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Mass. businesses driving growth in solar investments

Outdoor retailer REI added a rooftop solar installation at its Framingham store in December (above) and built a solar-powered parking area in June.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Outdoor retailer REI added a rooftop solar installation at its Framingham store in December (above) and built a solar-powered parking area in June.

The solar energy market is booming in Massachusetts, as commercial building owners, municipalities, and name-brand retailers like REI and Kohl’s take advantage of state incentives that have made it more affordable to fund solar power projects.

Even as activity has slowed in several other key states, the number of installations here has grown so steadily that the Solar Energy Industries Association, a national trade group, expects Massachusetts to rank in the top 10 among states that will add the most solar power this year.

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A recent report by the association and Boston market analysis firm GTM Research showed that in the first half of the year alone 27.1 megawatts of solar energy-generating capacity were installed in the state’s nonresidential sector, the fastest-growing major market segment.

“Massachusetts, among a handful of others — but not many others — is a pretty hot market,” said Carrie Cullen Hitt, the Solar Energy Industries Association’s Massachusetts-based vice president of state affairs.

In the last two years, solar energy-generating capacity in Massachusetts has more than tripled to 143.1 megawatts, according to the state Department of Energy Resources. That’s enough to power at least 21,465 homes.

That growth has been spurred partly by the state’s traditionally high energy costs, which make solar systems more competitive here.

But Hitt and others in the industry also cite aggressive renewable energy policies, which promote sun-generated electricity — especially by utilities and commercial buildings. Governor Deval Patrick has said that he wants the state to have 250 megawatts of solar-generating capacity by 2017 and that utilities should get 15 percent of their energy from renewable resources by 2020.

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Such policies have lead to the creation of incentive programs such as Commonwealth Solar, which offers rebates for projects, and Solarize Massachusetts, which encourages residents and businesses in some communities to join together to install solar panels and save money through bulk purchases.

“Patrick and his administration in the last few years have been clear that they see this as a growth opportunity,” which Hitt said is “increasing the confidence of developers and installers and the people who finance the projects.”

One such company is Ameresco Inc. of Framingham, a firm that audits customers’ energy use and finds ways for them to save money.

Jim Walker, who heads Ameresco’s solar division, said he’s seen an uptick in industry activity in Massachusetts as markets in other states have stalled because incentives expired or government support disappeared.

“That brought in more investment and more companies taking a look at Massachusetts,” Walker said.

Another driver of the surge, he said, is “that everyone in the state knows that the incentives that make solar economically viable have a shelf life [so] the towns and customers view it as, ‘If I don’t do this now, I may never be able to do it.’ ”

With Ameresco’s help, the city of Lowell has installed nearly 350 kilowatts worth of solar energy generation at several schools and the Lowell Memorial Auditorium, and will add another 1.5 megawatts when a solar installation currently under construction at a former landfill is complete.

“The city council has been striving to make the city more renewable,” said Michael Vaughn, Lowell’s chief procurement officer. “This gets us electricity cheaper than we can buy it from the grid.”

Retailers have also been a boon to the state’s solar energy industry, with big-name chains such as Whole Foods, REI, Kohl’s, and Ikea using solar panel installations at their Massachusetts stores or planning to do so in an effort to cut utility costs and become more environmentally friendly.

Outdoor gear and clothing retailer REI, for instance, added a rooftop solar installation at its Framingham store in December, and built a solar-powered parking area in June. Together, the installations have 200 kilowatts of energy-generating capacity — enough to produce about 60 percent of the electricity the store uses annually.

Swedish home goods retailer Ikea is in the process of installing a 591-kilowatt solar system at its Stoughton store. The system, which is expected be operating by the end of October, is just one of 39 that the company is building across the United States.

The company flipped the switch on a nearly 941-kilowatt solar installation at its New Haven, Conn., store Thursday.

“The technology has become straightforward enough and affordable enough that we felt we could make the investment,” Ikea spokesman Joseph Roth said. The chain plans to spend more than $700 million on renewable energy projects in the next few years, he said.

Several Kohl’s locations in Massachusetts are also being outfitted with solar panels. Construction is expected to begin next month at the first two stores, in Taunton and North Dartmouth.

“As a retailer with a nationwide presence . . . managing energy consumption and using, where possible, renewable energy sources like solar, makes sense,” said Vicki Shamion, a Kohl’s senior vice president, “both in terms of costs savings and being a good environmental steward.”

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.

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