A key goal of Connecticut’s climate change mitigation plan is to “decarbonize the electricity sector” by 2040. This will require, among other measures, rapid expansion of solar power, which now accounts for 2.5% of the electricity produced in our state. The challenge is daunting. So far, we are not on track to meet it.
But a key opportunity lies in the vast square footage of commercial rooftops and parking lots. Utilizing these sites would reduce electricity costs for businesses, produce more local well-paying jobs, and lower the risks of delivering electricity via vulnerable wires and poles. Some of the savings could be passed on to lower-income residents who bear the heaviest burden from energy costs.
So let’s do it, right? Unfortunately, state regulations currently place a 50 megawatt cap on new commercial solar projects that are allowed to become operational each year. Once this cap is reached, other viable projects are not permitted. Similarly, the Shared Clean Energy Facilities (SCEF) program is capped at 25 MW. SCEF allows low- and moderate-income ratepayers to own part of a solar system and enjoy the economic benefits.
These two caps, together, permit only 78,000 megawatt hours of solar electricity to be added each year. That is less than .2% (two-tenths of one percent) of the electricity generated in Connecticut — hardly a path to decarbonize the grid. We can and must do better.
Another cap prevents non-utility-scale solar projects from generating more power than is needed on site. For example, a large warehouse that uses very little electricity can cover only a small portion of its roof with solar panels. That means a lot of ideal surface area goes unused, creating pressure to install larger utility-scale solar arrays in fields or woodlands. But those are the very places we need to conserve because they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and because we need that land for farms, wildlife, clean water, our mental health, and for all life on the planet.
Why were these caps created? For every small solar array installed on a house or business roof, Eversource or United Illuminating “loses” a bit of revenue to pay for wires, poles, and transformers. But, in fact, that revenue is recaptured by slightly raising the rates on all remaining electricity purchases.
To put this in perspective, the Coalition for Sensible Solar Regulation (CSSR) estimates that the average residential electricity bill would rise by 17 cents per month if the 50 MW and 25 MW caps mentioned above were doubled — a negligible impact. In its legislative proposal to raise the caps, CSSR states that the resulting economic benefits of a more efficient system could be directed to reduce rates for lower-income ratepayers.
One thing is clear: We will not meet the climate challenge unless solar regulations are aligned with our climate goals. Full utilization of commercial rooftops and parking lot canopies, along with battery storage, would dramatically increase the percentage of Connecticut’s electricity that comes from solar. We need our legislators to seize this opportunity while federal tax incentives are still available.
John C. Hall is the Executive Director of the Jonah Center based in Middletown, a member of the Coalition for Sensible Solar Regulation.