Looking for a fun diversion on a sunny summer afternoon? If you live in Boston, check out the city’s online solar map, which shows the solar power projects, large and small, that have been installed throughout the city. You’ll be astonished, as I was, to see how many of your workaday neighbors have gone solar — and not just in the city’s urban hipster quarters. The Renew Boston website includes an interactive tool that lets you estimate how much solar potential is on your own roof, and how much money (not to mention greenhouse gas and toxic particulate matter) you could save by making the switch.
Wind power seems to get all the attention (and more government subsidies), but solar has been quietly gaining among renewable energy sources. Massachusetts ranks seventh among the states in the amount of solar capacity installed per capita, not far behind big-sky states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada — with more natural advantages. This spring the state announced it had met its goal of installing 250 megawatts of solar energy (enough to power 37,000 homes), four years ahead of schedule. Nationally, according to a new study by the advocacy group Environment Massachusetts, America’s solar capacity has tripled just in the last two years.
Why has solar power reached this likely tipping point? A virtuous cycle of lower costs, tax breaks and other incentives, better business models, and new financing options has made it more attractive, especially to small-scale homeowners. The biggest up-front cost of going solar is installing the photovoltaic panels, for example, so companies have come up with plans that allow residents to lease the equipment, locking in a low rate for their own energy and even getting credits if the panels produce more than they can use. Boston Mayor Tom Menino took advantage of this kind of arrangement when he put solar panels on his Hyde Park home in December.
Another obstacle is the so-called soft cost of going solar: permits, paperwork, education, and outreach to new customers. So the City of Boston now offers homeowners a special fast track through the permitting bureaucracy.
Rob Sargent, coauthor of the Environment Massachusetts study, says the 12 states leading the nation in converting to solar power all have strong public policies encouraging the move. “There needs to be a commitment from the top,” he said. Most states have adopted renewable energy standards that require utilities to increase the percentage of their energy portfolios carved out for renewable sources. The desert town of Lancaster, Calif., will require all newly constructed residential buildings be equipped with solar panels starting next year.
But carrots can be as effective as sticks. The federal renewable energy investment tax credit returns 30 percent of the cost of solar and other renewable installations on private residences — including second homes. Massachusetts offers a personal income tax credit of 15 percent, up to $1,000. But there’s a crazy-quilt of rebates, loans, grants, and other incentives that differ by town and utility — the state could use a single clearinghouse to help the homeowner wade through all the regulations and benefits.
Tax credits are controversial in much of the country, where efforts to repeal them have been launched in North Carolina, Ohio, and Louisiana. In January, Arizona’s public utilities commission voted to eliminate tax incentives for commercial solar systems. “These things can get tied up in budget politics,” said Sargent.
But most efforts to roll back solar incentives have stalled, confronted with the public’s growing demand for the technology. Boston had such a good experience with the state-run pilot project Menino joined last year that it has just finished accepting bids for the same sort of bulk-purchasing program for Boston residents. Brian Swett, the city’s chief environmental officer, said he hopes the new program will launch by the end of August. “Our goal is to get every cost-effective, solar-ready roof [involved in the program] in the near term,” he said.
In the realm of urban public design, a lot of attention lately has focused on roofs — green roofs that limit stormwater runoff, shared outdoor space for micro-unit residents, rooftop gardening, even beekeeping. Now more people than you might think are finding a good green use for the crown of their homes. Just look up.
Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.