Martha’s Vineyard shines in state rankings for solar energy use

Ralph Stewart

Aquinnah, Chilmark, Edgartown, and West Tisbury are ranked in the top 20 among Massachusetts cities and towns with the most solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, according to a report recently released by Environment Massachusetts Research and Policy Center.

The solar energy industry in Massachusetts has grown 30-fold since 2007, spurred by a push from Governor Deval Patrick and the state legislature through policy and fiscal incentives, the report’s executive summary said. As a result, the state is well on its way to meet Governor Patrick’s goal for Massachusetts to install 250 megawatts of solar panels by 2017. In addition, Massachusetts is committed to installing 400 megawatts of solar power by 2020.

To date, about 115 megawatts of solar power have been added in Massachusetts. The new installations produce enough electricity to power more than 18,000 homes, according to a press release on the governor’s website.

Solar PV systems have been installed in 333 of 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts to date. The estimates of solar PV installations by municipality included in the report by Environment Massachusetts, a non-profit citizen-based environmental advocacy organization, are based on data provided by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC).

MassCEC administers the state’s Renewable Energy Trust Fund and tracks the size and location of solar PV systems that are eligible for Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs). The certificates are an economic incentive for solar power development.

Island towns in the solar ranks

The data in the Environment Massachusetts report represents both commercial and residential solar PV systems registered by MassCEC in service as of May 24, 2012. The report includes 97 megawatts or 88 percent of the 110 megawatts of solar PV capacity installed in the state between the beginning of 2002 and June 1, 2012.

“Comparing the regions of Massachusetts, the Cape and Islands have experienced by far the fastest adoption of solar energy when measured on a per-capita basis,” the report said. “The Cape and Islands have 13 times more solar PV systems per 1,000 residents than the city of Boston.”

Among all the towns and cities with solar PV systems, Chilmark ranked first, with 37 installations per 1,000 residents, Aquinnah second with 35.4, and West Tisbury fourth with 16.4. Edgartown is number 19 on the list of the top 20, with 8.1 solar installations per 1,000 residents. Tisbury ranked 42nd with 5.3 installations per 1,000 residents and Oak Bluffs 51st with 4.2.

The report also ranked cities and towns by solar PV capacity per capita, determined by the amount of electricity a community is capable of producing from solar energy divided by its population. Chilmark leads the Cape and Islands region and came in third in the top five for solar energy capacity per capita. West Tisbury made the list of the top 20 towns with the highest total number of solar PV installations, with 45.

Free energy, at a cost

“Massachusetts’ emerging leadership in solar energy is no accident,” the Environment Massachusetts report said. “Rather, it is the result of strong public policies designed to make it easier for Bay Staters to ‘go solar’ and of the commitment of homeowners, businesses, local governments, and non-profit organizations in cities and towns across Massachusetts to the vision of a cleaner energy future.”

While many Bay Staters have gone solar, their fellow taxpayers have helped them to do so. Governor Patrick’s solar power initiative includes subsidies, rebates, tax breaks, and net metering, which is a policy that allows surplus solar-generated energy to be sold back to a utility company. Homeowners can also apply for federal tax credits for solar PV systems.

In 2007, Governor Patrick introduced Commonwealth Solar, a program that earmarked $68 million in rebates for the installation of solar panels. Many people took advantage of the program, and as a result its funding was depleted in 22 months, rather than in three or four years as planned, according to an article on the American Bar Association’s (ABA) website. The initiative funded 208 commercial solar projects and subsidized more than 12,000 solar projects by the time all the applications were processed.

As the ABA article points out, Governor Patrick’s solar power initiative defrayed start-up costs for commercial and residential solar panel users through rebates, and its policies created favorable conditions for renewable energy developers.

The Massachusetts Green Communities Act, passed in 2008, set a graduated timetable for utilities to start generating an increasing percentage of their electricity from renewable energy sources. It also required utility companies to enter long-term contracts with renewable energy developers, making it easier for the developers to obtain financing, the ABA article said.

A bill signed by Governor Patrick this month included incentives for additional clean energy installations, as well as a provision that would allow more owner-produced peak load electricity to be sold back to the grid. Senate Bill 2395, enacted in July 2012, increased the total net metering cap from three percent to six percent, with three percent allocated for private entities and three percent for governmental and municipal entities.

The Environment Massachusetts report recommends that the state set a goal of obtaining 10 percent of its energy from the sun by 2030. Among suggestions to achieve that, the organization said the state should consider lifting the cap on the amount of solar energy eligible for net metering, invest in improvements to the electricity grid to accommodate a maximum amount of renewable energy, and explore options such as fixed-price contracts with solar energy suppliers.