported out favorably or unfavorably, favorably by the committee, either way whatever wage reported out it will come back to the Senate.
I would say in Massachusetts the Senate has been the body of innovation technology and especially around solar, they’ve been the driving force in the legislature and some of these issues. So, I think we’re in a good spot where the bill will be ported hopefully you report it out and shorter order it’ll get over to the Senate, and after it’s to the Senate, we’ll put it to a vote, for all the Senators to vote on. Thereafter, it’ll go to the house. The biggest impediment that I see right now in the legislative process is that last year Massachusetts took up a pretty common–
Well, it started out as a very comprehensive, what we would call a legislative omnibus of energy policy. It got watered down, probably to a minibus by the time we took it up. But I would say that there was some net metering, some net metering legislation within that package. And where had Massachusetts, had typically relied 1% increases, and that metering, for the past somewhat years. Since net metering has become a common topic, this bill actually increased net metering by 3%. So, I would say the majors impact– the major impediment is to that legislators who are dealing with you know, two thousand other bills may not see the priority that we all see in this room.
Legislators from across the state who don’t represent innovative districts like I do or financial districts like I do, don’t see the problem or the necessity to raise a net metering cap. So you know, I think that’s on me in the legislature to bring that up. But it’s on everyone in this room to make sure that legislators across the Commonwealth are understanding that, when we raised it to 3% that just dealt with a lot of the backlog, the backlog projects that we have in Massachusetts, I mean in Massachusetts is more than 120 projects across the Commonwealth that in backlog. So if we raise enough metering cap again by 1%, we’re going to deal with the backlog. But we’re not moving the Commonwealth forward, so you know, we need to raise it to 5% to deal with some of that backlog and move on because when we have backlog, that means jobs for the Commonwealth.
That means, people aren’t working, Massachusetts employs over 15,000 people in your industry, this is something I don’t need to tell you, I know. But you know when people aren’t working when capital’s tied up, you know, you know that’s a real problem. Currently, with the 120 jobs, there’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 72 million dollars tied up in capital investments that can’t come to fruition because of the net metering cap. Where it’s that, I mean, in overall the net metering capital, it makes about 6% of the state’s energy portfolio. So I think it’s you know, it’s time to bring the conversation to the next level.
YANN: So, given the fact that the solar market, in Massachusetts has 15,000 workers and real jobs right, I mean, solar now represents probably a job in every representative district and state Senate District, why do you think there’s still a lack of perceived power, political influence and political power in the solar industry when it comes to working the state legislative process?
SENATOR: I mean, again I mean you’re dealing with industry, other industries that have just been in the state legislature for so much longer. You know, and it’s a bandwidth issue. I mean, like I said, we deal with a lot of bills in the state legislature and you know, you guys your industry is relatively new to the Commonwealth and it’s you know, being there it’s being in front of us it’s activating a base. It’s letting not just the lobbyists and the activists know at the top levels, but letting the constituents know and getting the message all the way down.
So, legislators are dealing with this situation and talking about solar you know, there’s a perception you know, that Solar is intended for you know, a dentist who works in– who lives in a very high flew affluent community, and you know some people, most people I would say, you know who aren’t in the industry don’t realize that it can affect everybody. It affects you know, it’s not just a solar bill, but it’s a jobs bill. It’s an economic stimulus for the entire Commonwealth and it’s a–you know, there’s middle-income earners in solar as high-income earners and solar and it affects everybody, you know. When me and my staff are drafting this bill, I almost wanted to call it and that metering bill for the purpose of creating jobs. Because when you talk about creating jobs, I think it resonates with more legislators across the Commonwealth.
YANN: Is there you know kind of going on that topic? Is there a political risk for anyone that votes against your bill?
SENATOR: I would say so. I mean, I would say you know, I would say this is a political risk with certain demographics. When they don’t invest– when they don’t vote for the bill, I think with the rhetoric going on at the national level as to you know, what climate change is, what renewable energy is, I mean it’s on us at the local level to take up this mantle and I think in you know in California which probably leads the nation in solar development and investment and in Massachusetts which is second, I mean on those two coasts, I think any legislature not paying at any mind or being a void of what the real realities of not moving towards a renewable energy portfolio or strengthening that and having government influence, and making sure that that’s growing. I think that that any legislator who doesn’t– who would vote against raising it a mere 5% is taking a huge political risk.
YANN: So, you know the other side of the table you mentioned, the jobs and the job creation that this generates is that the people that are using solar energy in almost every project that I’ve been involved in and most of the room the consumer is also saving money. You served on a Housing Authority board and housing authorities have become one of the largest counter parties to solar projects. There’s still a perception that as you mentioned that this only helps the affluent dentist. From a– for those and I know there are some bills to also work on this issue, you know, what does it represent to middle and low income energy consumers when it comes to having access to more solar energy?
SENATOR: I mean I think you know they’re realizing it, I mean what are you talking about middle income earners, even low income earners, these are people who are not planning financially you know, and a lot of instances for the future. So, they don’t see an investment today oftentimes paying dividends tomorrow. And when you talk about housing authorities you know, in some housing authorities these people on subsidized housing who aren’t paying the energy bill, the housing authority in fact pays the energy bill.
And that’s why the public sector cap, is about 1% higher because the state sees it, but to get it to the end user is a different discussion. And I think when we start to talk about community solar and on the municipal level, you know changing ordinances and having a say at the municipal level in opening up solar farms, which would be very difficult in my district it’s obviously densely populated, but having some form of community solar, letting the end-user see in their energy bill what the real results are. You know I think we’re getting there, I think by the good work everyone here is doing and having a conversation like this, you know we’re getting it to where it should be going.
YANN: So, you know your bill covers net metering, but we have a parallel track going on in Massachusetts right now is smart. The DOER has finalized its rules and now it’s at the D P U. The, there is a combination of the two being that the parties that are trying to influence, maybe water down some of this policy is on both your bill as well as the D P U process currently. How powerful is the anti solar or the, I want to slow solar down legislative force in Massachusetts?
SENATOR: I mean, I think it’s you know when we’re talking about growth of an industry, obviously were taking away from another industry and an effect and I think that was the idea of you know meter capping, what we’re doing in that metering and also what smart growth. You know we’re trying– well smart growth is a little different. I don’t see smart growth directly related, I do see smart growth as a plan by the governor and the administration to ensure that incentives, you know weren’t so out of whack that the end user is the rate payer you know it wasn’t worthwhile anymore.
So kudos, to the governor and his administration for taking on this issue and I’m beginning to understand this issue. And that’s what– they’re going to do, what they’re going to do. They’re going to set up the regular– they set up the regulatory framework, they had to go through D P U, you know and as the governor does that, I think we can’t be complacent with that? I think we still need to have this conversation about raising the cap. I mean smart growth was a legislative initiative, to get the incentives back into whack and ensure that, you know the tax incentives were made sense now, that more people are using solar.
So, while that’s tracking, we still need to keep our eyes on the prize with net metering and raising that cap. So, I mean I do see them a little separate but I think you know listen, there to the original question, you know we are battling you know fossil fuel industry that that’s been very powerful. I think Massachusetts does have an advantage with local activist groups and people who have stepped up and kind of you know taken on that cause, so it’s at all levels of government people are having that conversation.
YANN: If you were to look back and I mean Massachusetts I don’t know the numbers second or third biggest solar market now definitely on a per capita basis nationally, especially outside of California, solar industry kind of there’s California and there’s X California. How would you view the progress that Solar has made over the past five or so years and what kind of advice would you give to the solar market and solar advocates, on how they can continue to improve in both legislative messaging and market penetration?
SENATOR: I mean seeing we are the number two market for solar growth in the country, I think Massachusetts has made incredible strides. Massachusetts has a 2020 goal of getting to 1600 megawatts of solar energy on the grid and I think so, where I think comparatively to other states you know, we’re really on the cutting edge. As we are on most things, I like to say so, I think in the past five years just setting goals, having goals and making the investments. We have five billion in investments in solar energy in Massachusetts, you know comparatively per capita or otherwise that’s really big.
I think the advice to– my advice to solar energy is you know this is an easy conversation for the senator from Boston and Cambridge to have because I have financial institutions in my district, I have innovative institutions right here we’re in one of them you know. I think as we talk to other legislators, we need to change a little bit of the rhetoric on how we’re talking about. We need to make sure that you know it is jobs we’re talking about, its development, its economic development and when we grow solar in a responsible way, you know that it’s not us first Sam, it’s not versus first, fossil fuels but it’s growing in a way that it’s going to bring down the cost to the end-user in the Berkshires if a solar farms built out there. And it’s really very much making it a local issue I think in government it’s something that’s lost.
I think it’s something that’s starting to come ahead now, with kind of the lack of work going on in Washington DC in Congress and with the executive branch. But you know making it a local issue and letting know the end user from all across the Commonwealth is going to see you know their pocketbooks hit or not hit or you know and making sure that people, everyone has access to solar. And it’s not just for the dentist from Lexington Massachusetts, it’s for you know– the middle income earner and the Berkshires or Springfield or Wooster. I think moving the rhetoric that way it’s just going to help the entire market from the top down.
YANN: So, there’s an ongoing movement in the solar industry to engage more of our– I mean there’s 270,000 people now working in the solar industry in the US. And there’s an ongoing push to try to get some of them to run for public office. I don’t think there are any solar professionals in the state legislature here now, but what would you– what kind of advice would you give to you know to someone that wanted to run for office to move certain things forward? And given some of your background and your expertise and the work you’re doing in criminal justice based on your background. How valuable is it to have a member of the legislature that has some domain expertise and can have the conversation you’re saying without sort of the advocates in the room?
SENATOR: Yeah, I mean it I think it’s you know it’s incredibly beneficial to have you know somewhat of an expert in the room. You know, just last week the Senate took up criminal justice reform. You know, I’ve been in the Senate for 18 months, there are people who have been in the Senate for 30 years you know I had more to say and more influence on that bill than probably any other senator in the room, just because of my background and experience. So, to have someone familiar with the industry, like I said before I wasn’t familiar with the industry, I have this one issue and that metering that I’m happy to champion and carry because it makes good sense to me. But beyond that to get into the weeds on this some of this stuff, you know I would encourage someone from the industry to run you know.
Hopefully not against me, so I want to be very clear with that, no but even, if you did run against me, you know you know elections are a good place to bring out these issues and press the issues. And you know even if you don’t win, you make sure that your opponent or the person you’re running against for that seat, you know has an idea of what’s going on. You really press them you bring them up to speed, as it will go. So, I would say that experts in the industry, as long as you’re that’s not the only reason you’re running and as long as you’re not so much of an ideologue around it. That you’re not able to work with others to get to a goal, because we can’t in this country and in the state you know let good be the evil of perfect right?
We got to be able to get there and we got to get to good. I mean this makes a lot of sense for everybody in the room to get to 5%, probably makes a lot of sense of everybody in this room to get to 10%. But we need to work in a collaborative way and to ensure that everyone in the Common wealth is heard and dealt with and it’s a process. And ideologues typically don’t make the best legislators; because they’re a little too you know they’re not pragmatic about getting to a solution. So– but expertise in the legislature, because of the bandwidth of legislators and the fact that there’s 2,000 bills right there, that we’re dealing with this session, I mean some expertise in an area will truly you know you’ll be a legislator on such ago.
YANN: So, a) were you surprised when Sia– I mean the way I found out about this bill is Sia last month wrote a press release saying, “Massachusetts needs to step up and pass your bill.” And so that kind of got some national attention on the issue. And you know how helpful was that and handicapped the forward progress, because the worst thing in the solar industry is the uncertainty. When you don’t know if you can make an investment to hire someone or when you’re looking at a customer in the eye and say I don’t know what the value of the net metering will be, that hurts and that stops progress and investment. Handicap for us how this looks going forward.
SENATOR: I mean, I think with the national recognition it’s gotten and with the local recognition, I hope you will all still push for, you know it looks pretty good. I mean there is an understanding with certain members of TUE, the telecoms utilities an Energy Committee that I talked to, that this needs to be done. So, I’d say those people who are in the trenches with this bill and the hundreds of other bills that just that committees dealing with, they understand that something has to be done. I can speak to the Senate President Stan Rosenberg, he knows we need to raise the cap. He knows that doing what we’re doing is just helping some of the backlog and not garnering further investment, further capital, further job growth in the Commonwealth.
So, I’d say there are people that understand it, but not everyone does it’s not a priority for everyone and I think it’s, you know we need to get it down to the level of each individual legislature in the Commonwealth. Their constituents need to be talking about this as a priority. Their constituents need to see the benefit of the job growth of solar being really, for everyone, for every level of income earner and they need to see the progress that can be made with what solar.
So, I’d say the bill will look really good coming out of the Senate. I would say in decamp it very high coming out of the senate and then as we as it gets further down the process and over to the house, we’re going to need a bigger push on that under.
YANN: Any of you on timing of when you think this could happen?
SENATOR: Again, I’m not on the committee, so I can’t even speak that when it will be reported out. You know I’m happy I’ve written and my staff has written letters to see that it’s reported out after the hearing, but our legislative cycle goes through next July. So, I you know I would expect it to come out of it to at least be debated on the floor before that.
YANN: Okay, so a little bit on a federal issue and because we know that you have the year of the president there the trade—
SENATOR: The senate president?
YANN: [laughter] No, the other guy. The trade commission, early this morning voted for recommendation to increase the cost of solar panels by about 35%, in what some would dub a protectionist move brought on by some players in the solar market.
SENATOR: I would agree with those people.
YANN: Which ones?
SENATOR: The protectionist.
YANN: Yeah, the protectionist and what message would you– so now the president’s going to decide if there should be increased costs of solar modules. What would you say to the president, what the impact of that might be to your constituents and the folks that you’re talking to in the solar market here in Massachusetts and the taxpayers given that this would have an impact across the board?
SENATOR: What would I say to the president? That’s an interesting question [laughter]. But in this realm and then we’re adding solar what I would say to him is that, in Massachusetts we’re doing a lot to grow solar in a responsible way. To make sure that the end user, the rate payer is seeing the benefit of solar. I would tell this president that, this protectionist move and this ruling is not going to benefit solar. Making solar more expensive to people is going to stymie growth and we can’t have this stymie of growth.
You know, this is one place where if foreign markets are creating you know a similar product for less money at this time and at this special time and growing this economy forward, that we need to keep costs low to grow the industry. We need if we– if investors I mean if finance companies are seeing that it’s too expensive to do it, I mean there’s other places they can spend this money, there’s other places they will spend this money. Solar growth in this Commonwealth and across this nation is what we need to do for future generations.
So, I would advise against it, I’m sure he would tweet something at me on the other end that was unrelated and something probably about me personally. But, I would certainly advise against it and let him know that, you know an investment in solar is an investment in our future.
YANN: So, I want to thank you for your leadership, I join everyone in the room to wish for your success in this especially this bill.
SENATOR: Our success.
YANN: Our success or your success to make us more successful and please give a round of applause for the senator [Applause].