Tim Faulkner: Mass. solar-power effort may face slowdown

for ecoRI News

Massachusetts ranks among the best in the country for solar energy, but there is increasing concern that Gov. Charlie Baker is hampering progress.

“Massachusetts is a national leader for solar power, but inaction by our state’s leaders is threatening to change that,” said Ben Hellerstein, state director for the environmental advocacy group Environment Massachusetts.

A recent report released by the organization, “Lighting the Way III: The Top States that Helped Drive America’s Solar Energy Boom in 2014,” ranked Massachusetts fourth in the nation last year for new solar capacity per capita. Solar capacity is the maximum amount of electricity a solar panel can generate.

For more than a year, however, the industry has seen its key program, net metering, threatened, as demand for solar-energy installations has far exceeded the electric limits set by the state and the electric utility.

These caps were raised several times during former Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration as stopgap compromises. But Baker is less open to resume the current cap after the limit was reached in March. In all, 171 communities served by National Grid have hit the limit.

However, Baker introduced a bill last month to increase the caps, but the legislation would slow the industry by making it harder for renters and residents of low-income communities to access the benefits of solar power, according Environment Massachusetts.

“The Governor’s bill would significantly reduce the compensation that many types of solar projects receive under net metering,” the organization wrote in a prepared statement.

Dan Berwick of solar installer Berrego Solar, based in Lowell, wrote in a blog post that the bill has short-term benefits. However, he also wrote that its net-excess proposal wouldn’t allow net-metering systems to bank electricity production from one month to another, a provision that “would undermine the fundamental structure of net metering that has led to its adoption in 44 states, and move Massachusetts from the front of the pack to the back in terms of net-metering policy.”

A report released in June by GTM Research predicts that the solar sector in Massachusetts will drop 1.3 percent this year because of regulatory uncertainty.

The state has experienced dramatic growth, reaching its best year in 2014 by installing 308 megawatts of new solar capacity. The Bay State’s entire mix of policies has increased solar-sector jobs to more than 12,000, with an average 127 percent growth per year between 2010 and 2013, according to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.

“But without prompt action to lift the net-metering caps, we'll see a major slowdown in solar power,” said John Livermore, marketing and outreach director for the Woburn-based solar installer Boston Solar.

“The net-metering limits are killing hundreds of solar projects across Massachusetts,” said Lisa Podgurski, manager of business development for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 103.

Fees are also a concern. While Massachusetts hasn’t added monthly costs to homes and businesses with solar panels, Arizona has done so. The fees have been blamed for cutting solar demand in Arizona, prompting it to fall from first to eighth place last year in new solar capacity.

The Environment Massachusetts report concluded that New York and Texas have strong solar sectors, although for different reasons. New York’s growth is credited to strong state policies, while Texas has poor state policies but strong municipal incentives in cities such as San Antonio and Austin.

Here are some interesting facts and figures from that report:

California, Hawaii and Arizona get more than 5 percent of their electricity from solar power.

Nine of the top 10 solar states have the Property Accessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing program.

Connecticut ranked 10th in new solar electricity installed per capita in 2014.

Vermont and Hawaii have the strongest renewable electricity standards, which is the amount of “green” energy that comes from an electric socket. Hawaii has a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2045; Vermont has a goal of 75 percent after 2032.

The American Legislative Exchange Council has helped state lawmakers across the country introduce 20 bills to repeal local renewable electricity standards.

U.S. solar capacity has grown 700 percent since 2010. During that time, the cost of generating solar power has dropped from 21.4 cents per kilowatt-hour to 11.2 cents.