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Solar groups balk at DPU Eversource decision, Trump tariffs

  • A portion of the solar array on the capped Greenfield landfill off Wisdom Way. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Solar panels have been added to the south side of a pavilion in Northfield. RECORDER FILE PHOTO/Shelby Ashline

  • In this July 28, 2015, photo, electrician Adam Hall install solar panels on a roof for Arizona Public Service company in Goodyear, Ariz. Traditional power companies are getting into small-scale solar energy and competing for space. The emerging competition comes as utilities and smaller solar installers fight over the future of the U.S. energy system. (AP Photo/Matt York) Matt York


Recorder Staff
Wednesday, January 24, 2018

​​​​​​By RICHIE DAVIS

Things have gotten cloudy for the Massachusetts solar industry, between the recently approved Eversource rate case and President Trump’s decision to slap an immediate 30 percent tariff on imported solar panels.

Environmental groups have already attacked the state Department of Public Utilities’ Jan. 9 decision allowing Eversource to impose new “minimum charges” next year on customers with photovoltaic solar panels and a “demand charge” on all customers based on the hour-long period each month when they use the most electricity from the grid.

One group, Vote Solar, has said it plans to appeal the decision in court.

But while the Solar Energy Industries Association’s Northeast state affairs director Dave Gahl calls the DPU decision “nationally precedent-setting in the wrong way and definitely problematic for the solar industry in the commonwealth,” state Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matt Beaton describes it as “a very fair decision that makes sure that we have future investment as we transition into a more distributed energy generation — renewables — over time.”

Beaton, in voicing the DPU’s position, told State House News Service the minimum charge that new Eversource solar customers will owe after Dec. 31 will create a “sustainable pathway to pay for infrastructure.”

Local installers predict a drop in installation of photovoltaic systems as the economic benefits begin to be pulled away.

“It’s definitely going to have an adverse effect locally,” said John Ward of Solar Store of Greenfield. Even though he tempered his assessment with the point that, “in a relatively progressive area, there will be people who want to do it for environmental reasons,” he acknowledged the economic disincentive — cited by Eversource spokesman Michael Durand as averaging an additional $119 a year for the typical PV customers — will likely deter a number of people from going solar.

What will “stick in my craw the most,” said Ward, painting Durand’s $119 annual estimate as a “best case scenario,” is the demand charge based on the hour when a customer charges his electric vehicle. “You’re going to get whacked, with your bill for that month going up around $25 just for that one hour you’ve plugged in.”

Pioneer Valley Photovoltaics Cooperative Board Chairman William Stillinger said, “If nothing’s changed, there will be a real problem,” especially for residential customers who want to install PV systems after this year.

Stillinger, a board member of the Solar Energy Business Association of New England, said that group and others will seek legislative remedies to address the change. Eversource argues the intention is to make its solar customers pay their share of electricity distribution system costs that are now borne by non-solar customers.

“Maybe the courts will not be willing to undo a DPU decision, and the Legislature will be more in tune with what the public is seeking,” said Stillinger, who was a member of the Net Metering Task Force.

Trump tariff

Adding concern to the solar industry is President Trump’s decision this week to impose a 30 percent tariff on foreign-made solar panels — a ruling the Solar Energy Industries Association said will result in billions of dollars of solar investment being delayed or canceled, leading to the loss of 23,000 jobs this year.

“It will affect the price,” said Ward, questioning whether projects will be feasible for people.

The Trump administration says the overseas panel manufacturers are unfairly undercutting American panel makers because they are subsidized by their home countries, like China. The tariffs are presented as a way to help American panel makers.

The Solar Store has tried to install only American-made solar panels, said Ward, who adds that he’s seen 30 American manufacturers go out of business and “was backed into a corner” of installing Malaysian-made Panasonic panels only after it appeared SolarWorld was headed to bankruptcy last year.

He cautioned that the tariff is still likely to result in higher prices on all PV panels — including those made in this country — by 30 percent.

Stillinger said the increased cost of solar panels will especially hurt large “utility-scale solar farms,” and that because the Greenfield worker-owned cooperative has an inventory of pre-tariff panels, “We have more of an ability to shield ourselves from tariff increases.”

He doubted that there would be major job gains in this country as a result of the tariffs, instead predicting a loss of installation jobs because of reduced sales.