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Opinion

The Podium

Keeping the solar revolution going

Solar panels at the Drydock building in Boston. David L. Ryan Photo/ Globe staff

Solar panels at the Drydock building in Boston. David L. Ryan Photo/ Globe staff

Two centuries ago homes and businesses were lit from whale oil brought back by a vast armada of whale ships, a fleet so enormous the City of New Bedford was popularly known as “The City that Lit the World.”

Today it would be as accurate to call New Bedford the “Solar City” in recognition of its meteoric rise to a national leadership position as the largest municipal consumer of solar photovoltaic electricity east of the Mississippi and one of the top five cities in the country in its use of solar energy. A sustained collaboration of businesses, utilities, and local political leadership has led to nearly a dozen solar projects that will save local taxpayers more than $20 million in electricity costs over the next 20 years.

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New Bedford may be the leader, but it is hardly alone. Nearly all of the state’s cities and towns have moved to install solar projects to help offset their electricity demand while reducing our collective dependence on fossil fuels. In a region of the country better known for its stubborn winters than its generous sunshine, there is a solar revolution underway in the Commonwealth. It didn’t happen by chance. It happened by design.

That design was the Green Communities Act of 2008, a sweeping clean-energy initiative by the Patrick administration and the Legislature that created a policy and regulatory framework that has turned the Commonwealth into a national leader on solar energy. We are now the sixth-ranking state in the nation for solar installations with more than 500 megawatts — enough to power over 75,000 homes – brought online since passage of the GCA. This is twice the original target and was achieved in half the forecasted time.

The benefits of the work to date are impressive by any measure:

· More than 8,000 solar jobs that largely didn’t exist 5 years ago;

· The reduction of 9 million tons of CO2 over the life of the existing projects, the equivalent of taking nearly 100,000 cars off of Massachusetts roads;

· And substantial savings to ratepayers, including cities and towns in the Commonwealth who will realize more than $500 million in electricity cost savings from the projects already completed.

The program has been so successful that the cap on what utilities are required to purchase has essentially been reached, making it imperative that the Legislature act in this session to raise this cap. If it does not, the state’s renewable revolution and its financial and environmental benefits will come to an abrupt halt.

Recognizing this, earlier this spring Department of Energy Resources Commissioner Mark Sylvia convened a working group of utility and solar industry executives to work with the Legislature to craft legislation that would raise the net metering cap and frame a long-term solar financing and development program for adoption by the state Department of Public Utilities.

That work has produced consensus among clean energy, environmental and utility representatives on an approach that meets the shared objective of a robust clean energy economy supported by cost-effective, ratepayer-sensitive public policy. Legislation reflecting that consensus was released from the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy last week.

If enacted, it will accelerate the growth of the Commonwealth’s 80,000 person strong clean energy economy, provide an additional $500 million in electricity savings to cities and towns, and realize tens of millions of additional dollars in property tax payments for communities across the state that are hosting solar facilities.

The Legislature has much to be proud of in its leadership on clean energy. The Green Communities Act has marked the Commonwealth as best-in-class. Passage of the legislation now before it will cement that legacy and, importantly, stand as testimony that this generation of the Commonwealth’s legislators not only understood the perils of climate change but took courageous action to address them.

Jon Mitchell is the mayor of New Bedford. John DeVillars is the managing principal of BlueWave Capital and former secretary of the environment for Massachusetts.

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