Smizik: Massachusetts solar leadership at risk

Massachusetts is a leader. It’s in our bones.

We took the first steps to national health care reform, while innovators raised and schooled here are curing cancer, upending tech and media and our businesses – from life sciences to manufacturing and beyond – march ahead of competitors internationally.

We know that leading requires commitment, vision and bold action.

Nowhere was this clearer than on clean energy, where Massachusetts has charted a leadership position with the Green Communities Act, the Global Warming Solutions Act and widespread support for emerging and expanding industries like wind, biofuel and solar. That commitment to a cleaner, healthier commonwealth has led us into the top tier throughout the nation in solar energy production and job creation.

But unless we continue to charge forward in the next few weeks, Massachusetts risks falling behind. Today, our state’s solar leadership is being sidelined by arbitrary caps on one of our most important reasons for success – a policy called “net metering,” which gives solar participants fair credit for the valuable energy they provide to the grid. For nearly a year, this cap has prevented new solar projects from being built in National Grid service territory. Recently, solar projects in Unitil’s territory reached their cap, too, with other regions close behind.

A review of the public waiting list for solar development shows greater than 175 municipal projects and hundreds of additional community solar and small business projects are currently stalled. Needless net metering caps have forced hundreds of projects throughout the state to be put on hold, or worse, cancelled, for no other reason than legislative gridlock. The result is losses in jobs, losses in revenues for cities and towns, and lost savings for working families, community groups and local governments.

The Solar Foundation recently released findings from its National Solar Jobs Census, proving what we’ve known in Massachusetts for years: solar is an economic boon for cities and towns around the country. In 2015, for the third consecutive year, the number of solar jobs across the country grew by upward of 20 percent. More people now work in the American solar industry than in oil and gas pipeline construction. In Massachusetts, the solar industry now supports more than 15,000 good-paying jobs across the engineering, manufacturing, installation, and marketing sectors. With an average annual salary of $48,920, these jobs support families across the commonwealth.

However, our sunny jobs story is in jeopardy due to legislative inaction – inaction that couldn’t come at a worse time. Our state does not exist in a vacuum. In this race for solar leadership, Massachusetts is in competition with other states for investment dollars from companies that simply will not invest in unsettled markets. We’ve seen the repercussions here and elsewhere. In sunny Nevada, a recent move by state regulators to gut the state’s once-successful net metering policy has put solar out of reach for consumers and forced national companies like SolarCity and Sunrun to lay-off or relocate more than 750 local workers.

Closer to home, many companies have already laid off Massachusetts workers as a result of inaction concerning the net metering caps. Our failure to provide strong and stable policy foundations - to reach an agreement on raising net metering caps and to advance meaningful reforms of our Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) incentive program - is likely to further discourage companies that are investing here or want to invest here. At a time of growing economic disparity, the last thing Massachusetts needs is to drive away well-paying jobs. We will only have ourselves to blame if this comes to pass.

Last year, both the House and the Senate made this issue a priority, passing different versions of a solar net metering cap increase, but could not iron out the differences in Conference Committee. We must reconvene the Conference Committee as soon as possible, and continue to work on a strong solar deal to ensure we put solar back to work for Massachusetts immediately.

Massachusetts didn’t become a leader through complacency, delay or inaction. Now is the time for strength in action.

I’m ready. I ask my esteemed colleagues in the legislature: are you?

Rep. Frank I. Smizik, D-Brookline, is chair of the House Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change.

Rep. Frank Smizik
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Metrowest Daily News