Our Opinion: Solar power needs a good political climate

It was appropriately sunny and warm last Thursday when an assortment of Stockbridge and solar industry dignitaries officially marked the completion of a new solar panel array that would cut future energy costs for the town while adding revenue to municipal coffers (Eagle, May 4). In an example of mutual benefits made possible by the unlimited bounty of renewable energy sources, Stockbridge — with the help of Framingham-based commercial photovoltaic systems installer and maintainer Ameresco — has converted the former town landfill into a 3.5-acre electrical power plant generating an anticipated 1.1 million kilowatt-hours per year. This is expected to save the town $46,000 annually in energy costs while bringing in another $13,000 in tax revenue.

The project was accomplished under the bright sky of Massachusetts' favorable renewable energy environment.

Massachusetts has been among the leaders of states promoting renewables like solar and wind. In 2008, the Legislature passed the Global Warming Solutions Act, which mandated an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. Besides slowing the degradation of the planet's atmosphere, the Act facilitated the explosive growth of jobs in the state's clean energy sector — 81 percent between 2010 and 2017, accounting for 109,000 jobs and 2.3 percent of the state's economy last year, according to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.

Lately, however, a few clouds have appeared on the horizon that would cast shade on that enviable reputation. For one, the state has had a checkered record of capping net metering, which is the mechanism whereby those who generate their own electricity — like homeowners with rooftop solar arrays — receive credits from the utilities to whom they send their excess, unused energy. The caps do not affect small domestic arrays, but in January of this year the Department of Environmental Regulation allowed Eversource, which is the primary supplier of electrical power to Western Massachusetts, to levy a "demand charge" on future customers with solar capability when they interconnect with the grid. This charge is designed to provide additional resources to the utility to maintain its grid in light of the impact of solar on its traditional rate-based income, but detractors view it as a money grab and part of a nationwide campaign on the part of electric utilities to minimize the incentives enjoyed by the renewables industry. A bill in the state Senate seeks the overdue elimination of the state net metering caps.

Of great consequence to the solar industry, also, is President Trump's 30-percent tariff on foreign-made solar equipment, particularly that of Chinese origin. The low cost of the Chinese product has made solar much more affordable for American homeowners and businesses. In a recent Eagle oped (March 5,) Christopher Kilfoyle, president of Berkshire Photovoltaic Systems in North Adams, and his colleagues across the state, expressed their fear that thousands of industry jobs will be put at risk as a result of the tariff.

Small triumphs like Stockbridge's new solar array amply demonstrate that the previously unthinkable is actually possible given the proper environment. Renewable energy is an industry sector that is made up of big players as well as hundreds of mom-and-pop installers, and as such is vulnerable to market uncertainties. The Commonwealth should promite a stable and nurturing regulatory platform so that such businesses may thrive or at least survive undermining from D.C..


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