After decades of promise, solar energy is finally becoming more available in Massachusetts, through a wise use of government subsidies. The state is driving down costs by providing financial incentives for homeowners to install solar panels, and for utilities to buy back the electricity that they generate.
Under the programs Solarize Massachusetts and Commonwealth Solar, which made their final installations of the year this month, residents and businesses bought or leased solar equipment at subsidized prices, then sold any unused power back to an electric company. The total amount of state expenditures — $5.7 million in 2012 — was relatively high, but as more homes and businesses convert to solar energy, others will be compelled to try it, creating the economies of scale necessary to drive down the price.
The 2008 Green Communities law requires that 7 percent of power purchased by electric utilities must come from renewable sources by 2016. The conversion is starting to happen. At its current rate of installations, Massachusetts will be sixth-highest among all states in putting solar panels on top of homes, and third, behind only New Jersey and California, in placing panels on the roofs of offices, schools, and big-box stores such as Kohl’s, Walmart, or Whole Foods.
In the 17 cities and towns that signed up for Solarize Massachusetts, which include Boston, homeowners and businesses that installed solar-energy panels are receiving electricity at rates well below the 15 cents per kilowatt hour for traditional gas, coal-fired, or nuclear energy. Arlington locked in a rate of 5 cents per kilowatt hour; Millbury and Sutton locked in 5.5 cents. Boston has an 11-cent rate. (Variations depend on the type of housing, the price the city negotiates with installers, and the number of homes and businesses involved.)
More communities are hoping to join up next year, which will depend, in part, on future subsidies. The programs are complemented by federal solar energy tax credits that are scheduled to expire by 2016. But Massachusetts is on such a fast track to exceed its 2017 goals of 250 megawatts of solar-generating capacity that experts are cautiously optimistic that the state will be able to continue increasing its solar-energy footprint without the federal assistance. Alicia Barton McDevitt, CEO of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, said the day that solar can stand on its own is “within sight.”
When the Green Communities Act passed in 2008, there were 8.2 megawatts of solar capacity in Massachusetts. Today there are 174 megawatts, enough juice for 27,500 homes. When he signed the act, Governor Patrick boasted it was “the best clean energy bill in America.” On solar panels, at least, it is living up to its billing.