Industry groups on Wednesday largely welcomed the updated regulations that the Baker administration filed for a solar energy development program, saying the new rules will help the state meet its climate goals and help the solar industry as it deals with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, but some also said the update does not go far enough.
The updated regulations for the state's Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) incentive program, which is designed to facilitate solar projects by ensuring financing, double the program's capacity, expand eligibility criteria for low-income solar projects and encourage the adoption of energy storage technology.
"Massachusetts is a national leader for solar, with over 100,000 projects and 2,500 megawatts installed across the state, and continues to build on the industry's tremendous progress through the SMART program," Department of Energy Resources spokesman Eric Noreen said. "The Baker-Polito Administration is committed to promoting the continued development of the solar and energy storage industries, and by making these key regulatory changes will be able to support twice as much solar capacity, increase protections for natural resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions while delivering savings to ratepayers across the Commonwealth."
The regulations take effect Wednesday, the administration said. A public hearing will be held virtually in May and a public comment period will stay open until May 22.
In the update, DOER expanded the program's capacity from 1,600 to 3,200 megawatts, which the administration said "will create a stable runway for growth of solar to continue" in Massachusetts. DOER also expanded the criteria for projects in low-income areas and established a set-aside to provide a more stable incentive rate for those projects.
"Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, the Baker-Polito Administration has doubled the size of the SMART program, a move that will help stabilize the solar industry — one of the bright spots in the Massachusetts economy — and keep people working," David Gahl, senior director of northeast state affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said. "With this action today, Massachusetts took a positive step toward creating new solar jobs and meeting its aggressive clean energy goals, but there is more work to do on both fronts."
Similarly, Vote Solar and community-based solar advocates said they welcomed the "incremental improvements to the SMART program" but said the state is "leaving local jobs, economic investment, and pollution-reducing technology on the table in a time when an international health and economic crisis, and looming climate crisis, demand more."
"As we begin to consider plans for economic and public health recovery, solar represents an immediate opportunity to put Massachusetts back to work, and reduce air pollution that is contributing to the inequitable impact of the virus while accelerating the climate crisis," Nathan Phelps, regulatory director for Vote Solar, said.
The group and its partners called on the state to create a program specifically to develop solar projects serving low-income, environmental justice and other disadvantaged communities.
"The increase of the SMART program will help get shovel-ready solar projects that have been stalled across the Commonwealth back on track, but other elements of the program still fall short — especially for the state's low-income residents and environmental justice communities," Stephan Roundtree Jr., northeast director for Vote Solar, said. "The new low-income portion of the program is too small and poorly constructed to meet the needs of the communities it is intended to serve and fails to provide clear direction on implementation."
Sen. Michael Barrett, the Senate chair of the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee, said he is pleased with the updated regulations and especially with the administration's decision to set aside 5 percent of the incentives for projects serving low-income communities.
"It's a terrific step in the right direction," he told the News Service, noting that a similar requirement was built into a bill the Senate passed in January. "We have a terrible track record in terms of making sure that poor people benefit from net metering. This is an important remedial step. It's not enough, but it is directionally exactly where we need to go."
The senator said the state isn't yet setting the pace it will need to meet its emissions reduction targets, but that solar will be a critical component to getting there.
"To replace natural gas, the amount of clean energy Massachusetts is going to need to generate is truly massive," he said. "Every time there's a little wrinkle or a little delay in offshore wind, I think about the importance of onshore solar ... we're going to have to double down on solar throughout Massachusetts and the industry is going to face a number of headwinds."
As the updated SMART Program regulations were under review, federal lawmakers tried to make sure that DOER kept its eye on how the update would affect community solar projects, in which multiple residents or businesses band together and share in the benefits of a single solar installation.
On Wednesday, the Coalition for Community Solar Access said doubling the program's capacity "is a very positive step" that will help the state meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals through an expansion of community solar.
"Community solar has been a success story of job creation, local economic development, and consumer savings because it provides clean energy access to any customer with an electric bill. We know that significantly more community solar will have to be deployed if the Commonwealth is to meet the Governorâ€™s target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050," Erika Niedowski, northeast director for CCSA, said. "We look forward to fully reviewing details of the new SMART regulations, and to working with DOER and all stakeholders to ensure that the Commonwealth remains a leader in local solar development."
The updated regulation filed Tuesday also expands eligibility for agriculture land and requires that solar projects greater than 500 kilowatts connect to an energy storage system.
DOER will hold a virtual public hearing on the regulations and guidelines on May 22, the agency said, and the public comment period for the regulations and "key guidelines" will close that same day. A comment period for the remainder of the guidance will stay open until June 15. DOER said it expects that the regulations — filed with the secretary of state's office Tuesday as emergency regulations — will officially be promulgated on July 15.