Solar tax credits bring tangible long-term benefits to Hawaii

Half a billion dollars and counting. That’s about how much Hawaii tax filers claimed from 2012-2015 for the Renewable Energy Technologies Tax Credit (RETTC) with the vast majority of that sum being for solar energy systems, electric and thermal.

In 2015, the most recent year the Department of Taxation has published data, 13,954 tax filers claimed the RETTC for a total of $98.6 million, or 32.4 percent of the total $303.9 million claimed for all tax credits that year. The RETTC represents the state’s single largest tax credit category.

For 2014, 14,902 tax filers made claims for the RETTC totaling $110.2 million.

In 2013, the comparable figure was $118.3 million, while 2012 held the record with $164 million in credit dollars claimed.

Half a billion dollars and what is there to show for it?

As a long-time player in and advocate for the solar industry, I’m of course biased in my belief that the cost of the reduced revenue to the state’s general fund is offset by other substantial accrued benefits to the people of Hawaii. But the bias is based in data-driven reality.

The installation of hundreds of megawatts of installed solar capacity has reduced the importation of fossil fuels by millions of gallons for a state that uses more oil in our power plants than the rest of the country combined.

Thanks to the strong state support of solar, in addition to the federal Investment Tax Credit, we have by far the highest per capita number of solar thermal and solar electric systems in the nation.

We are leading the U.S. in the integration of high levels of distributed generation solar into our electric grids and pushing the boundaries of technological innovation.

Thousands of construction jobs have been created.

Finally, the state’s tangible financial support encouraging the adoption of solar energy has pushed us to the forefront in the new frontier of deploying cost-effective and cutting-edge battery energy storage on both sides of the utility meter.

When it comes to tax credits to promote renewable energy development, it’s understandable that there would be discussion and debate on whether we can afford them, whether they’re justifiable and appropriate in light of other competing priorities for the always limited pot of government funds. That’s all a welcome part of the political process.

What’s important to note is that any claims from those who argue that it’s now time for solar energy to stand on its own after years, more like decades, of subsidies from the public trough are countered by the simple reality that there’s no such thing as a level playing field when it comes to energy resources. There never has been and likely never will be. There’s just too much at stake in terms of money and attendant political influence and power.

In fact, according to a report prepared by the Nuclear Energy Institute, for every $1 that renewable energy has received in the form of federal incentives over the past 60 years, other sources — oil, natural gas, coal, hydro and nuclear — have received 10 times that amount.

With our Legislature reopening for business next month, it will be interesting to see if these tax credit numbers make much of an impression on legislative leaders and whether the third attempt to get a bill to governor’s desk providing specific support for energy storage will be successful. We in the industry sure hope so.

Marco Mangelsdorf, president of ProVision Solar, is a director of the Hawaii Island Energy Cooperative seeking to convert the Big Island’s electric utility to a co-op.