Advocates Say Virtual Net Metering Needs Budget Fix

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A  popular renewable-energy incentive known as virtual net metering was included in the fiscal 2017 state budget but doesn't take effect until Jan. 1, 2019 and could use improvements, according to advocates.

Virtual net metering, also called community solar, has seen success in states such as Massachusetts because it allows people without a roof, land or with limited funds to receive the benefits of a renewable-energy project. Renters, for instance, can buy into a shared solar project and receive fossil-free energy credits and lower energy costs.

In Rhode Island, virtual net metering is only available to municipalities and state and quasi-state agencies. The budget article expands virtual net metering to homes, schools, private affordable housing, and low- and moderate-income housing. It also clarifies that public schools can participate. Renewable-energy advocates, however, would like to see a higher cap than the proposed 50 megawatts and a valuation method that is similar to on-site municipal solar- and wind-energy projects.

A House bill would enact virtual net metering more quickly and without those restrictions. But the bill is stalled in committee, with little prospects for advancing by the end of the 2016 General Assembly session, which will likely wrap up by the end of this month. The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Aaron Regunberg, D-Providence, intends to introduce an amendment that would lift some of the constraints on the version of net metering written into the budget.

Solar developer Fred Unger of the Heartwood Group Inc. sees pent-up demand for community solar in Rhode Island, as typically fewer than 25 percent of homes, businesses and other properties are suitable for solar energy because of a variety of constraints.

Unger said virtual net metering provides social and economic equity so everybody can have access to the same benefits of renewable energy. ”That’s especially important for folks in urban areas, folks that rent and low-income communities,” he said. “Fundamentally, community renewables is an equity issue.”

Article 18, however, would allow loans for projects using net metering and virtual net metering, as well as those priced through the Renewable Energy Growth Program.

Article 18 also includes a five-year extension of the state Renewable Energy Fund, which provides grants for small- and medium-sized solar projects. The funds are collected through a monthly surcharge on electric bills and the pool of funds, currently about $6 million, is distributed to solar developers and installers through the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation.

Article 18 also exempts residential and commercial manufacturers from paying local property taxes. It also establishes a statewide property tax rate for commercial renewable-energy systems. The new tax rate will be determined by the Office of Energy Resources.

The House is expected to vote on Article 18 and the entire 2017 budget on June 15.