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Massachusetts Maps its Solar Energy Future

Four years ago Massachusetts passed the Green Communities Act in 2008 which included a solar carve-out program. Since then the state's solar PV installed capacity has surged from about 3 megawatts (MW) to over 200 MW, among the fastest in the nation -- ranking ninth in the US, according to the SEIA. The state is rapidly closing in on its goal of achieving 250 MW of capacity by 2017. It's also halfway to the 400-MW cap on its solar carve-out program, and the state's current growth pace means solar projects that can take up to a year (or longer) to develop need some answers about the program's future.

Thus, the state's Department of Energy Resources (DOER) is already looking at the next phase of its solar carve-out program, issuing a call-to-action to stakeholders to help determine the next steps in the state's policy for solar energy support.

"There's a lot of momentum" for solar PV in Massachusetts, noted DOER commissioner Mark Sylvia, pointing to a number of existing state programs from the Solarize Massachusetts initiative to Green Communities. "We want to make sure well before we hit that [400-MW] cap, we make a determination on what the next phase of the solar carve-out will look like."

First, the DOER is preparing some revisions to its current regulations that will tweak the existing solar carve-out: adjusting the compliance obligation formula for this year, and adding a queuing system for projects seeking qualification. These proposed regulatory revisions to the solar carve-out will be advertised in the state's Central Register on March 1.

At the same time, with the state rapidly approaching that 400-MW cap (think 2014, not 2017), the state and DOER are ready to start the next phase of the solar carve-out strategy. The DOER will first identify a list of what it thinks are the most appropriate options to consider for a new solar carve-out policy, and will present those options to stakeholders by March. With their feedback, the DOER plans to have a draft ready in April, and finalize it by late April or May.

Having an official commitment to plan out the future of the solar carve-out "is very important for us," said Dan Berwick, director of policy and business development at Borrego Solar, which in 2007 opened an office in Lowell, MA, about 30 miles northwest of Boston. "This is DOER and the administration saying, yes, there will be" a program after the current 400-MW cap, which is welcome news to companies like Borrego that need that assurance of a policy roadmap as they develop future solar projects.

The installed capacity cap is only one part of a complex solar carve-out program, Berwick noted, aside from levels of compliance and credits and pricing that currently reflect what the market was like when the policy was enacted three years ago. Even so, clearly the current program is working; "SREC prices are low, and installations are going in," he said. Making some adjustments to the existing framework and rules may be all that's needed. Sylvia agreed that the current program has been a great success by a number of measures: deployment of clean energy, jobs, reduction in energy costs, and that the new policy discussions will look at several policy models and approaches, including an increased cap number.

Acknowledging the state's success in building a solar market, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) thinks Massachusetts should be even more aggressive with a new carve-out plan -- tripling or even quadrupling the cap, for example -- which would elevate it on par with other solar-friendly states in the Northeast, such as New Jersey (a 4-GW goal) and Maryland (1.3 GW). "The commonwealth's forward-thinking policies ensure that solar will become an increasingly significant component in Massachusetts' energy portfolio, one that helps contain electricity costs for families and businesses," stated Carrie Cullen Hitt, senior VP for state affairs at the SEIA. "By setting the bar higher for solar, Governor Patrick can help to build a robust, sustainable clean technology economy in Massachusetts for many years to come."

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