It was gloomy and damp outside the Aloft Boston hotel on Monday, but inside at the TRC Northeast Solar Conference the sun was, well, a hot topic.
With 100+ attendees from states all over the Northeast, the two-day conference brought together industry experts, municipal officials and solar developers for a chance to network and bone up on the latest trends in the solar universe.
But what sets TRC’s annual conference apart – and draws rave reviews from attendees – is bringing property owners into the tent.
“You cracked the code on that one,” said Tony Pawlik, senior vice president of Pro-Tech Energy Solutions in Worcester, Mass. “Because obviously I’m a developer and I want to talk to as many landowners as I can.”
Fighting off a head cold, Dave Gahl, Director of State Affairs Northeast for the Solar Energy Industries Association, kicked things off with a data-heavy keynote speech. Some of his more eye-opening factoids:
“Solar is here to stay and will become a bigger and bigger player in the future,” said Gahl.
In short order, conference attendees got a comprehensive picture of the solar industry, from how to perform due diligence and design a site to the best way to connect to the grid and add storage into the mix.
But there was more. Lots more. So here are five key takeaways we picked up from the sessions and from chatting with folks on hand.
A Hotbed for Renewables
The Northeast remains a leader in solar power and renewable energy in general – largely because the public and its elected and appointed officials have made it a priority.
“We have strong support from leaders on both sides of the aisle,” said Gahl. “Republicans and Democrats have aligned themselves behind solar because of the job creation benefits, the environmental benefits and the grid benefits that solar can provide.”
From Coal to Solar
When people think of utility-scale solar, they often think of old landfills and other underutilized public parcels, such as alongside highways. TRC has worked on many unique sites over the years, but a new breed of property owner is starting to emerge with questions about solar.
“We’re starting to get some interest from owners of former coal mine sites and also some coal utilities that have large ash piles,” said Michael Rauch, director of business development for BQ Energy in Wappingers Falls, NY. “They’re looking for ways to get some revenue from those dormant resources. So that’s kind of a new thing for us, but we’re venturing into those waters carefully.”
The Best Time to Pursue a Project?
The short answer: Right this minute.
The reason? The federal investment tax credit for solar projects – which lets you deduct the cost of installing a solar project from your federal taxes – is as high as it will ever be (30 percent) and will begin to shrink over the next few years: down to 26 percent in 2020, 22 percent in 2021 and finally 10 percent in 2022 and beyond.
“There’s never been a better time if you’re a landowner to kick off a project,” said Jesse Stowell, director of business development for Encore Renewable Energy in Burlington, Vt. “It’s really free money. It comes with a lot of hurdles, but we know we can conquer those.”
Solar is a Money Maker
With costs coming down across the industry, solar projects are putting landowners back in the black.
The city of Sanford, Maine is in the midst of bringing a 50 megawatt solar project to its local airport with the help of TRC. It's a project that will create jobs and generate significant revenue for the town – funds that can be used on roads, schools, public safety, etc.
“We believe very strongly that you can do a good energy project as economic development for a municipality,” said Steve Buck, Sanford’s city manager.
But the windfall isn’t limited to public entities.
“I used to farm in a former life,” said Buck. “And I know that the cost per acre you can get from a land lease on a well-structured solar project is far greater than what you could net from some other farming activities and is far greater than what you could net on certain forest management activities.”
Completing a Project Isn’t Magic – But It Takes a Lot of Work
Solar might make financial sense for a number of different parties, but it’s not a get-rich-quick endeavor. There’s a lot of planning and permitting and designing – essentially a lot of legwork – that goes into it. And then the stars need to align.
“It all kind of comes down to having the right folks in the room and then the right market to be able to move projects forward,” said Stowell. “So all that kind of has to line up.”
The first step is bringing property owners and solar developers together so they can begin the process – and TRC’s Northeast Solar Conference helped to do just that.
“We’re always interested in getting as many landowner connections as we can,” said Stowell. “New England especially is really important for landowner sites. There are only so many pieces of property out there.
“At a conference like this we have the value of just making connections, because that’s how things get done – relationships. So maybe it won’t be a site we found at this conference, but it will be somebody else that thinks of us because we were here.”