Solar revolution is stalled, needs to shift into gear

Lawmakers need to move on climate action bill

AFTER FOUR YEARS of denying climate science and downplaying its consequences, the federal government is on the cusp of a new era. Although deep political divides persist on many issues, there is one thing that Americans are united on – and that’s a desire for a national transition to clean, renewable energy.

A resounding 82 percent of voters say 100 percent clean energy should be our national goal. President-elect Biden’s plan for a $2 trillion national stimulus for clean energy and infrastructure, with 100 percent clean energy by 2035, also has overwhelming public support. The Biden-Harris administration is poised to spur new clean energy investments and innovation over the next decade, which is a much-needed ray of hope for solar and other renewable technologies that played second fiddle to fossil fuels during the Trump Administration.

With the United Nations warning of irreparable harm to the planet unless governments take decisive action to reduce carbon pollution in the next 10 years, the new administration’s commitment to clean energy is huge progress in and of itself. It is further strengthened by Biden’s promise to target 40 percent of the administration’s proposed climate-related investments to disadvantaged communities – a strategy designed to ensure that we all share the health and economic benefits of a clean energy future, regardless of zip codes.

Washington’s new focus on renewable energy should motivate state leaders here in Massachusetts to think and act big on climate. Our state has an opportunity to set an ambitious and aggressive climate agenda that can right the environmental injustices that many of our communities have suffered while investing in the clean energy economy that benefits all residents. These twin goals demand a return to the bold leadership Massachusetts has shown before. There is no time or excuse for incrementalism, especially when Massachusetts’ once thriving clean energy sector is slowing, and the consequences of underinvesting in energy-burdened communities has been laid bare.

We can reverse that trend. Not long ago, during the last great recession, state policymakers wisely chose to rebuild the Massachusetts economy by investing in clean energy and putting the state on a path to meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reductions. The steps lawmakers took then sparked a clean energy revolution, with solar power leading the charge.

Driven by passage of nation-leading clean energy legislation in 2008, Massachusetts went from roughly 3 megawatts of installed solar energy to 2,500 megaewatts in just over a decade. The suite of laws and policies implemented during that period not only led to the retirement of many fossil fuel power plants but made Massachusetts the logical place to grow a clean energy business. Hundreds of companies – ours, included – took hold, creating thousands of local jobs.

Fast forward, however, and this success has proven to be far from complete. By failing to guarantee inclusion for low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, the Bay State’s much-touted clean energy revolution effectively left these communities out. Moreover, the revolution itself has stalled. Regulatory delays and missteps are pushing solar energy from center stage to the sidelines at exactly the time we should be both increasing deployment of emission-free energy and safeguarding the jobs of those who install it. Recent years have seen the state’s solar workforce shrink by a third – nearly 4,400 jobs, as new solar installations have dropped by half. Last year, the least amount of solar energy was installed in Massachusetts since 2013 – a 40 percent decline since 2017.

Meanwhile, the climate clock keeps ticking, as a global pandemic continues to wreak havoc on some of our most vulnerable communities. Compounding these two tragedies is the economic disaster that our collective effort to slow the pandemic has wrought. Massachusetts is currently battling back from an unemployment rate that was the highest in the country and higher than any jobless rate the Commonwealth has experienced in over a generation. With the election over and a clear national mandate from voters on climate and clean energy issues, the Massachusetts Legislature must make progress on these fronts before the end of the year.

While more ambitious legislation was possible earlier in the pandemic, a bill that acknowledges the challenges we face and creates a framework for recovery is currently being negotiated by a conference committee in the Legislature. It includes measures to support the solar industry, and a roadmap to meaningfully reduce pollution. With swift passage and implementation, it could create new local jobs and drive much-neededinvestment in the Massachusetts economy.

While this bill is not nearly as bold we would like, its focus on increasing solar access for low-income households and communities of color is notable, and one of the reasons we are proud to support it. It is precisely these communities who bear the highest risk for health impacts from fossil fuel-based power generation – including higher risk for COVID-19 – and who spend the largest percentage of their income on home energy costs. While not outright preventing installation of solar on rooftops of three-deckers and other urban homes, previous state energy policy shortchanged families in older urban centers.

The climate bill before the Legislature would protect access to solar for low- and moderate-income households, create exemptions for arbitrary net-metering caps, and create worker training programs that prioritize women and minority businesses, environmental justice community members, and workers transitioning from fossil fuel jobs.

Meet the Author

Ben Downing

Vice president of new market develpment, Nexamp
Meet the Author

Ben Underwood

Founder and co-CEO, Resonant Energy
But we can and must go further. Legislators should add language to the current draft that holds state officials accountable for meeting an ambitious net zero carbon emissions commitment. Real, volumetric solar goals for systems serving low-income and environmental justice communities could remove financial barriers to solar in these communities, which would spur creation of good jobs in hard-hit neighborhoods. A reimagined state policy designed to close the gap between solar haves and have-nots would establish an on-ramp for high school and community college graduates to segue into careers building a clean energy future in the places where they live.

At a time when the US is poised for bold climate action, this legislation can put Massachusetts back on the road to national clean energy leadership. The Massachusetts House and Senate rose to this challenge before. They must rise and meet the moment again.

Benjamin Downing is vice president for new market development for Nexamp. Ben Underwood is the Co-CEO and founder of Resonant Energy.