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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Bring back the sun

By TIM FAULKER/ecoRI.org News staff

PROVIDENCE — Costs have come down and efficiency has improved, yet Rhode Island is well behind other states when it comes to solar energy.

Rhode Island ranks last in the Northeast in renewable energy projects per capita and is next to last in the 12-state region for solar energy installation, according to a 2011 report from the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.

Contractors and experts of residential and small solar projects say business has suffered because the state lacks the incentives to entice consumers.

Several installers testified at an April 4 House hearing on two bills (H5116H5558) to restore a tax credit. 

Doug Sabetti, owner of Newport Solar, laid off four employees and briefly collected unemployment insurance after a 25 percent state tax credit ended in 2010. Work, he said, went from a dozen solar projects annually to two.

“It’s literally like a switch,” Sabetti said. “With that tax credit I’m hiring people. Without it, business grinds to a halt.”

Since the state tax break ended, a 30 percent federal tax credit has been the sole incentive for smaller solar projects. A one-year 25 percent grant program was launched this year by the state Renewable Energy Fund. Sabetti said the grants have helped, but he worries that it will slow once the program ends.

For the third year, Rep. Deb Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, introduced a bill to reinstate the 25 percent tax credit that ended in 2010. The state spent $719,700 during the four years the credit was active, or about $155,000 a year, Ruggiero said. She estimated the economic benefit of $4 million from the solar projects.

Vito Buonomano, owner Northeast Solar & Wind Power, said Rhode Island employees fewer than 100 in the renewable energy sector, while Massachusetts increased its employment in the sector by 50,000 during the past four years.

"We have millions of dollars in renewable energy leaving the state every year and we’re worried about a couple hundred thousand dollars, it just doesn’t make any sense," Buonomano said.

Bob Chew, one of the state’s first solar installers and developers, said photovoltaic solar panels are generating more electricity while the prices have dropped. But Rhode Island hasn’t offered programs like Massachusetts and Connecticut, which have both seen significant growth in the smaller renewable energy sector.

“It was a tried-and-true tax credit,” said Abel Collins, director of the Rhode Island chapter of the Sierra Club. “It’s good for the environment. It’s good for the fiscal health of the state.”

The legislation has bipartisan support within the House. Environmentalist groups endorse the bill, as well as a chapter of the Rhode Island Tea Party.

The bills were held for further study.