After months of delays, state approves doubling of solar power

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Now, that green light has finally arrived: the State Utilities Department in late December approved the doubling of the state’s Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program, which provides incentives to make saving solar power achievable and would create some 1,600 megawatts of electricity.

But clean energy advocates fear the long limbo bodes ill for the next generation of solar development before the DPU, which will likely require more intensive planning, scrutiny and scrutiny.

Compared to the other sweeping changes required by the fossil fuel transition – getting 1 million homes off natural gas and oil by 2030, for example – clean energy experts say flooding the grid with solar is relatively simple. But only if they have the tools to do the job.

“We have an entire industry chomping at the bit to respond and build these projects,” said Jessica Robertson, director of policy and business development in New England for Borrego Solar. “It’s a real shame that we’ve been held back for so long by regulatory delays.”

The SMART program, which launched in 2018, is the state’s primary tool for boosting solar power in the state. It allows a surcharge on utility bills to be allocated to solar projects – from panels on homes and apartment buildings to community solar farms. Over 25 years, the new expansion will cost about $3.6 billion, according to the state. These funds are crucial because without them, the costs of solar can exceed those of fossil fuels.

The first cycle of the program required a lengthy state review and approval process. When the state later announced doubling in size, solar advocates said they thought it would be simple since it was supported by the solar industry, utility companies and the attorney general’s office.

“It took more than a year to approve an uncontroversial expansion of a program that had already gone through a regulatory process,” said David Gahl, senior director of state policy for Solar Energy. Industries Association.

What worries Gahl and other solar advocates is that for Massachusetts to quickly reduce emissions as required by the new law, it will have to rely even more on solar. Ultimately, this will bring projects before the DPU with much more complex and potentially contentious issues, such as protect consumers from predatory solar developers, and restructuring of the electricity network.

“There will be more contentious and more complicated cases that the DPU will have to deal with, and I think there are now real questions about the department’s ability to address the issues it faces,” Gahl said.

Craig Gilvarg, director of communications for the state Energy and Environment Administration, said the long process that led to the expansion of the SMART program was due to legal requirements and that the time that it took was consistent with other prominent DPU cases.

But industry officials said the DPU review time proved costly.

“Industry growth has stagnated or even declined,” said Kelly Friend, vice president of policy and regulatory affairs at Nexamp, a Boston-based solar company. According to the state Department of Energy Resources, there are more than 4,600 construction-ready projects across the state that have been delayed by the utility department’s backlog.

These small projects, for the most part, total about 175 megawatts of solar power, Gahl said, enough to power 11,550 homes.

State solar developers have described frustrating experiences in which they have spent the past 18 months turning down contracts or cutting projects.

“We dropped a number of projects because the economy wasn’t going to work until some of those rules changed, and because we’ve been waiting so long, at some point, customers move on. thing,” said James Manzer, who manages the North Andover arm of ReVision Energy.

These delays are particularly significant in the context of the role solar power will play in helping the state meet its climate goals.

Solar power will be an important complement to offshore wind as the state meets a projected doubling — or more — of electricity demand by 2050 as the state completes its transition from fossil fuels. The wind blows strongest at night and in winter; the sun’s rays are more productive during the day and in summer.

And another great source of renewable energy may never materialize. The draft state clean energy and climate plan for 2030 calls for the import of 1 gigawatt of hydroelectric power via a transmission line from Quebec. But the effort is seriously stalled – and potentially doomed — after a vote in Maine killed the project. The climate plan also provides for 3.2 gigawatts of offshore wind power.

Even though the hydroelectric plan is somehow saved, the state’s climate plan still relies more on solar power, predicting a total of 5.2 gigawatts by 2030. As of the third quarter of 2021, 3,486 megawatts are already online, according to the latest quarterly report. of Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables and the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Unlike hydro or offshore wind, which deliver massive amounts of power from just a few large projects, reaching this solar goal will require thousands of projects of varying sizes.

Carolyn Pretyman, spokeswoman for utility Eversource, said the company expects to see 800 megawatts of new solar projects in the coming years thanks to increased state funding for SMART. “We look forward to continuing our work with our regulators and all stakeholders to maximize the benefits of programs like SMART for all of our customers,” she said.

One problem, critics say, is that Massachusetts effectively requires two state departments to be involved in the regulatory process, the DPU and the Department of Energy Resources, resulting in bureaucratic hurdles that don’t exist in other state departments. other states.

New York, which has a more streamlined approach, is on track to achieve its legally mandated goal of 6 gigawatts of distributed solar power ahead of schedule. Meanwhile, Massachusetts is “struggling to implement the 3.2 gigawatt expansion,” Gahl said..

He said the DPU also faces an overwhelming workload as Massachusetts strives to fulfill its mandate to halve emissions by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.

“They have all these cases that they’re trying to make decisions on,” he said. “They are understaffed. Many of these problems are complicated and need to be done faster than they were.

This story has been updated to correct a description of the amount of solar power currently installed in the state, which is almost two-thirds of the 2050 goal – not “a tiny fraction”, as had been originally reported.


Sabrina Shankman can be reached at sabrina.shankman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shankman.

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