If Massachusetts is to quickly cut carbon emissions to meet its 2030 emissions mandate, then solar panels will have to be just about everywhere: on rooftops of houses, apartment buildings, and schools, sprawling across fields and parks, lining highway medians.
And it needs to happen soon. The state’s plan to import hydropower from Canada is on life support, and wind energy projects take a long time to bring online. So the pressure on solar to deliver, and deliver quickly, has never been greater.
Yet, for more than a year, plans for a big buildout of solar languished in a bureaucratic limbo. Permits and initial review complete, hundreds of solar projects were ready to go but for one thing: a green light from the state’s utility regulator that would free up funds to subsidize them.
Now, that green light is finally here: The state Department of Public Utilities in late December approved doubling the state’s Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program, which provides incentives to make the economics of solar feasible and would create some 1,600 megawatts of electricity.
But clean energy advocates fear the lengthy limbo is a bad augur for the next generation of solar development to go before the DPU, which will likely require more intensive planning, review, and controls.
Compared with the other sea changes required by the transition from fossil fuels — getting 1 million homes to quit 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 a whole industry that’s 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 really unfortunate that we’ve been held up for so long by regulatory delays.”
The SMART program, which was launched in 2018, is the state’s primary tool for boosting solar energy in the state. It allows for a surcharge on utility bills to be directed toward solar projects — from panels on houses and apartment buildings, to community solar farms. Over 25 years, the new expansion will cost roughly $3.6 billion, according to the state. Those funds are crucial, because without them, the costs for solar can exceed those of fossil fuel.
The first round of the program required a lengthy review and approval process by the state. When the state later announced the doubling of its size, solar advocates said they thought it would be straightforward since it was supported by the solar industry, utility companies, and the attorney general’s office.
“It took more than a year to approve a noncontroversial expansion of a program that had already been through a regulatory process,” said David Gahl, senior director of state policy for the Solar Energy Industries Association.
What worries Gahl and other solar advocates is that in order for Massachusetts to rapidly cut emissions as required by the new law, it will need to lean even more heavily on solar. Ultimately that will bring projects before the DPU with much more complex and potentially contentious issues, such as protecting consumers from predatory solar developers, and restructuring the power grid.
“There will be more controversial and more complicated cases that the DPU is going to need to handle, and I think there are some real questions now about the department’s ability to address the issues in front of it,” Gahl said.
Craig Gilvarg, director of communications for the state Energy and Environment Administration, said the lengthy process that led to the SMART program’s expansion was due to statutory requirements, and that the time it took was consistent with other significant DPU cases.
But industry officials said that DPU review time proved costly.
“The growth of the industry has stagnated, if not fallen off,” said Kelly Friend, vice president for 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 around the state that were held up by the public utilities department’s delay.
Those mostly small projects add up to roughly 175 megawatts of solar, Gahl said — enough to power 11,550 homes.
Solar developers around the state described frustrating experiences in which they spent the last 18 months turning down contracts or scaling back projects.
“We’ve walked away from a number of projects because the economics weren’t going to work until some of these rules changed, and because we’ve been waiting for so long, at some point customers move on,” said James Manzer, who manages the North Andover branch of ReVision Energy.
These delays are especially significant in the context of the role solar will play in helping the state meet its climate targets.
Solar energy will be an important compliment to offshore wind as the state responds to a projected doubling — or more — of demand for electricity 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 most productive during the day and in summer.
And another big source of renewable energy may never materialize. The state’s draft Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2030 calls for importing 1 gigawatt of hydroelectric energy via from 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 calls for 3.2 gigawatts from offshore wind.
Even if the hydropower plan is somehow rescued, the state’s climate plan still relies more heavily on solar, anticipating a total of 5.2 gigawatts by 2030. As of the third quarter of 2021, 3,486 megawatts is already online, according to the most recent quarterly report from Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables and the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Unlike hydroelectric or offshore wind, which deliver massive amounts of energy from just a few large projects, getting to that solar target will require thousands of projects of various sizes.
Carolyn Pretyman, a spokeswoman for utility Eversource, said the company expects to see 800 megawatts of new solar projects in the coming years thanks to the state’s increase in SMART funding. “We look forward to continued 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 said, 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 states.
New York, which has a more streamlined approach, is poised to hit its legally mandated target of 6 gigawatts of distributed solar ahead of schedule. Meanwhile Massachusetts is “struggling to implement the expansion to 3.2 gigawatts,” said Gahl.
He said the DPU is also contending with an overwhelming workload as Massachusetts races to meet its mandate to halve emissions by 2030 and hit net zero by 2050.
“They have all these cases they’re trying to make decisions on,” he said. “They’re understaffed. Many of these issues are complicated and they have to execute faster than they have been.”
This story has been updated to correct a description of the amount of solar that is currently installed in the state, which represents nearly two-thirds of the 2050 goal — not “a tiny fraction,” as was initially reported.