With lawmakers back in Concord for the new legislative session, regulations over solar panels are already heating up debate.
After Republican Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed a Democrat-backed bill last year to expand reimbursement for excess solar power sent back to the electric grid — a process known as net metering — the Legislature saw four competing bills emerge this week, all facing gridlock.
Three of them — HB 1481, HB 1402 and HB 1262 — are Republican-sponsored bills introduced as part of Sununu’s new clean energy initiative, which the governor rolled out Monday.
And in the Senate, a successful voice vote Wednesday passed the latest iteration of a Democratic bill Sununu vetoed last year.
This bill, SB 13, would lift the limit on reimbursable electricity from 1 to 5 megawatts.
State Sen. Jay V. Kahn, D-Keene, said the governor is blocking an environmentally friendly savings opportunity for homeowners and businesses, with little to support his claims that raising the cap would make electricity more expensive.
“I think the governor has been lobbied to see the cost side of net metering and has not entertained the savings side from having to add additional saving on distribution and transmission,” Kahn said Thursday.
Kahn, whose district covers most of Cheshire County, said the Granite State’s low net-metering cap makes it hard for businesses to compete in renewable energy renovations with those in neighboring states. He relayed woes from constituents about a 5-megawatt installation in Massachusetts or Vermont costing close to the same as a standard 1-megawatt setup locally.
Unlike Maine, both of those neighbors have highly developed net-metering systems that pay above the market rate for electricity sent back to the grid, with different rates depending on the size of the installation.
The Bay State had 26 times more solar installations finished than New Hampshire in the third quarter of last year, while the Green Mountain State had four times more, according to data from the Solar Energy Industries Association.
In general, net metering for homeowners works similarly to rollover minutes from a cellphone plan.
When the sun is shining, and the home is humming on solar energy, any extra power gets sent back to the grid. That electricity is counted by a meter, and at the end of the month, the homeowner would get a check from an energy provider such as Eversource for their power contribution to the grid writ-large.
For businesses, it works in much the same way, though they more commonly use bigger arrays located on a roof or in a field. These operations run a much higher risk of running up against the 1 megawatt cap than a typical house would.
In New Hampshire, businesses and homeowners are currently reimbursed at the company’s retail price up to the cap.
For Kahn, that’s precisely why raising the limit would help make businesses more competitive.
But for Republican state Rep. John Hunt — who said he uses net metering at his self-described “castle” of a home in Rindge — raising the cap could have unintended consequences.
“We should not be doing [net metering] on the backs of residential ratepayers,” Hunt said Thursday. “The nuances of each bill, I’ve gotta get into it. But at the end of the day, the reason these bills are around ... is that people are looking for a windfall.”
Hunt said he supports businesses investing in solar power to be more efficient and environmentally friendly, but argued they would be unfairly benefiting from the power consumption of everyone who does not use solar power.
Sununu, whose office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday, has pursued a similar line of criticism since vetoing last year’s bill, saying that raising the cap on net metering would effectively amount to the general public subsidizing solar-power investments.
As for the three Republican bills he rolled out under his Innovative Clean Energy Plan for 2020, Sununu described them as “a homerun for ratepayers and the environment.”
But the three bills — which range from raising the cap to 5 megawatts but limiting the total of everyone’s reimbursements to 125 percent of all energy produced in the grid (HB 1481), to lifting the cap for municipalities but letting them sell the power only to other local governmental entities (HB 1402) and allowing renewable generators to sell excess power locally instead of raising the cap — have left Kahn skeptical.
He said he has found no evidence raising the cap would result in higher electricity costs for Granite Staters.
Furthermore, he added that the benefit for those who invest in solar power is both financial and environmental, reducing the harm of fossil fuels that would be used for non-hydro-powered electricity otherwise.
The Monadnock Region has seen a high interest in solar renovations, with Keene’s Filtrine Manufacturing announcing Wednesday that its entire plant is now running on a new solar array and a hearing set in Fitzwilliam on a sprawling new one next week.
Nevertheless, Hunt insisted the Democrats are inadvertently pushing for a handout in an effort to put a dent in climate change, adding that not everyone has the resources to invest in solar power.
“At the end of the day, you’re saving money simply because you have that solar,” Hunt said. “Why should you expect other people to subsidize it? Please use that quote.”