Massachusetts Solar Marketplace Changing

Photo-illustration: Pixabay

Solar power continues to grow in Massachusetts and around the country, but new data shows the source of new installations is changing.

Nationally, the industry installed 2,387 megawatts of solar capacity in the second quarter of this year, up 8 percent from that quarter last year. But, residential solar accounted for just 563 megawatts, down 17 percent year-over-year, according to a new report from GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association.

In Massachusetts, the industry installed 115.3 megawatts in the second quarter of 2017, up from 99 megawatts installed that quarter in 2016. Residential solar accounted for 43.2 megawatts in the second quarter of 2016 and only 17.3 megawatts in 2017, a drop of about 60 percent. Non-residential installed capacity increased from 55.8 to 98 megawatts, a 76 percent increase.

“Slowdown in residential solar is largely a function of national installers scaling back operations in major state markets as they prioritize profitability over growth,” GTM Research Solar Analyst Austin Perea said in statement about the national data.

That explanation holds true in Massachusetts, where non-residential projects are making up for the residential market’s performance and taking advantage of state incentives, said David Gahl, the Solar Energy Industries Association’s director of state affairs, northeast.

“We see the overall continued expansion of the market,” said Gahl, adding that Massachusetts remains a leader in solar power. “Obviously, there’s a lot of momentum.”

Marlborough-based Brightstar Solar, which completes residential and small commercial installations, saw about 50 percent growth from 2015 to 2016.

“Maybe it was too easy,” Jon Reese, an owner of the company.

Reese, whose company has cut prices this year to keep up volume, suspects national companies may be scaling back because of less demand from homeowners.

Bad weather in the second quarter led to some lost construction days. And, people may be hesitant to make major financial investments given the uncertainty of the Trump administration, Reese said.

Reese and Michael Kelley, owner of Mass Renewables in Bellingham, said they see more competition from mid-sized or small companies, like theirs, as larger companies pull back.

“I don’t see a drop-off in residential (solar installations) locally,” Kelley said. “We’re just as busy as we always have been.”

Upcoming changes to state incentives for residential and other systems may spur people to install systems before the changeover. The transition needs to go smoothly, company representatives said.

“The commonwealth continues to be a national leader in solar energy, with 1,800 megawatts and 74,000 projects in operation to date,” Kevin O’Shea, a spokesman for the state Department of Energy Resources, said in a statement. “Massachusetts’ next solar incentive program, SMART, will double the amount of solar in the state at half the ratepayer cost compared to the existing program.”

Newly installed solar capacity has increased every year since 2002, a trend expected to continue in 2017, according to the state.

Meanwhile, the Solarize program that takes advantage of the collective buying power in participating communities to lower installation prices and a solar loan program remain popular, said Andrew Belden, a senior director at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, which is involved in both initiatives.

Wayland, Lincoln and Sudbury are participating in a Solarize program where residents and businesses can purchase solar photovoltaic and hot water systems. The towns ran a different Solarize program in 2012.

The market is still ripe.

Solarize is attractive to people who don’t want to do the homework to compare and pick an installer, said Kaat Vander Straeten, a Wayland resident involved in running the Wayland, Lincoln and Sudbury Solarize program.

People used to think solar panels looked ugly, but that attitude has changed. Homeowners worried about climate change want to make a difference, Vander Straeten said.

Solarize programs have helped generate business for SolarFlair Energy, which is an installer for the Wayland, Sudbury and Lincoln program. The company tries to diversify, sad Dan Greenwood, vice president of business development, for the Ashland company.

“We are not a huge company,” Greenwood said. “We’ve got a pretty good baseline for residential projects and some commercial projects mixed in.”