MA solar hurting, needs legislative help

Industry lost more than 3,000 jobs last year

AT THE END OF THIS MONTH, Massachusetts legislators will break for the remainder of the summer. That leaves just a couple days for them to act on key bills that could bring thousands of jobs back to the Bay State.

At risk is the state’s solar industry — a sector that’s been helping Massachusetts grow for nearly a decade, pouring $5 billion of investment into the economy and creating 11,500 jobs. Solar jobs are among the fastest-growing jobs in the country, and the industry has been a consistent bright spot, giving blue-collar workers new job opportunities and consumers and businesses a chance to lower their energy bills.

What those numbers don’t show, however, is the massive job loss Massachusetts saw last year. More than 3,000 solar workers lost their jobs. The state fell from No. 1 in solar jobs per capita to only seventh best.

Last year was no anomaly: Massachusetts was one of just a handful of states that lost jobs in 2016, even though the rest of the industry boomed. The forecast for this year is no better. Solar installations are expected to fall by 44 percent compared to last year.

Lawmakers have a chance to reverse this with policies that should be easy to pass. In particular, artificial caps on net metering, the policy that allows customers to sell power back to the grid, and, separately, the imposition of a utility-created fee called a demand charge on all solar homes, threaten to undermine the state’s broader goals.

The primary policy hurting Massachusetts solar workers is one that limits how much solar can be installed in the state. The law places caps on how many businesses and towns can qualify for net metering. This provision does not apply to homes. It also caps community solar projects that make solar more accessible to consumers who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to install solar at home.

Those caps were hit in National Grid’s service territory 18 months ago, slamming the brakes on solar projects in more than 170 cities and towns across the state. Few other sectors have limits placed on how many consumers can buy their product, but Massachusetts’ solar industry has been hobbled by this policy for years. Without action to raise the caps, projects could stall across the entire state.

Unfortunately, that’s just the beginning of the headwinds facing people who want to go solar. Earlier this year, the Department of Public Utilities rubber-stamped a proposal that will allow the state’s largest electric utility, Eversource, to assess a few on residents who adopt solar. The demand charge goes into effect next year. It will raise the cost of solar, making it harder for consumers to afford solar, further depressing demand in the state.

Massachusetts has been a national leader in moving to the clean energy economy, setting an example for other states along the way. As part of that leadership, it has adopted ambitious climate and greenhouse gas reduction goals. But policies like these run counter to those goals. And other key policies haven’t kept up, like the Renewable Portfolio Standard, which mandates the amount of energy Massachusetts must generate from renewable energy.

There are relatively easy solutions to these issues. Before the end of session, the House and Senate should agree on language to raise the net metering caps, enabling any business or town that wants to go solar to do so; reverse the DPU’s discriminatory assessment on homeowners with solar; and raise the Renewable Portfolio Standard by 3 percent each year, putting Massachusetts on par with other leading clean energy states.

Meet the Author

Abigail Ross Hopper

President and CEO, Solar Energy Industries Association
During the next few days, lawmakers can help bring more jobs, massive economic opportunity, and fair and equal access to solar energy for all Bay Staters. It’s time to put Massachusetts back on the map as one of our nation’s clean energy leaders.

Abigail Ross Hopper is president and CEO of the national Solar Energy Industries Association, which represents dozens of Massachusetts-based companies, including solar installers, manufacturers, project developers, contractors and financiers.