Clouds over Mass. solar industry

Clear, bold leadership needed from Beacon Hill

IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE THAT, just a decade ago, seeing solar panels was a novelty in neighborhoods across Massachusetts. Today, that’s all changed.  Solar projects are ubiquitous across the Commonwealth – from the rooftops of homes, schools, and office buildings to solar canopies in parking lots and community solar farms.

What’s been dubbed a “solar revolution” in Massachusetts over the past several years didn’t happen by accident. Rather, it was the result of policies aimed squarely at growing the state’s renewable energy sector in order to stimulate local jobs and business innovation while reducing reliance on the fossil fuel-generated electricity that pollutes our communities and contributes to climate change.

Unfortunately, those policies – and the Massachusetts solar industry as a result – have suffered recently due to resistance from utility companies, as well as delays in expanding legislative initiatives essential to growth in the sector. Bold and swift action by Gov. Charlie Baker and our state legislators is needed to reverse this troubling new trend.

We have been heartened by action from the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy in May and the Senate Ways and Means Committee’s approval last week  of a bill that goes much further to ensure the Commonwealth gains ground on efforts to grow its solar sector. We hope both branches of the Legislature can reach consensus on the Senate bill’s key solar provisions and pass it in the remaining weeks of this legislative session.

If past is prologue, a legislative push for clean energy will likely yield strong economic returns. Following  years of policy leadership – such as passage of the groundbreaking Green Communities Act in 2008 – the Commonwealth’s solar industry became the second largest in the nation. The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center’s Clean Energy Industry Overview, pegged growth in the state’s solar workforce at a whopping 22 percent between 2015 and 2016. Those statistics tell the story of Massachusetts’ rise to national solar leadership.

These policies provided the certainty that companies needed to be able to invest in serving Massachusetts customers and in our state’s growing local workforce.

Lately, however, markets beyond Massachusetts’ borders are attracting businesses because the Commonwealth has not been leading like it should. Among the culprits: a long running and frustratingly intermittent cap on one of Massachusetts’ most successful solar programs (net metering), a longer-than-expected development effort for the next iteration of Massachusetts’ solar incentive program, and the Department of Public Utilities’ approval of an unfair new charge that will hike and confuse bills for future solar customers of Eversource, the Commonwealth’s largest utility.

The new Eversource “demand charge,” which is remedied (along with net metering caps) in the Senate bill, has the potential to be especially damaging.  To our knowledge, the only other time a utility of a comparable size has imposed this type of confusing and costly charge on residential customers was in Arizona in 2015, and it resulted in an astounding 95 percent decrease in solar adoption by that utility’s customers.

With these uncertain or negative policies as a backdrop, The Solar Foundation’s latest Solar Job Census found that the number of solar workers in Massachusetts dropped by 21 percent last year, the second largest decline of any state in the nation. Massachusetts lost more solar jobs—3,000—than were gained by 20 other states combined. Meanwhile, neighboring New York has bragging rights for a 10.8 percent increase in solar jobs during 2017.

The 2017 Solar Jobs Census marked the second straight year of job losses for Massachusetts in what should be, and has been for most of the past decade, a bright spot in our economy. The Commonwealth still ranks among the leading solar employers in the United States, but the fact that new residential solar installations declined by half – from over 23,000 in 2016 to approximately 10,000 in 2017 – is worrying in a state that claims to lead the nation on clean energy and climate.

National companies have many options about where to locate and expand.  Among the most important factors is the ability to count on stable policies that keep the way clear for customers to choose solar and – in doing so – allow companies to grow and create local jobs. The Commonwealth used to provide that, but now it is in question.

Meet the Author

Sean Garren

Northeast senior director, Vote Solar
Absent any leadership on clean energy from Washington, Massachusetts solar businesses need clear, bold leadership from our leaders on Beacon Hill now more than ever. The legislation slated for Senate debate this week represents positive progress. Combined with thoughtful implementation of the Baker Administration’s new solar incentive program, quick action to pass this bill will put us back on the path to a clean energy future that works for  communities, businesses and families of all income levels.

We’ve already seen the future and it was bright. It’s time to get back on track.

Sean Garren is northeast senior director for Vote Solar.