Focus on Support for Solar Owners

Posted April 17, 2015 at 12:08pm

While the solar industry and environmental groups look ahead to protecting the federal solar investment tax credit, they are at the same time engaged in a campaign to maintain the financial supports solar owners get at the state and local level.

The push includes opposition to utilities’ proposals before state regulatory commissions to raise monthly fixed charges and reduce the credits paid to rooftop solar users for excess power they sell into the local grid.

Beyond those fights, advocates are also engaged in debates over the future of state renewable energy mandates that spur solar construction, as well as a plethora of state and local tax incentives.

Solar financial incentives are available in all but three states and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, according to the NC Clean Energy Technology Center, a federally funded research group at North Carolina State University.

California leads the nation with 64 available incentives, double the No. 2 state, Colorado. The most common incentives are tax breaks to individuals and corporations.

Two of the biggest fights over solar tax breaks are expected this year in Louisiana and North Carolina.

Lawmakers in Louisiana are weighing a budget proposal by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal that would scale back the state’s 50 percent tax credit this year, in advance of its expiration at the end of 2017.

In North Carolina, the debate is about the fate of the state’s 35 percent Renewable Energy Investment Tax Credit, which expires at the end of the year.

The state ranked second nationally in 2014 for new installed capacity, at 397 megawatts, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. That growth, largely from larger commercial arrays, happened despite regulatory barriers that have kept out residential solar leasing.

GOP lawmakers are pushing companion bills in the state House and Senate to extend the tax credit for another five years.

The sponsors say more than $2.6 billion has been invested in the state for renewable energy projects since 2007, with about 80 percent going to solar development. Some 27 senators, more than half of the chamber’s membership, have signed on to the bill.

But they have yet to win the backing of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. He included an extension of the credit in his 2015-17 budget, but only for non-solar projects.

Solar is popular because it has been a boon for areas that need economic development, advocates say.

“Lobbying efforts, in both time and money, have gotten the attention of Republicans from rural areas,”said Richard Harkrader, owner of Carolina Solar Energy, a solar developer and supporter of the bills. “They don’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

That pitch of jobs and investment in poor areas could save the tax credit from expiration.

“Everybody has their own reason for supporting it. I think one of the biggest reasons is that it has proven to be a very strong economic development tool” for lower income counties, said Betsy McCorkle, government affairs director for the NC Sustainable Energy Association, which also backs the bills.

The drive for continued state-based supports has been resisted by free-market groups, however, pushed by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which contend the industry should not depend on taxpayers for growth.

The privately funded Taxpayers Protection Alliance recently issued a report critical of the supports renewable energy gets at all levels of government.

“Government programs intended to drive down the cost of solar electricity fail to actually make expensive sources of energy affordable. Instead, the programs shift the cost of solar energy to the public, making it more expensive to be a taxpayer,” the group said.