After more than a decade of finding places to harvest energy from the air, First Wind’s latest expansion plan involves staring straight at the sun.
The Boston-based wind farm developer is on the hunt for solar power opportunities across its current footprint of New England, Hawaii, Utah and Washington.
First Wind is furthest along on its solar energy plans in its home state. The company has its corporate office here, and 65 of its 200 workers. But it has no wind turbines here, or any other generating plant for that matter. That’s about to change.
First Wind is just the latest in a long line of developers who see a sunny future for solar power in Massachusetts. Solar generating capacity surged in the state last year, more than doubling to roughly 200 megawatts at the end of 2012. The interest in solar power in Massachusetts prompted the Solar Energy Industries Association to rank Massachusetts sixth out of all states for its growth rate, based on the roughly 130 megawatts of solar production that went online last year here. The solar industry now generates about 4,500 jobs here, ranking the state fourth in the country, according to the SEIA.
In First Wind’s case, the firm bought development rights for solar projects in three towns earlier this year from Victus Solar, First Wind solar spokesman John Lamontagne said. There’s a 3.9-megawatt solar project in Millbury, where construction could begin as soon as this summer, and a 6-megawatt project in Freetown. And in Warren, First Wind is pursuing a series of three projects, totaling 17 megawatts in capacity. First Wind, he said, is still lining up permits for the projects and is also finalizing long-term power purchase contracts for them – contracts that would play a key role in their financing.
“We’re excited about the possibility of having a renewable energy project in our home state,” Lamontagne said. “It’s kind of a natural thing for us. … We’ve developed a lot of utility-scale wind projects. Solar, in many respects, has some similar characteristics as wind.”
It’s not the first time First Wind has tried to build a power plant in Massachusetts. In 2011, the company scuttled an effort to build a 10-turbine, 30-megawatt wind farm in Brimfield. At the time, First Wind blamed inadequate wind speeds recorded at the site during its tests. “The right (wind) project hasn’t come along in Massachusetts (for First Wind),” Lamontagne said. “But that doesn’t mean that it won’t.”
Carrie Cullen Hitt, senior vice president of state affairs at the SEIA, said First Wind has several attributes that work in its favor as it broadens its horizons to include solar energy. The company, she said, has a good grasp on the local dynamics in Massachusetts, such as the vagaries of municipal politics and land-use debates. The company also has a keen understanding of how to land financing for renewable projects, Hitt said, as well as the government-sanctioned incentives that often make that possible.
In particular, First Wind is looking to take advantage of state-imposed renewable portfolio requirements for utilities and competitive electric suppliers. Gov. Deval Patrick’s Department of Energy Resources created what’s known as a “solar carveout,” essentially requiring that a small portion of the mandated renewable energy that utilities buy comes from solar projects. To do this, the agency since 2010 has been certifying what are known as solar renewable energy certificates that electric suppliers buy to essentially subsidize the solar industry’s expansion.
Not long after taking office in 2007, Patrick called for the creation of 250 megawatts of solar energy in the state by 2017. It seemed like an ambitious goal, given that the entire solar industry’s generating capacity in the state was under 5 megawatts. But the state just reached that goal this spring.
That’s still far below the state-imposed cap of 400 megawatts, a limit that would trigger the end to solar credits for subsequent projects. But Dwayne Breger, the director of the Department of Energy Resources’ renewable energy division, said his agency is already weighing ways to raise that cap because of all the projects in the pipeline.
The solar carveout isn’t the only thing that the Patrick administration has done to spur the industry’s growth. Alicia Barton, CEO of the quasi-public Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, points to her agency’s “Commonwealth Solar II” program, which offers rebates to homeowners and businesses that install small-scale solar projects. There’s also the “Solarize Massachusetts” program, which offers discounts in participating municipalities through bulk buying of solar products and services.
Barton said she wasn’t surprised to recently learn from First Wind CEO Paul Gaynor that the company is entering the solar market in its home state. “It’s consistent with what we’ve seen with the market trend overall,” she said, “given the state of the Massachusetts solar market, which is very hot, (even) for a state that not a lot of people think of as particularly sunny.”
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