Siting silent and relatively unobtrusive solar panels is easier than it is for noisier and more visible wind turbines, but there has been push back from neighbors at several locations on the Cape. Proposed solar projects in Eastham and in Cotuit were withdrawn in the past year after protests from neighbors upset about clear cutting and related aesthetic changes. And after a wind turbine at Cape Cod Community College was stymied by a vote of the Old King's Highway Regional Historic District Commission, a solar project that took its place prompted at least one anonymous call of complaint to the Times about the cleared land.
BARNSTABLE – Solar in Massachusetts is on fire.
Over the past two years, capacity from photovoltaic panels across the state has more than quadrupled from 25 to 115 megawatts, enough to power about 115,000 homes, according to figures provided by state energy officials and energy information websites.
On Cape Cod and the Islands alone, 665 solar projects have been built over the past five years totaling more than 8 megawatts.
“In general, we have certainly seen a boom in the field of solar energy,” Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Richard K. Sullivan Jr. said.
While the wind energy goal of 2,000 megawatts of wind energy by 2020 set by Gov. Deval Patrick is stuck in the doldrums, his goal of 250 megawatts of solar by 2017 is approaching faster than many industry watchers expected.
But even the sunny side of life sees a cloud now and again. High costs, siting issues and red tape top the list of hurdles facing solar energy projects.
The cost of solar energy, while falling rapidly, is still notoriously high, easily topping the price of land-based and offshore wind energy on a per kilowatt basis.
Nationwide, the cost to install a watt of solar energy has fallen by half from about $10 to $5 over the past decade, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Policies at the state level – including the ability of renewable energy developers to sell power back into the grid or net meter at a guaranteed price and requirements that polluters buy renewable energy certificates generated by solar projects – have improved the economics of solar, as have improvements in photovoltaic technology.
But even solar’s most ardent supporters admit the cost, including the value of the renewable energy certificates, remains high.
Certificates for solar can vary in value but typically fetch between 30 and 54 cents per kilowatt. This makes solar at least 10 to 24 cents more expensive than the first-year price for the Nantucket Sound offshore wind energy project.
But, while Cape Wind’s opponents have blasted subsidies used to support the controversial project, there has been little fuss raised for similar financial incentives and the overall higher cost for solar projects. Some of this may be because of the localized benefits that can accrue via a solar energy project, as well as the more widespread distribution of its costs when compared to Cape Wind.
Despite the cost difference, both wind and solar will be needed to replace New England’s old, polluting power plants, Cape Wind president Jim Gordon said.
“Even though solar electricity is more expensive than offshore wind, it avoids the negative and costly impacts of fossil-fueled electricity,” he said.
While municipalities and other solar energy developers benefit from this financial support, the tab – as is the case for other energy subsidies – often falls to ratepayers or the customers of polluters forced to buy the certificates.
Siting silent and relatively unobtrusive solar panels is easier than it is for noisier and more visible wind turbines, but there has been push back from neighbors at several locations on the Cape. Proposed solar projects in Eastham and in Cotuit were withdrawn in the past year after protests from neighbors upset about clear cutting and related aesthetic changes.
And after a wind turbine at Cape Cod Community College was stymied by a vote of the Old King’s Highway Regional Historic District Commission, a solar project that took its place prompted at least one anonymous call of complaint to the Times about the cleared land.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for solar energy developers, however, is plugging into the electrical grid. The queue for developers trying to hook renewable energy projects into the grid is long and growing with more than 1,000 solar energy projects, equal to 207 megawatts, waiting for an interconnection study to be done by the utility NStar.
“Interest in renewable energy – be it solar or wind – is really high right now,” NStar spokesman Michael Durand said. “There are more applications coming in than we have ever seen.”
NStar’s critics on this front argue the utility isn’t doing enough to complete engineering studies to interconnect solar projects to the grid.
“Short answer is yeah, it’s an extreme concern,” said Charles McLaughlin, an attorney for the town of Barnstable and president of the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative.
The nonprofit cooperative, formed in 2007 to pursue renewable energy projects on the Cape and Vineyard, recently announced up to 50 megawatts of solar projects it hopes to install in its member towns. It already has 16 megawatts in the planning phase and has 750 kilowatts of solar installed at seven locations across the Cape.
A recent ruling by the state Department of Public Utilities requires that a signed interconnection agreement between a developer and a utility be in place before a project can line up to be considered under different caps established for financial incentives, McLaughlin said.
The state has a limit of 400 megawatts total for projects that will be eligible to sell solar renewable energy certificates. Currently NStar has a cap of 2 percent of its electrical load that it must accept from renewable energy under net metering provisions. In addition, each municipality has a 10 megawatt limit on the amount of power it can net meter.
Net metering allows renewable energy generators to sell power back into the grid or receive credit for other accounts instead of requiring that all the energy be used at the location where it is produced.
With all of these caps in danger of being exceeded, municipalities in a race to get projects done are at the mercy of how fast utilities like NStar can complete interconnect studies.
NStar is doing everything it can, Durand said.
“Each one of those applications has to be handled with care and reviewed in great detail by our engineering staff to make sure the project can be safely connected to the grid,” he said.
Even when one developer is responsible for a series of projects, as is the case with the cooperative, each project must be analyzed for its potential impact not only on the grid but also in relation to the other projects, he said.
A lot of information must flow back and forth between the developer and the utility, a process that often eats up time, Durand said.
“We’re following the process as well as possible right now,” he said.
McLaughlin and others disagree.
Even if NStar’s cap is raised to 3 percent as is proposed by legislation pending at the Statehouse, the delays are such that developers don’t know if they will make it, he said.
“They can’t, don’t or won’t hire sufficient staff or outsource the stuff,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin saved some of his criticism for the DPU, which he said wasn’t doing enough to fix the situation either. “NStar has to be brought to heel on this,” McLaughlin said, adding that the present cash value of delayed projects is being lost.
Secretary Sullivan said he didn’t think the interconnection process was going fast enough either.
The DPU is working on ways to streamline the process, as is state Assistant Secretary for Energy Steven Clarke, Sullivan said.
Despite the outstanding concerns about the process, the Patrick administration is well on its way to meeting its goal for solar energy, Sullivan said, adding that the heavy reliance of Cape homes on electric heat means homeowners in the region can benefit even more from generating electricity through solar panels.
“Going solar on the Cape is actually more attractive,” he said.
The industry’s growth has helped fuel solar installers and other businesses on the Cape, Sullivan said.
For smaller projects – typically under 10 kilowatts or 25 kilowatts, depending on how they are connected to the grid – the process is relatively painless, said Herb Rice, an engineer with Cotuit Solar. “The big problem comes in these bigger projects,” he said.
NStar is failing to meet mandated deadlines for completing the interconnection studies, Rice said. For standard projects, the utility must complete the process within 40 to 60 business days. For larger projects, NStar has between 125 and 150 days. “They’re hitting double and triple those on some projects,” Rice said.
In other cases, miscommunication between the electric utility and Verizon, which owns the utility poles, can lead to further delays, Rice said.
Still, he said, with installation costs falling dramatically as panels become more efficient and the ability of homeowners to work through third-party vendors with little up-front cost, business is good, he said.
Solar-friendly policies in Massachusetts help a lot, said John Malloy, president and CEO of Nexamp, a company that has installed several large solar projects on the Cape, including an 819-kilowatt system at the Barnstable Wastewater Treatment Facility in Hyannis.
The efficiency of solar panels has also improved, he said. “I think costs are coming down faster than people expected,” he said. “It’s an exciting time in the solar industry.”
Cape and Islands solar projects since 2007
Town No. of projects kilowatts
Aquinnah 8 22
Barnstable 93 2,006
Bourne 27 430
Brewster 33 725
Chatham 23 186
Chilmark 22 171
Dennis 18 248
Eastham 25 288
Edgartown 27 156
Falmouth 102 1,101
Harwich 59 490
Mashpee 14 700
Nantucket 6 27
Oak Bluffs 11 83
Orleans 47 308
Provincetown 10 52
Sandwich 28 155
Tisbury 10 121
Truro 26 137
Wellfleet 31 236
West Tisbury 25 115
Yarmouth 20 551
Total 665 8,308
Source: Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs
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