With net-zero-energy requirements looming, Massachusetts hits record for new solar construction

Massachusetts may be inching toward a first-in-the-nation “net zero” energy production law, but developers across the state are not waiting for the legislative vote. This year, a record number of Massachusetts homes are set to go under construction using solar or “net zero”-energy practices, a new report shows.

Of the 6,547 new homes slated to receive permits between July and November this year, 4,203 will go under construction using “net zero” energy. That’s an increase of 300 over last year’s total of 2,860 new homes.

Eileen M. Brennan, president of the Massachusetts Home Builders Association, attributes the spike to the number of green-friendly companies expanding into the state, a bit of state government assistance and the local housing crisis.

“We’re all in this together — right down to the developer,” Brennan said in a statement. “This new construction of affordable housing keeps us strong.”

In 2015, Massachusetts became the first state to mandate that new buildings in all communities must be “net zero,” which means they must produce or store their own energy to offset any electricity they use.

Green builders, meanwhile, have ramped up their presence in New England as the possibility of a federal net-zero requirement has loomed.

From 2013 to 2018, the number of solar projects installed in New England rose from fewer than 300 per year to nearly 4,000 per year. Net-zero projects, on the other hand, increased only slightly — from 23 projects per year to 36 per year.

“The New England market is really responding to the market,” Paul Vander Velden, executive director of the local solar trade association, said in a statement. “New England’s solar market is proving resilient and growing by leaps and bounds, even without net-zero requirements.”

And solar doesn’t come cheap. Solar accounted for roughly 17 percent of all new electricity in New England during 2018’s second quarter. Meanwhile, net-zero energy systems have gotten more expensive, rising 10 percent since 2016.

Brennan, however, argued that solar’s surge is evidence that the costs of net-zero energy systems are decreasing. She said homeowners are growing more familiar with the technology, thanks to a local web portal set up by the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, as well as grants from big-name corporations like Northrop Grumman and eBay.

In total, developers across Massachusetts plan to install 944 solar installations on existing homes and 40 new net-zero energy homes during the 2018-2019 fiscal year. That’s up from 586 “greenfield” solar projects and 31 net-zero energy buildings last year. The rising cost of solar panels, Brennan said, may also be attributed to the state’s new renewable energy portfolio standards, which requires that nearly half of the state’s power come from renewable sources by 2030.

“With 60 percent of Massachusetts homes built between 1991 and 2001, there are a lot of homes in the community that don’t yet have the technology they should,” Brennan said. “They are waiting to be converted to net zero homes.”

See more data from the report here.

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