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Credits help solar providers see bright future

Industry leaders painted a bright future for solar energy developers in Maryland at the Maryland, DC and Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association’s fourth annual conference.

Tony Clifford, CEO of Rockville-based Standard Solar Inc. and president of the SEIA, said the solar industry is on the verge of substantial growth as more and more people see solar energy as a solution to their utility needs.

“We’re really on the cusp of a solar revolution, both regionally and globally,” he said Friday. “The economic and environmental value of solar has grown, [thanks in part to] attractive solar incentives in most of the region.

Clifford pointed to the expansion of a federal tax credit rewarding people for installing solar panels and other efforts to promote solar energy in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

And Craig Marcum, managing partner for Edge Energy, a renewable energy credit brokerage firm with offices in New York and Houston, said that demand for solar energy has grown substantially thanks to what he calls “solar carve outs,” where jurisdictions create incentives to install solar technology on homes, businesses and the like. But solar energy developers need more long-term contracts in order to continue to grow, he said.

“Five, 10 and seven year deals aren’t happening nearly enough,” Marcum said. “It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario, where developers need longer [credit] agreements to secure projects, while end users are reluctant to provide long-term deals.”

Marcum said investors are “wary” of taking on risk when the industry is heavily dependent on government incentives, but there are ways to get around that sentiment.

“The key to getting these deals done is getting people comfortable [with the risk],” he said. “Credit is always an issue, but you just have to get them in a room and talk with each other.”

Kelly Speakes-Backman, director of clean energy at the Maryland Energy Administration, said her agency is working on a way to better promote long-term deals.

“Wind [power] is dealing with the same issue,” she said. “We’re working on getting long-term contracting for [power purchasing agreements], and tacking solar renewable energy credit long-term contracting on with wind.”

Marcum said the future for solar energy in Maryland will be particularly positive.

“I think, with the [recent] changes in the law promoting the [cap on solar renewable energy credits] and promoting the solar renewable energy credit market, the future will be very favorable.”

And Clifford said the solar energy industry will continue to expand in all utility markets in the state.

“Solar’s moving forward broadly in the residential and commercial sectors, as well as by utility companies,” he said. “Constellation recently announced a big deal for a [solar farm] in Emmitsburg, and there’s been action on a smaller scale at BGE.”

But Speakes-Backman said that although her agency has approved thousands of grants for solar energy installations, its ability to do so in the future could be cut sharply in fiscal 2012 if the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative’s [RGGI] formula is not adjusted.

RGGI is a multi-state effort to reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses by selling credits to power companies. The money is used to invest in renewable energy technologies.

“We’ll have a much lower income stream if we’re not active and forthcoming [about RGGI’s funding],” Speakes-Backman said.

Ian Hines, the communications and marketing manager for the energy administration, said Speakes-Backman was actually referring to stakeholder comments, and that the agency hasn’t taken a position on RGGI’s funding formula.

“She may have been confusing what we’ve been hearing from other folks,” Hines said. “It’s too early to say what we’re going to be advocating during the legislative session.”

House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery, encouraged members of the industry to contact their local state legislators to show the prominence of solar energy development in the state.

“You’re in the same situation as the biotech and information technology industries were in the early ’90s,” Barve said. “Nobody [in the General Assembly] thought there was a biotech or information technology industry, just a bunch of geeks with Bunsen burners. [Legislators] need to know that you’re real, that you’re growing, and that you’re not going away.”