Massachusetts is no California, where the climate is sunny and there’s plenty of desert land to host huge solar-power farms that can produce more than 500 megawatts of electricity at one site.
But the state is trying — and on Monday National Grid plans to announce it will install solar panels at 19 sites across the state that can produce enough electricity to power 3,200 homes a year, in one of the largest solar buildouts in the state’s history.
The new installations, located on both public and private land, would be owned and maintained by National Grid, which has previously built small solar facilities across the state generating a combined 5 megawatts of power. The forthcoming ones would produce more than triple that amount.
Spread out at locations from Attleboro to Sturbridge, each of the new installations would generate, on average, less than a megawatt of power per site.
But the combined 16 megawatts that National Grid plans to construct, starting early next year, is a huge undertaking by Massachusetts standards. Costing the utility up to $75 million, the project will entail adding about 50,000 solar panels and is expected to completed by next June.
“We’re thrilled,” said Ed White, vice president of environmental and customer strategy at National Grid, which has 1.3 million electric customers in Massachusetts.
Down the line, some of the sites could also experiment with solar storage technologies.
One of the huge drawbacks of solar power is that it does not generate electricity at night and on cloudy days. But if the power that is generated during daylight hours can be captured and stored, possibly via huge storage batteries, its viability as an energy source will be greatly enhanced, White said.
National Grid’s project is just the latest development in the now booming solar industry in Massachusetts.
After passage of the state’s Green Communities Act in 2007, the original goal was to build 250 megawatts of solar-power capacity in Massachusetts by 2017. The state blew by that mark in 2013 and has since set a new goal of 1,600 megawatts of solar-power capacity by 2020.
Helped by generous government subsidies and plunging market prices for solar panels and equipment, the state today has about 700 megawatts of active solar-power capacity at hundreds of sites in cities and towns. The rough rule of thumb is that each 1.25 megawatts of solar energy can power about 250 homes, according to National Grid.
“The solar market here is going great guns right now,” said Janet Gail Besser, vice president of policy and government affairs at the New England Clean Energy Council.
Other clean energy sources, such as bio gas and wind power, are gaining traction in Massachusetts, but have yet to reach the goals set by policy makers.
Solar has been the exception. “It’s leading the way” among renewable energy sources, Besser said.
Indeed, a recent Deutsche Bank report said that solar electricity prices are now on track to match or even fall lower than average electricity prices in most states by 2016, assuming various government incentive programs are kept in place.
Under the Green Communities Act, utilities are each allowed to own solar facilities that can generate a combined 50 megawatts of electricity.
Northeast Utilities, parent company of NStar and Western Massachusetts Electric, has three facilities with a generation capacity of 8 megawatts in western Massachusetts, all built on brownfield sites.
After its new project is completed, National Grid will own 24 facilities with a combined solar-power capacity of 21 megawatts. Its newest facilities will be located in Abington, Attleboro, Ayer, Brockton, Charlton, Dighton, Fall River, Grafton, Leicester, Millbury, Shirley, and Sturbridge.
That added 16 megawatts of capacity may not be a lot compared to solar facilities in western parts of the country, where single solar farms of 15 or more megawatts are almost routine. But White said he’ll take it. “What we’re doing is truly helping the marketplace for solar here,” he said.