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Lawrence Harmon

Convention center needs to follow through on solar promise

Jim Rooney, the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority stood atop the roof of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.

David Kamerman/Globe Staff/File 2008

Jim Rooney, the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority stood atop the roof of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.

Mayor Menino is preparing to install 16 solar panels on his Hyde Park rooftop, which is about the size of a bocce court. That’s leading by example. Meanwhile, the roof of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, which is larger than 20 football fields, is barren of solar technology.

State and city officials are busily promoting solar energy as an affordable option for homes and businesses in search of renewable energy solutions. Governor Patrick has set an ambitious statewide goal of 250 megawatts of solar power by 2017, about twice the current level. The Solarize Massachusetts campaign got a big boost last week with the ribbon-cutting for a 2,068-panel solar farm at the Drydock Center in the Seaport District. But it also drew attention to the absence of solar power at the nearby convention center.

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Four years ago, convention center officials were forecasting a “huge solar array’’ for the largest rooftop in New England. James Rooney, who heads the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, tantalized the public with visions of a solar system generating 600,000 kilowatt hours per year on the 27-acre roof — a space larger than the Boston Public Garden. Since then, however, there hasn’t been a peep about solar energy. What happened?

A 2009 study commissioned by the convention center concluded that solar energy is a good fit for the facility. The study’s authors, including Solar Design Associates of Harvard, found that the convention center’s “roof structure is robust and capable of supporting the loads imposed by a photovoltaic system.’’ (One notable off-note in the study was its recommendation to use solar modules manufactured by Evergreen Solar, a local company that filed for bankruptcy protection last year after receiving millions in state tax subsidies.) The authors diligently described numerous financing options, and recommended the use of a third-party ownership structure — a so-called power purchase agreement — that would save the cost of leasing or buying the solar equipment.

It’s a similar deal, incidentally, to the one that Menino opted for at his home: a small up-front charge and a 20-year contract to buy electricity at a locked-in price from an energy service provider. For Menino, that should amount to an annual savings of about $400. For the quasi-public convention center, it would have meant annual savings in the $400,000 range.

The convention center’s board rejected the study’s recommendations out of hand, according to Rooney. The thought of a public spotlight on the convention center’s roof spooked some board members. The curving, vaulted roof of the convention center had won raves from architecture critics. But it started to leak like a sieve shortly after the center’s opening in 2004, embarrassing the authority and giving pause to meeting planners. The roof problems had been solved for the most part by the time of the solar energy study. But the majority of the board, according to Rooney, was still experiencing “a heightened level of sensitivity.’’

Steven Strong, president of Solar Design Associates, tried to put the board at ease. Beyond his technical briefings, he recalls telling the board how “the greening of convention centers influences venue selection.’’ Solar installations, he reminded them, offer a real competitive advantage at a time when meeting planners and convention goers are looking for ways to make their own homes and businesses greener. Convention centers across the country, including San Diego, Denver, and Minneapolis, have embraced solar energy not only as a way to reduce electricity costs but as a signal of their commitment to a cleaner environment. But the board couldn’t get past the image of workers penetrating a roof with a history of leaks.

Rooney said there are no current plans to revisit solar technology at the convention center. But it might make sense, he said, in the context of the authority’s current push to expand exhibition space at the convention center by 400,000 square feet. If that comes to pass, he said, the board might revisit the option for a new building as well as the existing one.

There is no guarantee, however, that a publicly funded expansion will ever see the light of day. Solar enthusiasts, therefore, need to shine more light on the absurdity of a solar desert on the region’s largest rooftop: light with enough power to penetrate hard skulls at the convention center authority.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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