Solar demand is up, but NH rebates may be on the way out

Last modified: 5/10/2015 11:53:26 PM
Solar energy companies are expanding in New Hampshire, even though the state budget threatens to wipe out a fund many say is vital to the industry.

SolarCity, a nationwide solar company, recently announced it would open up shop in New Hampshire. The California-based company employs a business model that allows customers to lease panels and save money on electric bills, as opposed to buying the solar technology up front.

ReVision Energy, a regional solar installer that has grown in the state from one employee in 2010 to 35 now, will soon open a second New Hampshire office in Concord.

“New Hampshire has huge untapped potential,” said Kate Epsen, executive director of the New Hampshire Sustainable Energy Association. “People are trying to position themselves strategically.”

But that solar market expansion comes at a time when renewable energy advocates are decrying a move by the New Hampshire House to pull roughly $50 million from the state’s renewable energy fund to patch a hole in its budget plan.

The fund pays out rebates to residents and businesses who install solar panels, among other renewable technologies. Utilities pay into the fund if they don’t buy a required number of renewable energy credits.

Created roughly six years ago, the Renewable Energy Fund has given roughly 1,500 rebates to residents installing solar or wind. The rebates, on average, came out to $4,300, according to the state Public Utilities Commission.

The $50 million cut, approved by the Republican-controlled House, would wipe out most of the fund’s balance over the next two-year budget cycle and prevent investments in future projects, officials have said.

Not everyone sees the incentives as a good state policy.

“I have always been concerned about taking money from ratepayers to fund individual projects,” said Republican House Majority Leader Jack Flanagan of Brookline.

Advocates are pushing Senate budget writers to restore the money, saying a loss of the renewable energy fund could be crippling to solar development in the state, among other things.

A wipe-out of the fund could deal a double blow to residents looking for rebates, given that a federal tax credit for solar is set to drop from 30 percent to 10 percent at the end of 2016, said Clay Mitchell, a lecturer on sustainable energy at the University of New Hampshire.

Yet, solar power has been on the rise in New Hampshire during recent years. The market is so strong, Epsen said, that it has some ability to temper any state-level policy insecurity.

The Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the renewable energy fund, has seen applications for residential solar rebates nearly double in the last few years, from 234 in the 2013 fiscal year to at least 426 in this fiscal year, which concludes at the end of June.

In the last few months, the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative was the first utility in New Hampshire to reach a state-set cap limiting how many of its customers can sell solar power they generate back into the grid.

Industry officials say the increasing popularity of solar is driven by decreasing prices and rising awareness, among other things.

The cost of the technology is on the decline. In the past five years, the price of a typical residential solar system has dropped more than 30 percent, according to New Hampshire’s 10-year energy strategy issued last September.

Now, an average homeowner looking to install a 5-kilowatt solar system would pay roughly $15,000 to $20,000 before accounting for any rebates or incentives, which would roughly cut that cost in half, Mitchell said.

“As the hard costs and soft costs are declining, the market is poised to advance here,” Mitchell said.

New Hampshire is home to roughly 1,700 residential solar installations, according to the PUC. While the state has roughly 8.6 megawatts of residential solar, the state could support at least 600 megawatts, according to the 10-year energy strategy.

Residents come to see solar as a real possibility as they watch panels crop up on roofs in their own neighborhoods or on local businesses, some said.

Jack Ruderman, with Revision Energy, said he expects that awareness to grow as SolarCity enters the market and begins advertising.

The company plans to open a warehouse space in Manchester and has already begun taking orders. SolarCity already has operations nearby in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.

Interest in solar exists in New Hampshire, a company official said, and the business model makes solar possible for people who don’t want to spend thousands of dollars up front to buy their own panels.

“It opens the door to people who maybe never thought solar something they would consider,” said Lee Keshishian, SolarCity Regional Vice President of Operations. “We can make it a viable option for the homeowners.”

It won’t be clear what will happen to the state’s Renewable Energy Fund until Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan signs off on the final budget, which is set to take effect July 1.

“Despite some of the short-term challenges, we believe the shift to wide-scale deployment of solar technology in New Hampshire is well underway,” Ruderman said.



(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)




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