October 2, 2017
Focus on energy

Mass. looks to retain its solar power status

PHOTO/COURTESY
Dennison Lubricants has installed a 383-kilowatt solar energy system on its roof at 692 Millbury St. in Worcester.

Overcoming its latitude and climate disadvantages compared to other states, Massachusetts has become a national leader in solar energy production, largely thanks to state incentive programs, which are due to make a major transition next year.

"I certainly think our state policies have made Massachusetts a leader in the solar industry," said Judith Judson, the state's secretary of energy and environmental affairs.

Massachusetts ranks sixth nationally in amount of solar energy produced – up from eighth last year, leaping past Texas – enough to power 244,000 homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. It is second only to California in the number of solar-related jobs at nearly 15,000, according to The Solar Foundation. That is all despite Massachusetts's northern location and sixth-smallest land area.

"Massachusetts's impressive records with solar development is largely based on leadership from the legislators and the governor's office," said David Gahl, SEIA director of Northeast state affairs.

One knock on renewable energy such as solar has been it's more expensive than traditional energies, which are often bad for the environment for the emissions they create. But that's changed. The price of creating solar electricity, including the panels, instruments and labor, has fallen by 55 percent in Massachusetts in the past five years, the SEIA said.

Changing incentives

A spike in the number of projects comes as the state readies for a new incentive program requiring utility companies to buy a certain amount of solar-powered energy. The new program, called Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target, or SMART, is designed to offer more long-term price stability than its predecessor – lowering financing costs – and includes generally smaller government incentives dropping in price as capacity increases.

The previous program, known as SREC, or Solar Renewable Energy Credits, was due to end once the industry reached 1,600 megawatts of installed capacity statewide, and the legislature passed a bill calling for a replacement. SMART is slated to go into effect early next year.

"Consumers and residents have also taken an interest in having solar installed at their facilities or at their homes," Judson said.

For residential projects, the Massachusetts Personal Income Tax Credit offers a credit of up to $1,000, and Solarize Mass gives group discounts for residents in participating communities. Mass Solar Loan offers low-interest loans and other incentives for income-qualified customers, and the Federal Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit gives a credit up to 30 percent.

Panel costs could increase

Solar companies are also watching potential changes that could lead to spikes in the cost of solar panels.

The U.S. International Trade Commission ruled Sept. 22 cheaper imported panels were hurting American manufacturers. In reports, solar companies were said to be expecting new tariffs on those imports. The commission is expected to make a recommendation on action this fall.

Judson said she was disappointed in the vote, and the Department of Energy Resources released a statement after the vote saying higher costs could jeopardize the state's progress on solar energy.

The hidden energy

Central Massachusetts's solar arrays are almost entirely out of sight – on roofs, former landfills or off-the-beaten-path sites – making it hard for residents to realize how widespread the systems have become.

"Ninety-five percent of our work never gets seen because it's on top of a warehouse or an office building," said Craig Huntley, one of three co-founders of Hopkinton's Solect Energy and now its chief development officer.

Such projects have popped up seemingly everywhere in Central Massachusetts in recent years.

Since the start of 2014 alone, a range of projects have come on-line: a nine-megawatt complex off Auburn Street in Leicester, a five-megawatt project east of Main Street in Oxford, and a 4.5-megawatt project off Shirley Road in Lancaster among them. Dennison Lubricants added solar panels to the roof of its roughly 40,000-square-foot manufacturing and distribution center on Millbury Street in Worcester.

"Obviously, the state incentives didn't hurt the process, but we always want to do more with less," owner Tim Dennison said of the company's $1 million-plus solar array that's meant to save money and be better on the environment. "We generate more than we use."

The largest municipally owned solar program in New England opened in August at the former Greenwood Street landfill in Worcester, spanning 25 acres.

There are far more places to grow. SEIA forecasts more than 400 new solar systems this year, and more than 300 in each of the next four years.

The state's total solar capacity is expected to more than double in the next five years, with more than 2,000 megawatts added.

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