In sunny Wyo., solar struggles to shine

Source: By Benjamin Storrow, Casper Star Tribune, • Posted: Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Solar advocates want to tap into Wyoming’s potential for commercial solar power development, which has been slow to lift off in the state.

They’re asking state legislators to lift the 25-kilowatt cap on solar-generated power that can be sold back to the grid.

“I think what this step has the ability to do is unleash a new sector of solar development in Wyoming, a sector that doesn’t exist right now, commercial solar,” said Scott Kane, owner of Creative Energies, a solar installer. “When we look around to other states, there is as much commercial development as there is residential development.”

The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates Wyoming residential panels have the eighth most energy potential in the nation, but the 2.3 megawatts of solar power installed statewide ranks 46th in the country.

The solar advocates’ proposal must overcome concerns by some legislators and utilities who fear solar developers may not be shouldering their share of costs associated with maintaining the grid.

State Sen. Cale Case, a Lander Republican who leads the Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee, expressed concerns but said, “I think compensation for solar designed power can be devised in an appropriate way.”

PacifiCorp representatives, in a presentation to Wyoming lawmakers last month, called net metering a “growing problem across the country” but would not comment on the proposal to raise the cap.

In Wyoming, consumers pay a relatively high $20-a-month fixed fee to cover distribution costs, said Al Minier, chairman of the Wyoming Public Service Commission.

“That tends to operate as an economic deterrent to making the leap to net metering,” Minier told lawmakers on the Corporations Committee last month (Benjamin Storrow, Casper Star Tribune, June 10). — CVK

which could be built in western Massachusetts or imported from New York, Pennsylvania or Maine — and solar power. Massachusetts has tapped solar extensively at the residential and commercial scale, with 1,080 MW of installed capacity, but has lagged behind with large-scale utility projects.

Clean energy advocates say the House bill hamstrings Massachusetts’ clean energy prospects by stipulating that only two energy resources — large hydro and offshore wind — could bid on major new generation requests from utilities as stand-alone projects. Other renewables, including onshore wind and solar, would be allowed to bid only if they’re paired with hydropower, according to the legislation.

Advocacy groups, including the Environmental League of Massachusetts and the industry coalition RENEW Northeast, are now urging the Senate to restore onshore wind and solar to the list of generation options in the energy bill set to begin taking shape this month.

“By failing to allow all renewable energy sources to compete, the Massachusetts House of Representatives is leaving out the most cost-effective clean energy resources, plain and simple,” said Francis Pullaro, executive director of RENEW Northeast. “Clean air doesn’t have to come at a higher price.”

Josh Craft, program director for energy and climate policy at the Boston-based Environmental League, said his organization is not opposed to importing more Canadian hydropower if it allows Massachusetts to wean itself from natural gas generation, which provided roughly 60 percent of the state’s electricity last year.

But boosting Canadian hydropower, which would be carried over new transmission lines from Quebec to New England, should not come at the expense of fully tapping existing resources of Massachusetts and neighboring states. “We’re talking about a very large missed opportunity if we don’t facilitate these renewables getting to market,” he said.

Senate hasn’t weighed in

While the Senate has yet to draft its energy legislation, Craft said the chamber has traditionally been “more ambitious in their work on climate change, and also more supportive of solar” than the House of Representatives. He believes, however, that the two bills will have significant overlap.

Much of the attention in the near term will focus on state Sen. Ben Downing (D) of Pittsfield, chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy.

The five-term lawmaker, who has been recognized by advocacy groups for his support of clean energy, was not immediately available Friday. Last month, however, Downing told The Boston Globe that he would like to see the legislation broadened to include provisions on other advanced technologies and energy management strategies, such as battery storage and efficiency.

In April, Downing was instrumental in reaching an agreement between House and Senate lawmakers that preserved key elements of Massachusetts’ solar net-metering program, a policy that has stimulated the commonwealth’s solar market over the last decade.

Under the new net-metering law, public and private caps on net-metered power were raised by 3 percent, and proposals to reduce compensation for owners of large solar arrays from retail to wholesale power rates were softened.

“Solar is a key piece of our strategy to combat climate change and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels,” Downing said in a statement marking the passage of the net-metering bill.

Meanwhile, offshore wind developers are positioning themselves to capitalize on the new Massachusetts energy law.

Last year, Danish firm DONG Energy secured a federal lease roughly 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard to build up to 1 gigawatt of offshore wind capacity that would be sold into the Massachusetts market.

Other firms looking to sell offshore wind power into Massachusetts and the broader New England market are Deepwater Wind, the builder of Rhode Island’s Block Island Wind Project, and Cape Wind Associates, which continues to pursue construction of a large wind farm in Nantucket Sound.