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Cape Solar Industry Thrives Despite Pandemic, Bucking State Trends

Solar panels on the Boothbay Department of Public Works building.
Heather Goldstone

 Nearly 19,000 workers in the renewable energy industry in Massachusetts have lost their jobs since the COVID-19 pandemic started. But solar industry workers on the Cape have largely been able to keep their jobs. On WCAI, Morning Edition host Kathryn Eident and climate change reporter Eve Zuckoff discussed the reasons why. 



Kathryn: Good morning, Eve. 

Eve: Hi there, Kathryn. 


Kathryn: So, Eve, what's happening in the renewable energy industry on the Cape?  


Eve: So what I heard from solar companies is that they have this sort of niche where they've been protected from layoffs, at least in the solar field. And at the same time, according to the state's numbers, as you said, almost 19,000 people who work in Massachusetts' clean energy industry have lost their jobs during the pandemic. And, of course, at first in March, customers took a minute to assess what was going on. But then they reached out to people like Angela Hemmila, who's a co-owner of Solar Rising. (They install solar mostly on houses). And she said a ton of people just kind of started coming back saying, "you know, I've been home quite a bit and I've got some questions for you." So this is how she explains it. 


"And we found that they wanted to not only reduce their electric bills," Hemmila said, "but also have a sense of self-reliance so that they could be prepared for any sort of emergency that may be coming down the line." 


Eve: So right now, customers are recognizing the humanitarian and public health crisis that we have. And they're saying the next crisis could be related to the environment or climate change. And if the utility goes down, they say they want to be prepared. And for some, that looks like installing solar just to do something. And for others, they're even adding on--more than--usual battery solutions so that they have backup power. 


Kathryn: One question I have is, why are we seeing more increase on the Cape as compared to elsewhere around the state? If we're reporting that there have been significant job losses in the industry, what makes the Cape different? 


Eve: Yeah, that's a good question. And I think it really comes down to two things. And the first is demographics. There are, as we know, there are a lot of second homeowners on the Cape, many of whom have higher, more flexible incomes. So they can say, okay, we're willing to invest $10,000 or $20,000 right now, knowing that we'll seriously cut our electric bill this year and we'll see paybacks in the next five to seven years. And they can afford that. And then second, people on the Cape and Islands may have actually some of the highest electric rates in the state because of the cost of transmission, just to get it out here. And solar offers them a way to lower those costs for electricity. So we do have this kind of perfect confluence of circumstances to build out solar here. 


Kathryn: OK. So that's taking a look at what's happening on the residential side of the solar industry. But what about bigger installations, maybe town projects or even businesses that are doing solar? 


Eve: It gets tricky there. The response efforts to COVID-19 have cost towns just an enormous amount of money and time by administrators who are already working from home. So CVEC, Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative, they act as the liaison between towns, school districts and solar developers. And they say that administrators just don't have the availability right now to talk through contracts. Plus, already onshore and offshore wind companies that builds wind turbines that can provide more clean energy... I mean, they were struggling already. So, Liz Argo, manager of CVEC, says this, though, is really a shame because renewable energy could actually be the very thing that helps towns recover economically. 


"All of the projects that we're bringing to them spell money," Argo said. "The projects that we're bringing to them are not only good, clean, renewable energy, but they're-- because of the state's incentives-- there will be tremendous savings on electric costs as these projects come online." 


Eve: Now, unfortunately, the way these incentives are written, the longer there are delays in the permitting process, the longer towns take to get back to people like Liz Argo, the more those financial incentives for towns and schools could potentially fall apart. 


Kathryn: Well, the economy is reopening. So is there a hope that things will kind of start spinning back up, especially in the business and municipal sector, for renewable energy? 


Eve: I mean, I think the answer to that lies in what we don't yet know about the economy as a whole, how it will recover, and also the role that energy demand will play going forward. So on the one hand, a recent report from the International Energy Agency projected that energy demand is likely to fall six percent in 2020. And I know it doesn't sound like a lot, but that is seven times the decline after the global financial crisis of 2008. That scenario would present a major problem for renewable energy providers. But on the other hand, while we're getting back out there, there's reason to think that many people will be staying home, paying increased electric bills. Businesses and offices will meanwhile, at the very least, put skeleton crews back to work and you'll have to pay for the heat, the air, and keep the lights on in both still all day. And that would create, you know, maybe an even bigger market in Massachusetts, at least, and on the Cape and Islands, at least, for renewable energy companies to really prosper. 


Kathryn: Well, thank you for providing this picture of where we are with the renewable energy industry in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 


Eve: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you, Kathryn.


Kathryn: And that's WCAI's climate and environment reporter Eve Zuckoff. 

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.