So­lar trou­bles flare up

Pop­u­lar­ity ris­ing, but tar­iffs, change in law could blunt mo­men­tum

Connecticut Post - - BUSINESS - By Alexan­der Soule and Jor­dan Grice

Even as the so­lar en­ergy in­dus­try started the year with its best per­for­mance ever by one key mea­sure, a new fed­eral tar­iff, re­duced tax cred­its and a ma­jor change in Con­necti­cut pol­icy has many wor­ried the state will lose mo­men­tum in con­vinc­ing home­own­ers to tap the sun’s en­ergy.

In Jan­uary, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion en­acted a 30 per­cent tar­iff on im­ported so­lar cells and mod­ules, with the tar­iff ebbing in steps to 15 per­cent in 2021. In May, the Gen­eral As­sem­bly changed the state’s rules on net me­ter­ing, which al­low home­own­ers to reap ben­e­fits from ex­cess elec­tric­ity gen­er­ated by pho­to­voltaic sys­tems.

With the new state rule to ap­ply only to homes that in­stall sys­tems be­gin­ning in 2019, Con­necti­cut in­stall­ers ex­pect a boost in busi­ness this year to get their homes qual­i­fied for net me­ter­ing ahead of next Jan­uary. Af­ter that, they are un­sure what to ex­pect, par­tic­u­larly with a 2022 sun­set for ex­ist­ing fed­eral tax cred­its that cur­rently cover 30 per­cent of the cost of an in­stal­la­tion.

The changes come even as the U.S. so­lar in­dus­try ac­counted for 55 per­cent of all new U.S. elec­tric gen­er­a­tion ca­pac­ity in­stalled in the first quar­ter of 2018, well ahead of the 40 per­cent fig­ure the in­dus­try put up in 2016 that rep­re­sents the pre­vi­ous an­nual record.

“The eas­i­est way to think about net me­ter­ing is ... like rollover min­utes for your phone — if you pro­duce more en­ergy than you need, that en­ergy gets me­tered back to the grid and you build up credit,” said Tom We­myss, founder of PurePoint En­ergy in Nor­walk. “It’s a big loss for the ratepay­ers that would want to go so­lar.”

Like PurePoint, the Dan­bury-based Ross So­lar Group sub­sidiary of Con Edison is see­ing in­creased in­ter­est from home­own­ers who hope to get in un­der the wire this year, with a typ­i­cal pho­to­voltaic in­stal­la­tion tak­ing up to four months to plan, and a day or two of work re­quired to in­stall.

“This is a ma­jor in­cen­tive that is go­ing away — just as peo­ple are learn­ing about it,” said Stephan Hart­mann, res­i­den­tial sales man­ager for Ross So­lar. “It can have a com­pound­ing ef­fect for decades to come.”

Cal­i­for­nia man­dates so­lar

This week, the So­lar En­ergy In­dus­tries As­so­ci­a­tion and GTM Re­search pub­lished a re­port sug­gest­ing the tar­iffs would not have a ma­jor im­pact on the 2018 mar­ket, with distrib­u­tors and in­stall­ers hav­ing stocked up on so­lar pan­els in ad­vance of the tar­iffs kick­ing in.

While U.S. sales were up 13 per­cent in the first quar­ter from a year ear­lier, sev­eral de­vel­op­ers have al­ready can­celed large-scale projects as a re­sult of the tar­iffs, ac­cord­ing to SEIA and GTM. That sug­gests a longer-term im­pact on the in­dus­try, even as it got a boost on an­other front in May af­ter the state of Cal­i­for­nia cre­ated a new man­date that all newly built homes in­clude so­lar en­ergy pan­els, as well as apart­ments and con­dos up to two sto­ries in height.

Bill Giglio, co-owner of SunWind So­lu­tions in Fair­field, has yet to see any early im­pact to res­i­den­tial sales as a re­sult of the tar­iffs, but con­firmed the ef­fect is al­ready be­ing felt on the com­mer­cial and util­ity side, with

Con­necti­cut’s new net me­ter­ing rules now com­ing into play.

“There are head­winds,” Giglio said. “It hasn’t been im­ple­mented yet — but there are head­winds.”

‘No longer an al­ter­na­tive en­ergy’

If that is the case, there are new wrin­kles in so­lar gen­er­a­tion that could spur de­mand, as well, ac­cord­ing to Jim Blans­field, owner of Blans­field Builders in Dan­bury, in­clud­ing new­fan­gled bat­ter­ies to store elec­tric­ity gen­er­ated by the sun; and so­lar shin­gles from Tesla and other pro­duc­ers.

“(Bat­tery stor­age) will be a game-changer for peo­ple build­ing homes be­cause then they can pretty much get off the grid,”

Blans­field said.

Af­ter each of Con­necti­cut’s punishing storms the past sev­eral years, home­own­ers have put in calls to Sound So­lar Sys­tems in Green­wich to in­quire about in­stalling so­lar as a way to dodge out­ages, ac­cord­ing to Kira Savino, head of oper­a­tions for Sound So­lar. While a so­lar ar­ray and bat­tery can­not run a home’s sys­tems sim­i­lar to a gen­er­a­tor, Savino said that call has re­sulted in peo­ple tak­ing a closer look at the op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Savino said her com­pany has been shift­ing its fo­cus the past sev­eral years to com­mer­cial prop­erty own­ers, which she at­trib­uted at least in part to so­phis­ti­cated mar­ket­ing ef­forts by na­tional so­lar leas­ing compa-

nies ef­forts to mar­ket to home­own­ers by can­vass­ing neigh­bor­hoods and run­ning work­shops in part­ner­ship with Con­necti­cut town halls.

Whether by na­tional in­stall­ers or lo­cally owned com­pa­nies, the mes­sage is get­ting out. De­spite the head­winds of the tar­iff, tax credit re­duc­tions and net me­ter­ing, Sun-Wind’s Giglio thinks the so­lar panel mar­ket is poised to in­crease in com­ing years.

“I think so­lar pan­els are here to stay,” Giglio said. “It’s no longer an al­ter­na­tive en­ergy — it’s much more main­stream.”

In­cludes re­port­ing by Chris Bosak.

Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia file pho­tos

Bryan Gar­cia, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Con­necti­cut Green Bank, speaks at a home in Bridge­port that was one of the first in Con­necti­cut to in­stall so­lar power and other en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency mea­sures as part of an in­cen­tive pro­gram.

A sam­ple so­lar panel on dis­play dur­ing a tour of United Il­lu­mi­nat­ing’s so­lar power gen­er­a­tion com­plex in Bridge­port.

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