Hurdles High for R.I. Wind and Solar Companies

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A committee of renewable energy experts was surprised to learn that many of its members, along with other Rhode Island developers of wind and solar energy, weren't licensed to install solar-energy projects in the Ocean State.

“Right now, everyone in this room cannot do solar,” said Bob Chew, a veteran of the Rhode Island solar industry, at a recent meeting of the state Renewable Energy Coordinating Board.

Chew, a member of the board that helps shape the state's renewable energy policies, learned that completed wind and energy project were likely installed without an electrician’s license — a fact that might delay future solar and wind projects, even those that may have been recently approved by the state’s distributed generation contracts program.

According to the state Department of Labor and Training (DLT), a company installing any sort of electrical generation device must have at least one master electrician. At the very least, the master electrician must serve as an elected officer of the company. Only journeyman electricians can install the equipment. The electrician certification also is required for a solar and wind company to advertise and bid on a project, as well as to solicit customers.

According to the DLT, only two companies are licensed to install solar energy projects in Rhode Island.

Chew said he discovered the requirement while researching ideas to grow the state’s listless wind and solar sector, in particular the small businesses that install renewable systems on homes and small businesses. “We have virtually no solar industry in Rhode Island,” he said.

Many in the room, like Chew, noted that they relied on certified electricians to connect a solar project to a building’s electrical system. Members said they didn't realize they needed to employ licensed electricians to install PV panels on a building.

“It’s hard to get an electrician who wants to climb on a roof,” Chew said.

Chew raised the licensing issue in order to underscore the many barriers to the struggling small-scale solar industry, a sector that is thriving in neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut. Both of those states don't require an electrician's license to install solar and wind projects. They also offer grants and other incentives for small wind and solar projects — incentives that appear to be working.

Massachusetts recently reported an 11 percent increase in clean-energy jobs in 2012. Currently, 71,523 employees work for 4,995 renewable energy firms in Massachusetts. The Bay State is generating 143 megawatts of solar energy; Rhode Island generates 1.3 megawatts.

Meanwhile, Rhode Island has the second-highest unemployment rate in the country at 10.7 percent; Massachusetts has an unemployment rate of 6.3 percent.

Approval for a new solar or wind project can take up to six months in Rhode Island, Chew said. In Connecticut, it takes about two days.

Chew relocated one of his solar companies to Connecticut because of the favorable financial incentives. Last year, Rhode Island passed legislation to set pricing for larger wind, solar and hydroelectric energy projects. At the same time, a tax credit for new small-scale wind, solar and geothermal systems expired.

Richard Licht, director of the state Department of Administration, which oversees the Office of Energy Resources, said he would speak with Gov. Lincoln Chafee about endorsing legislation that modifies the requirement for an electrician's certification.

Paul Ruducha of the Providence Energy Group said many renewable projects might have to come to a halt until the law is changed. “It would be a year from now before anyone in this room can do business,” he said. 

“I guess,” Licht responded.