General Assembly Boosts R.I.'s Ascending Solar Sector

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Rhode Island’s solar industry is no longer a fledgling subset of the amorphous "green" economy, but a rapidly growing business sector with some of the best financial incentives in the country.

In a recent report from the Office of Energy Resources (OER), renewable-energy jobs, led by solar energy, have increased 66 percent in two years. Rhode Island has some 1,700 solar jobs, up 16 percent in 2016. The state ranks second in the country for green-energy jobs as a percentage of the workforce. Solar firms are growing, with 18 percent growth in companies between six and 24 employees.

While the Ocean State doesn’t rank in the top 10 of solar power per capita, Rhode Island ranks third for “solar-energy friendliness” in a report by the solar advocacy website Solar Power Rocks. The state earns an overall grade of A, whereas in 2014 Rhode Island earned a D, The grading is based on solar policies, like the renewable portfolio standard, and incentives, such as tax breaks.

The most eye-popping statistic from the Solar Power Rocks report is Rhode Island’s estimated four-year payback on investment, meaning a new solar array will pay for itself in about four years. The quick payback matches Massachusetts, the top state in the ranking, and is well above the seven-year payback in Connecticut. Most states have a payback of 10 years or longer.

Several bills in the General Assembly will further boost Rode Island’s solar stature and grow businesses. Gov. Gina Raimondo recently signed into law S112, an extension and expansion of the the popular Renewable Energy Growth Program (REG) run by National Grid. The incentive offers fixed pricing for the purchase of solar electricity over a 15- or 20-year term. The legislation extended RE Growth until 2029, with a maximum limit of 40 megawatts per year.

Solar installers are happy with the expanded incentive. Eric Martin, sales manager for Newport Solar, said the program shaves thousands of dollars off electricity bills.

“This state-sponsored program provides long-term predictability for both our business and our clients as they look to install solar on their homes and businesses," Martin said.

There is of course the environmental benefits of solar energy.

“Right now, Rhode Island gets 95 percent of its energy from natural gas,” said Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Middletown, sponsor of a House solar bill. "The REG program helps the state diversify its renewable-energy resources to meet our long-term energy needs, while also helping to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.”

As the General Assembly heads into its final week, other bills may benefit the state's solar sector. A state tax credit (S205) for new solar installations — considered the missing link in Rhode Island’s menu of incentives — is stalled in committee. H5123 creates a revolving fund for grants and loans available to businesses with 500 or fewer employees.

Another law (S562) signed by Raimondo on June 19, establishes a statewide solar permit and application. A universal application overseen by OER and accepted by every city and town is expected to speed up the pace of new solar projects and reduce the so-called soft costs for installers.