BOSTON – Independent solar and wind power providers could be squeezed out of the energy market as Gov. Deval Patrick pursues a plan to reduce the state’s carbon footprint, say environmental groups.
Small solar and wind power businesses have grown from novelties into multimillion-dollar companies in recent years, fueled by federal and state incentives, as well as lower costs for wind turbines, solar panels and transmission lines.
But the Conservation Law Foundation and others say the state’s effort to boost renewable energy is so ambitious, it will force utilities such as National Grid and Northeast Utilities to deal with large, Canadian hydropower companies.
Solar and wind producers can’t create the 2,400 megawatts of additional clean energy that Patrick is calling for, said Sue Reid, director of the Conservation Law Foundation in Massachusetts.
Next week, state lawmakers are scheduled to begin debating a bill backed by Patrick, and co-sponsored by state Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, that would require major electric utilities to begin soliciting proposals from developers of solar, wind and even hydroelectric energy under 20- to 25-year contracts.
“There’s no minimum requirement for wind and solar in this legislation, so it could end up being all big hydro imports from Canada,” said Reid. “It’s like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. There’s no protection for the wind and solar companies.”
Traditional generators – including those using coal, gas and nuclear power – are concerned they also could be pushed out of the market.
“We understand the state is trying to meet its carbon reduction mandates, but this is the wrong way to do it,” said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association. “This will increase costs for consumers and put at risk the tremendous investment that power generators across New England have made at their facilities to provide some of the lowest prices in a decade.”
The Patrick administration has said it wants more than 20 percent of the state’s electricity to be generated by renewable energy sources by 2020 – totaling 1,600 megawatts of solar power and 2,000 megawatts of wind power – as part of a plan to reduce greenhouse gases.
Under Patrick’s tenure, the amount of solar capacity has risen from about 3 megawatts in 2008 to 250 megawatts in 2013, according to the Clean Energy Center. Wind power capacity has grown by a slower pace, from 3 megawatts in 2007 to more than 100 in 2012.
State incentive programs have spawned dozens of private and municipal solar and wind projects, including many in the Merrimack Valley and North Shore. A six-megawatt facility on 54 acres of private land in Salisbury, for example, is expected to give the town a 15 percent discount on energy costs over the next 20 years.
Krista Selmi, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said the Patrick administration isn’t trying to pick winners and losers in its energy plan.
“We are completely agnostic about what kind of clean energy sources are used,” Selmi said. “And we’re not forcing companies to sign contracts. We have no idea who will bid on these projects.”
Small solar and wind companies said they are eager for business, but they admit that they don’t have the capacity that Canadian hydroelectric companies can provide.
“Solar and wind alone aren’t going to fill that demand,” said Don Walters, chief development officer for North Andover-based Nexamp Inc. The company has worked on dozens of solar projects across the state using dollars from a $20 million grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
“You’ve got to bring hydroelectricity from Canada to fill that capacity, but there has to be a balance,” Walters said.
Barriers to the solar and wind energy market are already high, not even factoring the competition, according to small producers.
Stanley Biacek set out to build one of the North Shore’s largest solar farms on a sprawling piece of land he owns near Beverly Airport, a project that would produce enough electricity to power hundreds of homes. But the Gloucester man found himself stymied by a regulatory nightmare and rejections from banks that wouldn’t lend him money to get the $6 million project off the ground.
He eventually gave up – after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on permits and designs – and sold the project to Integrys Energy Services, Inc., which specializes in running solar farms. The Chicago-based company is developing the 2-megawatt solar array, which goes online in a few months, with a contract to sell the energy it produces to National Grid.
Biacek said the experience is a cautionary tale for property owners looking to tap into the state’s burgeoning clean energy industry.
“It’s a difficult and risky business to get involved with, unless you’re one of the big guys,” he said.
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