Is the outlook for Solar cloudy in Massachusetts?

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By almost every imaginable measure, Massachusetts’ solar movement has been a resounding success, yet its future is in doubt

Pushed forward by a number of tailwinds, including the Federal Investment Tax Credit, the State-imposed Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards (which created the SREC and SREC-II Programs), and some of the highest retail prices for electricity in the country – solar in Massachusetts has helped lead the way for the country in moving towards more environmentally sustainable energy generation.

In addition, job growth in the Bay State has been robust. The state has added over 15,000 solar employees and almost 100,000 clean energy and efficiency professionals. In fact, Massachusetts ranks only behind the much more populous California among states with the most people employed in the solar industry.

Unfortunately, this means that the Massachusetts’ solar industry has become a victim of its own success. Absent legislative support, what was a vibrant industry for the greater part of the last decade, is currently experiencing a dramatic slowdown. Parts of the state have been feeling it since last summer. Some view it as ironic that this is happening on the heels of December’s Congressional action at the Federal level, which recognized the environmental and economic benefits of solar, and encouraged the further growth in the industry, by extending the Federal Investment Tax Credit for another five.

What happened?

First, State-imposed net-metering caps for National Grid’s territory were reached (almost a year ago), foreclosing the viability of most commercial-scale solar projects in National Grid’s service area, and killing off any hope for off-site community solar projects. Secondly, the Mass DOER announced in February that, thanks to an avalanche of applications received in the beginning of the year (two years worth in two weeks), the SREC-II program had reached its goal for larger 25kW sized projects, while limited space remains for projects smaller than 25kW.

the Bourne Solar Farm, as it appeared during construction.
A Community Solar farm built by Beaumont Solar in Bourne, Massachusetts
(project has since been completed)

Because of the way that the State has carved up the utilities territory, a solar facility in Williamstown can apply net-metering credits towards an energy meter in Worcester, while Pelham and its neighbor Belchertown are in different territories altogether.

This means that National Grid, which serves the most populous portions of the state, long ago reached its net metering capacity (indeed, should the caps be raised, there is a huge waiting list ready to gobble up anything that becomes available), while the more sparsely populated region served by Eversource WMECO has hundreds of usable sites for large-scale solar installations but relatively fewer potential customers. Additionally, the Eversource NSTAR territories have many potential customers, but no available land or roof space to put such systems on.

It’s true that even within the constraints of net metering caps, the truly motivated purchasers will still benefit from installing solar panels by reducing the amount of power they draw from the grid during daylight hours. However, that constraint has essentially foreclosed the hope for community solar, where the financially disadvantaged, those without homes and businesses without their own roof space, could have their energy needs served by off-site solar arrays.

Additionally, in the not-so distant future, the Pilgrim Nuclear Station, the state’s lone nuclear generation facility, will be shutting down. While some environmentalists have applauded the plants imminent closure, others that are focused on lowering CO2, say it will create a significant gap in the amount of clean electricity coming into Massachusetts’ power grid. The Pilgrim closing doesn’t slow what Massachusetts resident use, and without new legislative support for wind and solar, it would be too easy for utilities to use much more damaging coal and natural gas to fill that need, much like has happened in Vermont when Yankee Nuclear closed. This, in the end, means we will be releasing more CO2 than our fair share.

When the state legislature began discussing the future of net-metering in Massachusetts, it became clear that this would not be an easy task. This discussion was going on in the summer of 2015 when the Massachusetts Senate voted on a solar bill – moving on the Net Metering issue. The House ‘responded’ with a vote on the last day of fall session that offered drastically reduced energy credits to future solar owners Today, due to this brinkmanship, it is now a dire situation.

CEC's Community Solar Farm in Adams, MA
CEC’s Community Solar Farm in Adams, MA

If we want to continue leading the way in the nation’s push toward a future driven by clean energy, we need to address the net metering situation immediately, and both sides need to be prepared for some give and take.  If we want our solar professional to be able to maintain high quality, trained and experienced teams we need legislative consistency – the market does not appreciate uncertainty. There are plenty of successful Net Metering programs that we can research from around the globe if we need suggestions in how to structure. The Utilities, like Eversource and National Grid, are fighting tooth and nail against Net Metering – for obvious reasons: it’s a successful program driving competition.

More importantly, with the highly-successful SREC-II program having met its goals, the State should begin drawing out a follow-up program. Again, a lot has changed since SREC and SREC-II were devised, namely with the looming closure of Pilgrim, we will need to further incentivize the production of clean energy lest the utilities replace the lost capacity with high-carbon sources. Because of its Renewable Portfolio Standards, utilities in the State of Massachusetts have a legal requirement to meet energy efficiency goals.

Lastly, and this would probably require the most work from the legislature, we should work to devise  support for community solar projects, and allow solar installations to net-meter against any electric meter in the state, regardless of which territory the target meter and the distributed generation facility are located. Community Solar is the genius of our State Solar programs – continual evolution and support of this program is the utmost importance.

Solar has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade. The price of panels has fallen rapidly thanks to China’s manufacturing might, while the efficiency of solar panels has grown by leaps and bounds thanks in large part to ingenuity from U.S. based firms such as SunPower and SolarCity. For Massachusetts in particular, the last decade has seen the birth of dozens of successful companies and the creation of a large, skilled workforce. We have to ask ourselves, do we want to see Massachusetts continuing to lead the clean energy revolution, or witness an exodus of the jobs and businesses that have been serving Massachusetts so well for the last decade?

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Lucas Krupinski
Consultant
Lucas likes to write. Besides contributing to Commercial Solar Guy, he maintains a blog at Current Take.

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