My Turn: Keeping rooftop solar alive

  • Mike Bartz, lead installer for ABC Solar, Inc, puts in solar panels in Palos Verdes, California, in 2009, with his brother, Brad. The company often faces problems with city planning departments and homeowner boards when installing on residences. Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/MCT

  • JOHANNA NEUMANN

Published: 1/24/2022 8:49:37 AM
Modified: 1/24/2022 8:48:21 AM

While my own community in western Massachusetts grapples with the important but relatively provincial questions of where and when to allow ground-mounted solar arrays, on the other side of the country, rooftop solar is in the fight of its life.

Solar is one of the most popular energy sources in America. Whether ground-mount or rooftop, more solar means cleaner air, healthier communities and less climate pollution.

Solar energy on homes, schools, barns and other buildings can be deployed at the speed and scale required to meet the climate crisis — and it can do so while contributing to a resilient, ecologically vibrant future. Rooftop solar can also protect open spaces and help make communities more resilient to global warming-related disruptions to the power grid by producing power close to where it’s needed. In short, rooftop solar has lots of benefits and we need as much of it as we can get.

So why is rooftop solar in trouble?

Earlier this month, in California, a state that has been very successful at growing renewable energy sources, something strange happened. In a move strongly supported by the utilities, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) proposed to strip away incentives that make rooftop solar more affordable and add the nation’s highest fee — $57 per month on average — for rooftop solar owners. These changes portend a bleak future for California’s rooftop solar because modeling and experience show us that rooftop solar adoption plummets when states slash pro-solar policies.

So, why should we here in the Pioneer Valley care what California does to its solar program?

First, because, for our health and our children’s well-being, every American needs renewable power to become the norm, everywhere in the nation. Rooftop solar requires a hefty financial commitment by consumers like you and me to get it installed. In order for us to make that commitment, we need to be assured the investment will not leave us worse off. Every state needs policies that support solar adoption, whether California, Massachusetts, or any place in between.

Second, when it comes to clean energy, what happens in California doesn’t stay in California. The Golden State is an indisputable national and international leader on clean energy and climate action. Specifically, the growth of renewables in America and the corresponding drop in prices can, in many ways, be traced to California’s policy leadership on such initiatives as its Million Solar Roofs Initiative, a statewide commitment to going 100% electric through a bill called SB100 and beyond. The decisions California makes on rooftop solar are likely to have ripple effects as far away as right here in Massachusetts.

The story unfolding in California is nothing short of a fight over the future of the electric system. On one side, investor-owned utilities want to perpetuate a centralized energy system that consolidates their power and makes them money. They’ll stick by that system even if better solutions are available and their approach could have dire consequences for rooftop solar.

On the other hand, rooftop solar has taken off across the United States in recent years because, when given a choice, so many Americans want to reap the enormous benefits rooftop solar brings them and their neighborhoods. Rooftop solar helps clean the air and improve reliability. Paired with battery storage, rooftop solar can also keep homes, businesses, schools and hospitals powered even during extended power outages.

Thankfully, California’s rooftop solar struggle isn’t over yet; California Gov. Gavin Newsom could still step in to move the CPUC to change its plan.

Meanwhile, here in the Pioneer Valley, we have our own clean energy decisions to make. Like California, Amherst has been a clean energy leader, embracing Green Communities status and committing to repower itself with 100% renewable energy.

We too are at a decision-point. Amherst’s Town Council is considering an 18-month moratorium on ground mount solar arrays and the Planning Board is initiating the development of a solar-specific bylaw to guide the siting of solar arrays.

At a recent Planning Board meeting, Hampshire College’s in-house clean energy expert Steve Roof stated that according to the Massachusetts 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap, the amount of solar installed in Massachusetts will need to grow from the 450 megawatts installed in 2021 to more than 640 megawatts installed each year by 2045. How much of that can be rooftop? How much can be ground mount? Where will it go and what will it look like?

In Amherst and California, decisions made regarding solar in 2022 will leave lasting impacts on our air, climate and future.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.


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