Massachusetts has leapt to the forefront of the rising solar energy economy. Since 2007, solar energy in Massachusetts has grown 30-fold – from less than 4 megawatts of solar panels to more than 110 – putting the Commonwealth well on its way to meeting Gov. Deval Patrick’s goal of installing 250 megawatts of solar power by 2017 and the state’s commitment to installing 400 megawatts of solar power by 2020.
Massachusetts’ emerging leadership in solar energy is no accident. Rather, it is the result of strong public policies designed to make it easier for Bay Staters to “go solar” and of the commitment of homeowners, businesses, local governments and non-profit organizations in cities and towns across Massachusetts to the vision of a cleaner energy future.
Massachusetts should embrace an ambitious agenda for solar energy, with a short-term target of installing 1 gigawatt of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems by 2017 and a long-term goal of obtaining 10 percent of our total energy from the sun by 2030. To achieve those goals, Massachusetts should continue to work to eliminate barriers to solar energy through public policy.
Solar energy is taking hold across the Commonwealth.
- Solar PV systems, which generate electricity from solar energy, have now been installed in at least 333 of Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns, according to data from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, with 21 towns having installed their first solar panels since the beginning of 2011.
Solar panels can be found throughout Massachusetts, but residents, businesses and institutions in certain cities and towns have led the way. Data from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center shine a spotlight on the “solar cities” and “solar towns” that are leading the Commonwealth on four measures of solar energy deployment:
1) Number of solar PV installations per 1,000 residents, which measures the breadth with which solar energy has been adopted in a community relative to its size.
2) Solar PV capacity per capita, which measures the amount of electricity a community is capable of producing from solar energy, divided by its population.
3) Total number of solar PV installations per municipality.
4) Total solar PV capacity per municipality.
- Among Massachusetts’ largest cities and towns (population >50,000), Plymouth has the highest number of solar photovoltaic installations per 1,000 residents, followed by Newton, Cambridge, Framingham and Lawrence. Springfield has the largest amount of solar PV capacity per capita among large cities and towns, followed by Haverhill, Waltham, Framingham and Revere.
- Among all Massachusetts cities and towns, three towns on Martha’s Vineyard – Chilmark (1st), Aquinnah (2nd) and West Tisbury (4th) – rank in the top five for the number of solar PV systems installed per 1,000 residents. They are joined by Hawley (3rd) in Western Mass. and Truro (5th) on Cape Cod. The small Berkshire County town of Sheffield ranks first for solar capacity per capita, thanks to a large school-based solar installation there. Sheffield is followed by Barre, Chilmark, Sterling and Hancock in the top five for solar capacity per capita.
- The city of Boston leads Massachusetts in both the total number of solar PV installations (157) and total installed solar PV capacity (5.6 MW). Several much smaller cities and towns – Falmouth, Barnstable, Northampton and Amherst – round out the top five municipalities for total number of solar installations, while three western Massachusetts municipalities – Holyoke, Pittsfield and Springfield – followed by Dartmouth, round out the top five for installed solar capacity.
Western Massachusetts is the region of the Commonwealth with the most solar energy installations and the largest amount of solar generating capacity, while the Cape and Islands lead Massachusetts in per capita measures of solar energy deployment. The top cities and towns for solar installations by region are as follows:
- Cape and Islands: Installations: Falmouth (127); Capacity: Barnstable (2.1 MW); Installations per 1,000 residents and Capacity per capita: Chilmark (37 systems per 1,000 residents, 0.22 kW per capita)
- Central Mass.: Installations: Harvard (47); Capacity: Northbridge (2.4 MW); Installations per 1,000 residents: Harvard (7.2 systems per 1,000 residents); Capacity per capita: Barre (0.37 kW per capita)
- Greater Boston (excluding Boston): Installations and Capacity: Cambridge (77 installations, 1.2 MW capacity); Installations per 1,000 residents: Winchester (1.2 systems per 1,000 residents); Capacity per capita: Winthrop (0.04 kW per capita)
- MetroWest: Installations: Framingham (44); Capacity: Lowell (1.3 MW); Installations per 1,000 residents and Capacity per capita: Sherborn (3.2 systems per 1,000 residents, 0.05 kW per capita)
- North Shore: Installations: Lawrence (39); Capacity: Haverhill (1.2 MW); Installations per 1,000 residents: West Newbury (4 systems per 1,000 residents); Capacity per capita: Newburyport (0.05 kW per capita)
- South Shore: Installations and Capacity: Plymouth (47 installations, 609 kW capacity); Installations per 1,000 residents: Plympton (1.8 systems per 1,000 residents); Capacity per capita: Hanover (0.02 kW per capita)
- Southeast: Installations, Capacity, and Capacity per Capita: Dartmouth (46 installations, 2.8 MW capacity, 0.08 kW per capita); Installations per 1,000 residents: Marion (2.9 systems per 1,000 residents)
- Western: Installations: Northampton and Amherst (tie, 81); Capacity: Holyoke (4.5 MW); Installations per 1,000 residents: Hawley (26.7 systems per 1,000 residents); Capacity per capita: Sheffield (0.64 kW per capita).
Massachusetts has made great progress in deploying solar energy, but there is still tremendous room for growth.
- Massachusetts has become a solar energy leader on the strength of its strong solar policies. Net metering, the nation’s most effective market in Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs), rebates, and tax breaks – coupled with unique initiatives focused on specific towns and specific categories of energy users – have helped make Massachusetts the second-best market for solar energy in the United States, according to a recent report by the firm of Ernst & Young.
- Massachusetts has excellent solar energy resources, with the technical potential to host at least 8.7 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic generating capacity – enough to produce the equivalent of 17 percent of the electricity Massachusetts consumes each year. Solar photovoltaic installations in Massachusetts to date have tapped only 1.3 percent of that potential.
- Massachusetts’ economy can benefit from further expansion of solar energy. A recent study conducted for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center found that there were more than 64,000 clean energy workers in the Commonwealth in 2011 – a 6 percent increase from the year before. A separate study estimated that there were more than 2,300 solar energy workers in the Commonwealth.
- Photovoltaics are not the only tools Massachusetts can use to obtain useful energy from the sun. Solar water heating, space heating and cooling systems can also reduce the Bay State’s dependence on fossil fuels and help clean our air.
Massachusetts should set a goal of obtaining 10 percent of its energy from the sun by 2030. To get there, the Commonwealth should maintain and expand its existing solar energy programs, with a particular focus on:
- Lifting the cap on the amount of solar energy eligible for net metering, a key financial incentive that ensures that homeowners and businesses are compensated adequately for their investment in solar energy.
- Investing in improvements to the electricity grid that will enable the electricity system to accommodate the maximum possible amount of renewable energy, including solar power.
- Working with municipal light plants to improve and expand their programs for encouraging their customers to “go solar.”
- Eliminating barriers to solar energy, such as the long utility delays in interconnection that can result in consumers waiting weeks or months for their solar panels to be connected to the grid.
- Continuing to look for new opportunities and approaches to promote solar power and maximize its benefits for Massachusetts. Massachusetts may wish to explore options such as fixed-price contracts with solar energy suppliers, consider additional tools to ensure that solar energy is available to people of all income levels, and find ways to encourage deployment of solar energy in locations where it delivers the greatest benefit to electricity consumers.
- Developing effective strategies to promote solar water heating and other technologies that capture energy from the sun and reduce Massachusetts’ dependence on fossil fuels.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.