Editorials

editorial

Massachusetts lights the way on solar energy policy

National weather watchers confirm what Massachusetts residents already know by looking out the window: The sun shines on the Commonwealth only a little more than half of the year. So it’s all the more noteworthy that Massachusetts is actually fifth in the nation in total solar power, having enough to power 94,100 homes, according to Greentech Media Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association. That’s more solar power than in many Sunbelt states. In October, the Bay State was ranked first for energy efficiency for the fourth year in a row by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

The World Wildlife Fund — and corporate America — are among those paying close attention. Fortune 500 companies 3M, Cisco Systems, and Kimberly-Clark, along with National Geographic, recently announced they will offer more than 100,000 employees across the country major bulk discounts for home solar systems through the Internet marketer Geostellar. The discounts offer a significant benefit to consumers and could cut as much as a third off system costs. The WWF, which created the employee program, says the concept comes from states on the leading edge like Massachusetts, which help cities and towns negotiate bulk purchase contracts with installers to make solar more affordable for homeowners and small businesses.

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Since 2011, the Commonwealth’s energy program has resulted in more than 2,400 contracts for small-scale solar systems by using state and federal tax incentives and creative loan structures to slash the cost of installations. The average cost is now $15,000, less than similar programs in other states. When Portland, Ore., launched the nation’s first “Solarize” campaign in 2009, the average upfront cost of a typical home system was $27,000. “We stand squarely on the shoulders of Solarize Massachusetts, Solarize Portland, and others,” said Keya Chatterjee, director of renewable energy programs for the WWF. “They really were the innovators, proving solar could be contagious if you engage residents on cost reduction and engage communities on the idea that this is normal, that this is energy the way it’s going to be.”

As electricity prices skyrocket in Massachusetts, state officials are pushing even harder for a sunny, solar future: They are, even now, taking proposals for a bulk purchase program called Mass Solar Connect for universities and nonprofits that have at least 5,000 associates. In the case of a college or university, benefits could be extended to immediate family of students and alumni. Among the schools and groups showing an interest this spring were the University of Massachusetts and Mass Audubon.

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The state of Connecticut is planning a similar program for universities, including the University of Connecticut and Yale. “It’s an exciting moment,” said Alicia Barton, CEO of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. “There’s a couple powerful dynamics at play. There is now a group concept this is not a crazy thing to do. The bulk concept simplifies the process for purchasers. It can be a bit bewildering comparing bids and calculating the cost of watts and loan structures.”

These efforts, and the leadership behind them, should not be lost on the next governor. The number of jobs in the clean energy sector, already a laudable 60,000 by 2010, should cross the 100,000 barrier next year — a larger workforce than the state’s insurance industry, according to the Clean Energy Center. Renewable energy is already a $10 billion industry without even factoring in lucrative developments on the horizon, such as offshore wind farms.

Governor Deval Patrick set the stage with aggressive standards that increased the amount of energy utilities are required to get from renewables. “Those standards have been crucial,” said Chatterjee. “None of us would be doing what we are without them. People thought you needed to be in a sunny state to make solar take off. But the number one country in the world is Germany. Massachusetts is one of the top states in the nation. These are places without a lot of sun, but they have a lot of enlightened politicians.” It should be a critical priority of the next administration to keep the lights on for some of the nation’s most enlightened policies.

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