Solar energy red tape needs to be cut, says company
A solar firm aimed at making green energy affordable for low-income residents has won approval from the Regulatory Authority, a year and a half after the watchdog accused them of breaking the law.
But Greenlight Energy said the island’s regulations on the placement of solar panels put the technology beyond the reach of those who needed it.
Cameron Smith, managing director of the firm, said there were barriers to “people who don’t live on a lot of acreage” – such as the requirement to get permission for placing solar panels within 20ft of a road.
“We’d like to see some of the setback requirements change to make it more accessible.”
Mr Smith said would-be clients in lower-income neighbourhoods typically lived on smaller properties and more densely packed housing.
In response, the Ministry of Home Affairs said the Government was “very aware of the challenges faced by owners of smaller properties within our community and is in the process of making a quantifiable effort to meet their needs”.
He added: “In reality there are very few restrictions on the ability of persons or businesses to obtain the requisite permits to install solar panels in proximity to a boundary or road.
“It is simply that the process by which this is achieved can be long and not inexpensive. As a result, some in the community may be dissuaded from participating.”
Greenlight launched in December, 2018 with the aim of improving access to solar power by enabling buyers to pay for it out of their own energy production instead of putting money down.
Mr Smith said the company had been “trying to introduce a premium solar product to the island, and to a wider cross section of the populace”, when the firm ran afoul of the RA.
He added: “It seems it was simply a misunderstanding of our business model.
“Ultimately the RA has acknowledged that our business is not in breach of the Electricity Act. It took about 18 months to get the letter that we wanted, and that’s what counts.”
Greenlight’s business model enabled customers to only start paying for the installation of solar panels once they were producing renewable energy and seeing a drop in their electricity bills.
Mr Smith said the energy watchdog reviewed Greenlight’s contract before notifying them this summer that “they were not going to pursue any further action”.
The RA initially ruled that the company was engaged in the retailing of electricity, and was thus in breach of the law.
Mr Smith said the company’s board had been confident enough to continue working on solar installations despite being told they had contravened the law.
“We voted unanimously to press on and let the cards fall where they may. Ultimately we felt that nobody really wants to stop anyone from making solar more accessible.”
But he said while business had flourished, Greenlight was seeing less take-up from lower-income households than the company had hoped.
“To be honest, it’s more high-end houses, despite what we originally thought two years ago.
“Most of our clients have Belco bills in excess of $500 a month. The returns are higher if your bill is higher.”
Walter Roban, the Minister of Home Affairs, has committed to boosting renewable energy to cut costs and move Bermuda to energy independence, with a pledge this year for rooftop solar panels to generate 30 megawatts of power in the next five years, equivalent to about 10,000 homes.
The ministry spokesman said both the Department of Planning and Department of Energy kept in contact with solar energy providers to help make renewable power “a dominant player in local energy production, to reduce the cost for both the consumer and the environment”.
Mr Smith gave the Government high marks for its solar rebate scheme, which allows up to $8,000 for residences with an annual rental value of less than $30,000 to offset the cost of installing solar photovoltaic panels.
He added: “That $8,000 matters a lot. It’s a great programme.”
Mr Smith said Greenlight was “excited to see any developments that make it more accessible”, noting that a low-income Pembroke resident had recently dropped the idea of going solar because of issues with property boundaries.
The ministry spokesman said the rebate “leg-up” would encourage installations within denser communities.
He added: “It has been recognised for a while that the current legislation relating to solar panels in the General Development Order 1999 required some modification and future-proofing.
“As a result, the department has been working on recommendations for amendments to the Order with a view to streamlining our processes and reducing unnecessary bureaucracy.”
He said that the adoption this year of the Bermuda Plan 2018 for the island’s development, as well as the drafting of the North East Hamilton Plan, had freed up Planning officers to take up suggestions.
“The details of this may be the subject of a ministerial statement in the near future.”
Mr Smith said solar power today was “completely different from when we started two years ago”.
“It’s becoming more popular around the globe, especially on the island.”
The company signed a contract last year with the battery company Tesla, and Mr Smith said the price of batteries for energy storage had “dropped dramatically in the past two years”.
“People wanted solar but they didn’t want to export electricity back to the grid. They were waiting for battery technology to get to this level before they were ready to invest.”