BOSTON — Jobs in the solar energy industry in Massachusetts are declining despite efforts to ramp up renewable energy to meet legal climate change mandates, according to industry insiders who are calling for major changes in state laws to get the sector's growth back on track.
While state government's embrace of offshore wind energy has become a major policy focus, a report released Wednesday by a pro-solar group says Massachusetts is falling behind other states that have become more hospitable to the solar energy industry and more serious about curbing greenhouse gases.
Solar industry employment in Massachusetts has fallen by about 30 percent, or 4,400 jobs, between 2015 and 2018, and federal tariffs on solar equipment and uncertainty over state regulations have contributed to challenges facing the industry, according to the report from Vote Solar, an organization based in Oakland, California that runs campaigns in 20 states and whose board of directors is peppered with solar industry insiders and investors.
New solar installations are down about 50 percent over that period, the report said, shovel-ready projects are held up on utility territory wait lists, and the federal government is "failing to act on (or even acknowledge) climate change or drive any significant renewable energy progress."
The report calls for the advancement of major energy policy changes on Beacon Hill, in part to keep pace with plans in place in states like California, New York, New Jersey and Maryland. While the Legislature and Baker administration have shown an openness to fine-tuning government's approach to renewable energy, there's no momentum behind any single measure as lawmakers near the midpoint of their two-year session.
The report credits Massachusetts for "strong solar policies" over the years but emphasizes that "constant changes to these policies and gaps between them have slowed growth and discouraged investment."
To lay out a runway for investment, the report calls for the immediate expansion of the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) incentive program to 4,800 megawatts, an increase of 3,200 megawatts. In addition to addressing government caps that they say are holding back the industry's growth, the report also calls for more effective integration of energy storage into the SMART program.
The current policy landscape has failed to drive solar development that leads to electric bill savings in low-income communities and areas that have absorbed the negative impacts of fossil fuels, the report said, and caps are leading projects to be sited on open fields rather than rooftops, carports and landfills controlled by municipalities and businesses.
Between 8,000 and 9,000 new in-state jobs and more than $5 billion in solar investments would flow from expansion of the SMART program, the report said.
Massachusetts has about 2,400 megawatts of installed solar capacity, or about 10 percent of the state's total electricity consumption, the report said. That's more than the state's initial goal of 1,600 installed megawatts by 2020, but growth has slipped after an "initial strong start."
The state Department of Energy Resources has been reviewing the SMART program and plans to present its findings at stakeholder meetings early this month in Lenox, Amherst, Boston, Fall River and Fitchburg.