Solar power at a turning point in Ma.?

Globe Correspondent

The prospect of solar power here poses a question for armchair psychologists: on a very long trip, is it better to rejoice in the steps you’ve taken, or lament how far you have to go?

The steps so far are impressive. Massachusetts is in the midst of a gangbusters expansion of solar energy. The state had a little more than 3 megawatts of installed solar power just six years ago when Governor Deval Patrick set a goal of boosting that to 250 megawatts by 2017. In May, the state surpassed that goal — four years early.

Massachusetts ranks seventh in the nation for installed solar capacity. It’s not California or Arizona, but not bad for our spot in a region more renowned for grey snow clouds than sunny days. With a Chinese-made glut of solar panels helping drive down prices, solar installation companies are enjoying the equivalent of a boom, and the state says the clean energy industry grew by 11 percent in 2012, outpacing the economy by tenfold.

study released in 2012 found 4,700 houses and businesses have solar arrays on their roofs or grounds in Massachusetts, and an industry group estimated another 2,600 were installed last year.

This success is a demonstration of the ability of government policy to drive change. Solar power is in hot demand in Massachusetts not only because of the drop in panel prices, but because the state and federal governments offer an array of rebates, tax incentives, and other financial lures.

For example, the state offers a rebate — rules and applicability vary — that can reach $4,200 for a typical residential solar array. The federal government offers a 30 percent tax credit, and the state throws in another 15 percent tax credit up to $1,000. Businesses can use accelerated depreciation to write off the cost.

And while cutting one’s electricity bill drastically, the solar installation generates valuable paper. For each megawatt garnered from the sun, businesses or homeowners can sell a Solar Renewable Energy Certificate — in effect, selling the solar benefit — which now are going for $200 to $285.

Bottom line: a Massachusetts homeowner with a typical 5 kilowatt solar array costing $25,000 can break even in four to seven years, according to Derek Brain, a senior project manager for Transformations, Inc., a Townsend firm that specializes in zero-energy homes.

This growth sounds great. But…

Despite the obvious economic lure, the chance to rip up utility bills, and the advantages to the planet of producing clean energy, solar power still provides a tiny fraction of our total energy demand. Less than 1 percent of the nation’s energy demand is met by solar, and in Massachusetts, solar power is not even a blip on the power production graphs.

Does this confirm the smug conclusions of fossil fuel suppliers that such renewables are a fanciful wish of unrealistic dreamers, never to seriously threaten oil, gas, and coal as the muscular stalwart of our fuel supply?

Elizabeth Kennedy, who runs the solar program for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, sees a sea-change beginning to occur that bodes well for solar.

“I think we are at an interesting shift where it makes a lot of sense financially for homeowners and businesses to install solar. The economics make sense,” she said.
“We do a lot of public presentations. Without fail, someone pulls me aside and says, ‘I looked at solar three years ago and couldn’t make the numbers work. It’s so nice to hear that the landscape has now changed and I can do it.’ ”