Revamped Solar Database Underscores The Primacy Of U.S. State Policies


The North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center recently updated its Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE). The center, part of the College of Engineering at North Carolina State University, also revamped its website to make the database more user-friendly.

The database is designed to be useful to everyone, from developers deciding where to build solar projects to consumers trying to figure out what rebates they can get if they buy a new air conditioner. Brian Lips, project manager for the DSIRE, says the online resource has come a long way since the project was first funded by the U.S. Department of Energy in 1995. The first version of the database was available on a 3.5-inch floppy disk.
‘We catalogued 118 state-administered financial incentives,’ Lips says. ‘Now, there are 2,800 policies and incentives.’

These policies and incentives range from municipality-sponsored refrigerator recycling programs to the federal investment tax credit (ITC). A user can click on a state to view these rebates, bonds, corporate tax credits, performance-based incentives and other programs. Results can be filtered by ZIP code or other parameters, such as whether the program is implemented by the federal, state or local government or by a nonprofit or utility.

‘The way our government is structured creates this kind of fragmented marketplace,’ Lips says. ‘If you are a solar developer, you have to look hard at what are the rules in this state, and it can get hyper local when you get to permitting and zoning regulations. That's why, back in the day, we saw the need for this resource.’

The resource is even more relevant today, as the number of local programs continues to increase. Meanwhile, the federal ITC is widely expected to drop from its current 30% to 10% after 2016. The database gets approximately 200,000 visitors every month. Many of these visitors are developers who are not only seeking incentives, but also hoping to use the list of rebates and other information to help drive their own businesses.

Another new feature of DSIRE is that it has an application programming interface that enables third-party developers to build new functions that make use of the database.

‘Essentially, there is a spot on our website where developers can access the raw content of our database and import it to their website,’ Lips says. ‘The big thing is not what we do, but what others do with DSIRE.’

Although the center cannot determine what users do with the information, the growing audience reflects a larger trend that developers are looking to states, not the federal government, for policies that encourage solar growth.

‘States have long been setting policy,’ says Bob Gibson, vice president of education and outreach for the Solar Electric Power Association in Washington, D.C. ‘Legislatures have been putting changes into place that have then spread to other states, and each state differently picks up things.’

This is not new, he says. The U.S. is simply different from other countries in its decentralized, state-by-state approach. In Germany, for example, the government has set a national energy policy that has remained intact over several administrations. In the U.S., state public utility commissions oversee utilities with policies that often change with the composition of the boards.

Gibson says the issue became more complicated 15 years ago when states acquired the option to deregulate their electricity markets. Some states are deregulated, and others are not. This means the policies are scattered, and any all-encompassing policy change is probably not going to come down from above.

A report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory seems to agree with the theory that it is up to the states to boost solar. A recent in a series of reports, ‘The Effect of State Policy Suites on the Development of Solar Markets,’ notes that although falling costs have contributed to the expansion of distributed generation solar, much of the growth can be attributed to state policies, such net-metering and interconnection procedures.

‘Today, it seems even less likely the federal government will step up and do anything,’ Gibson says. ‘Solar developers have been frustrated because they have to go back and ask what are the rules here. Companies that operate nationally would love to have consistency. Some states look more lucrative, and other states are changing.’

For example, he says, Minnesota allows utilities to implement value of solar tariffs and is, so far, the only state to codify this alternative to net metering. Massachusetts has had some well-publicized solar successes, and Georgia has had a sudden, quick burst of solar development since 2013. Other states are likely to follow their own diverse and unpredictable paths.

‘Everyone believes we will see some fundamental changes state by state,’ Gibson says. ‘People in the solar business, especially if they are in more than one state, understand how to make investments based on different rules.’

Nora Caley is a freelance writer based in Denver.

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