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August 6, 2015

MetroWest solar execs wait for net metering solution

The solar business is thriving in Massachusetts, thanks to the state’s net metering program, which has made it advantageous for commercial customers to adopt solar energy systems for power.

But local industry executives are preparing for a potential slowdown as the debate over a cap on net metering continues, and the expiration of federal incentives for solar energy draws near.

In MetroWest communities, that slowdown may be imminent. Jim Dumas, principal of Hopkinton-based Solect Energy, which specializes in commercial and municipal solar installations, is hopeful that state government will implement a short-term solution to the net metering cap, which has been hit in National Grid’s service territory.

Removed from Greater Boston, theNational Grid service area has ample land for solar arrays. Under the current cap, last raised in June 2014, National Grid is already buying back the amount of solar energy from commercial customers required by state law, and Dumas said that’s created a backlog of commercial customers who would like to install solar panel systems, but are waiting in hopes that the legislature will raise the net metering cap to make the projects economically feasible.

Hope for solar on Beacon Hill?

The fact that the Senate passed a bill in June to raise the cap to 1,600 megawatts, up from the current 1,000, (roughly 4 and 5 percent of total energy generation statewide) bodes well, according to Dumas. And Gov. Charlie Baker’s announcement last week that he plans to file legislation regarding the cap is another confidence boost for the industry, Dumas said.

“I’m happy that there’s proposed legislation coming,” Dumas said, adding that until last week, Baker had only made informal commitments about supporting the state’s solar industry.

Meanwhile, federal incentives for businesses that adopt solar energy systems are set to be scaled back in December 2016, and federal incentives for residential projects will be eliminated unless the government extends them.

Mark Durrenberger, president of Hudson-based New England Clean Energy and a board member with the Solar Energy Business Association of New England, said looming federal incentive reductions have caused him to diversify his offerings. With a heavy focus on residential solar installations, the company is expanding its non-solar electrical business, and considering adding ductless heating and cooling systems to its portfolio, Durrenberger said.

A relatively small portion of the business is commercial; Durrenberger said the net-metering cap affects about 15 percent of his business, as customers are mostly based in National Grid’s territory in Worcester and Middlesex counties where the cap has been met.

“It limits the amount of growth we (plan) in our business,” Durrenberger said. “We don’t ever want to lay someone off.”

Can solar survive without subsidies?

Both Dumas and Durrenberger hope a net-metering solution will be reached, as the solar industry has been a job-creation engine in the Bay State since the program was implemented under the Green Communities Act of 2008, while boosting renewable energy consumption.

As of last year, Massachusetts ranked second in the U.S. for number of solar industry jobs at 9,400, according to The Solar Foundation, with most of those jobs among solar installers.

Dumas said incentives have jump-started the solar industry in Massachusetts with his company, which has installed 20 megawatts through commercial and municipal projects, a success story. In recent years, the cost of installing systems has come down, making them more feasible even without incentives, he said. But, he added, it may be too soon to pull the plug entirely.

“I don’t know that we’re there yet,” Dumas said.

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