Parts of R.I.'s Virtual Net Metering Bill Salvaged

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The House of Representatives was able to salvage most of Article 18, after House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello pulled it from the fiscal 2017 budget.

The renewable-energy provision came under fire after one of its items was seen as benefiting North Kingstown-based wind turbine developer Marc DePasquale, who has been struggling with state regulators and the General Assembly to have National Grid share some of the costs of connecting his wind turbine projects to the power grid.

In a prepared statement Mattiello wrote, “Over the past several days, I have received feedback on Article 18 and have reached the conclusion there are pieces of the article that do not need to be in the budget. I do not want any distraction to deter from our focus on an excellent budget that offers significant tax relief and is laser-focused on jobs and the economy. For these reasons, we will be removing Article 18 in its entirety from the budget.”

Much of what remained of Article 18 after removal of the interconnection provision was packaged in House bill H8354. The thrust of the legislation expands the concept of virtual net metering to low- and moderate-income housing developments.

Virtual net metering, also called community solar, has had success in states such as Massachusetts because it allows electricity customers 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.

Credits from the renewable-energy project are capped at 25 percent above the annual usage of each electricity customer. Each renewable project can be shared by between two and 50 customers.

The program, however, is limited to 30 megawatts through Jan. 1, 2019. After that, the state Public Utilities Commission can expand or modify the program as it examines the benefits and costs to ratepayers. The cost for virtual net metering is funded through the system-benefit charge on electric bills.

Currently, virtual net metering is only available to Rhode Island municipalities and state and quasi-state agencies. The budget article expanded virtual net metering to schools, but the provision for schools was left out of the House bill. Renewable-energy advocates also preferred a higher megawatt cap.

“It’s not a lot but at least it’s enough to get the program going,” said Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, the sponsor of the bill.

Virtual net metering will available to renewable systems that receive grants and incentives through the state Renewable Energy Fund and the Renewable Energy Growth program.

The bill 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. The pool of money, currently about $6 million, is distributed through the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation to solar developers and installers.