The American wind energy industry is losing altitude, after a federal incentive program expired with the new year.
Yet in Massachusetts, solar energy is surging with new projects, both small and large, which are sprouting up across farms, fields and atop urban buildings.
“Solar projects are significantly easier to build than wind,” said John Lamontagne, a spokesman for First Wind, a Boston-based company that owns and operates wind farms across the country and is starting to invest more in solar as well.
Nationally, wind continues to represent the majority of clean energy development. But in Massachusetts, where steady strong winds are harder to come by, solar has been tagged as the fastest-growing part of the renewable energy sector.
“Massachusetts has had a very strong program in place to encourage growth and development of solar power,” Mr. Lamontagne said.
According to the 2013 Massachusetts Clean Energy Industry Report, solar constitutes about 60 percent of the renewable energy sector in the state, compared with about 10 percent for wind and 13 percent for hydropower.
Although there are government investments in clean energy development, the report found that it was a relatively small piece of the pie, at 7 percent in 2012. Nationally, that figure was nearly 12 percent.
“The price of solar has been exponentially driven down in the past few years by demand,” said Alicia Barton, chief executive of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, which released the report.
On the site of an old golf course in Warren, construction workers recently trudged through the mud between rows and rows of solar panels. When it goes live in June, the $50 million farm will have about 57,300 solar panels, which on the sunniest days will generate 14 megawatts of solar energy per hour – enough to power about 2,500 homes.
First Wind is also building a smaller site in Millbury, which Mr. Lamontagne said is also nearing completion. It will generate about 3 megawatts of solar power and go live within the next month.
The Solar Energy Industries Association recently included Massachusetts in its list of top-10 solar states. Through the instillation of new solar panels, Massachusetts was ranked fourth nationally for its 237.2 megawatt-increase in capacity in 2013.
“Solar accounted for 29 percent of all new electricity generation capacity in 2013, up from 10 percent in 2012. This made solar the second-largest source of new generating capacity behind natural gas,” the association wrote. The national average price of solar energy by watt fell by about 15 percent from $3.04 to $2.59 between the fourth quarters of 2012 and 2013, the organization reported.
Clean energy goes further than wind, solar and other types of generation, however.
Institutions and businesses these days have a wide portfolio of strategies to be more green, which often coincides with cheaper energy bills.
They could upgrade their facilities to make them more efficient, with new heating or cooling systems, better windows or more insulation.
There is also the booming industry of renewable energy certificates, or RECs, in which credits can be bought and sold like shares in the stock market to support renewable energy generation.
The University of Massachusetts Medical School, for example, in the next few months will start benefiting from a 6-megawatt chunk of the solar farm in Warren. Another of the medical school’s solar projects, in Palmer, has been live since December. The final piece of the medical school’s solar investment is being constructed in Monson and is expected to generate energy by the end of 2015.
In total, the university will own up to 12 renewable energy certificates annually, depending on the amount of power that is generated from the solar farms.
“One of the very cool things that is happening is the prices on RECs are dropping to the point that … buying clean power is almost equivalent to buying dirty power,” said Amy Haddon, a spokeswoman for Renewable Choice Energy. Renewable Choice is a Colorado-based company that brokers the sale of the energy credits. Its clients include the city of Worcester and EMC Corp.
Electricity providers like National Grid have agreements with institutions like the medical school because they are required by law to ensure that a certain percentage of energy is generated from renewable sources.
The medical school expects that the 12 renewable energy certificates that it has contracted for over the next 30 years will save about $715,000 annually. Through this process, the school is essentially seeing savings on its energy bill in the amount of energy produced at the solar plants, which they expect to be about 30 percent.
“We see this as a financial benefit,” said Melissa Lucas, the sustainability and energy manager at the medical school. “It’s a benefit to drive solar and renewable energy.”
She said that as organizations invest in green energy and technology, which for many could be a cost-effective option in the long-term, the initial investment required will continue to drop.
World Energy Solutions Inc. is a Worcester-based company that among other things helps connect suppliers with organizations wanting to purchase energy using an online auction tool.
The company said that each energy user, whether it is the government, a hospital or a warehouse, will receive bids for different types of contracts from a handful of interested energy suppliers. Andrew Thomas, the company’s senior vice president of product strategy, said the suppliers are often able to make contracts including green energy comparable, if not less expensive, than those offering only traditional energy.
“Our approach makes it easy for them to be as green as they want to be,” he said.
The city of Worcester was recently ranked 28th on the local government entities list of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s top green power users. The city holds renewable energy certificates, meaning that it is paying for wind energy generated in New York state in an amount equivalent to 25 percent of the electricity it consumes.
Besides investing in the certificates, John Odell, the city’s energy efficiency and conservation manager, said Worcester is using on-site energy generation.
So far, solar panels have been installed on the roofs of Worcester Technical High School and Sullivan Middle School. Another dozen or so schools across the city will also be getting the technology within the next year.
The panels “will offset a significant portion of the electricity used by the school,” he said.
Besides saving money on energy costs, Mr. Odell said that being known as a green community has a nice ring to it.
“It puts more meat on the bone” when attracting new businesses and institutions to the city, he said.
EMC Corp., based in Hopkinton, is another top green energy investor that was recognized by the EPA. It was ranked 33rd of the top 100 organizations across the country by owning enough credits to account for 31 percent of its energy generation. Its wind energy credits totaled 175 million kilowatt hours in a 12-month span.
“EMC’s green power purchase program is an important facet of our sustainability roadmap,” wrote Kathrin Winkler, chief sustainability officer for the company. “Purchasing green power sends a message to our partners, customers and employees that supporting clean sources of electricity is not only a sound business decision, but also an important choice in reducing climate risk.”
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