Mass. is losing steam in solar growth

Source: Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, July 27, 2018

Massachusetts’ solar industry is experiencing growing pains. The commonwealth’s ambitious solar policies have resulted in 2.1 gigawatts of installed solar capacity, good for sixth in the nation.

But the Bay State’s solar industry now faces an uncertain future. A cap on net metering, the credits paid to panel-owning consumers who send power back to the grid, had already constrained growth. Then, in January, state regulators signed off on a plan allowing one of the Bay State’s leading utilities to impose new charges on its solar customers.

Solar installations and employment have plummeted in recent years. The Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, estimates the industry shed roughly 3,000 jobs between 2016 and 2017, as annual residential installations fell from 162 megawatts to 85 MW in Massachusetts.

“What the industry wants is to know what the playing field is,” said Dan Bosley, a former Democratic state representative who now works as a consultant for the Northeast Clean Energy Council. “I think the health of the industry hinges on getting some of these questions answered.”

Now state lawmakers are getting involved. On one side is the state Senate, which unanimously passed a comprehensive energy bill that would eliminate the cap on net metering and limit the instances in which utilities can impose charges on solar customers.

Then there’s the state House. The lower chamber passed a series of energy bills but ultimately declined to weigh in on the Senate’s solar proposals. The two sides are now attempting to iron out their differences in conference committee before the legislative session ends Tuesday.

The debate comes as state officials are set to roll out a revamped program that provides subsidies to panel-owning consumers. But solar interests worry that the program’s launch could be impeded by the Department of Public Utilities’ decision to allow Eversource Energy, a utility, to impose a demand charge on solar customers.

“It would be a very real problem if those charges go into place at the end of the year,” said Evan Dube, senior director of public policy at Sunrun Inc., a solar installer.

He voiced support for the Senate bill, which would only allow utilities to impose demand charges typically assessed against peak electricity use, on consumers with smart meters. That would limit their impact to consumers who can track their electricity use.

Eversource, for its part, has argued that the growing prevalence of solar-owning customers has resulted in a cost shift, with consumers without panels paying more for the transmission and distribution system.

In a statement, the Boston-based utility declined to weigh in on the legislative debate. Instead, it touted its own solar commitment, noting that it’s in the process of bringing 70 MW of solar online by the end of 2018.

Dan Dolan, director of the New England Power Generators Association, worries about Massachusetts offering additional subsidies at a time when it is already granting long-term contracts to offshore wind and hydropower operators.

“We’re facing resources that are not subject to market economics that are being paid outside the marketplace,” he said. “While solar’s operations in the summer have been really strong, by having these resources that are subsidized, they lower overall prices for the resources that are needed for reliability.”

The stakes of Massachusetts’ solar debate were on display during a recent heat wave in New England. The regional grid operator, ISO New England, reported that residential solar lowered peak power demand by 2,000 MW during the afternoon on June 29 through July 5. That is roughly equivalent to 8 percent of the region’s peak power demand during the hot spell.

Whether solar will continue to play an increasing role in New England’s energy mix could depend on what Massachusetts lawmakers decide next.