When it comes to sources of renewable energy, Massachusetts, Central Massachusetts in particular, is in a good position to take advantage of many of them.
Solar installations can be done just about anywhere and Central Massachusetts is hilly enough to accommodate wind turbines. The way the energy market has shaped up in recent years, no one technology has risen high enough above the others to claim a dominant spot on customers' wish lists. The way the state's energy experts see it, that's the way it should be. (Click here to see the top renewable energy projects in Central Mass.)
In 2007, the latest year for which data is available, about 10 percent of the state's energy came from renewable sources, according to ISO New England. In New England as a whole, 12.8 percent came from renewable sources.
"New England currently has about 100 megawatts of wind capacity on the system, but we started 2008 with just 20 megawatts," said Marcia Blomberg, an ISO New England spokesman. "Developers have proposed about 3,100 megawatts of renewable projects around the region, and 80 percent of those are wind projects. While not every proposed project actually gets built, we believe it's important to get ahead of the curve and prepare for the large-scale integration of wind."
"We need it all," said Ed White, National Grid's vice president of customer strategy. But as it is with many new technologies, a rush of early demand can expose weaknesses. "There was a lot of popularity around wind a few years back, so much so that (customers) were having a hard time getting turbines."
Customers unable to get a turbine turned to solar and found that while it's easier to put solar panels on a roof than it is to site a wind turbine, it takes a lot of solar panels to equal the amount of energy gathered by a turbine.
"Siting is a key issue," White said. Whether a customer has "a lot of roof and not a lot of land, or a lot of land and not a lot of roof" can dictate what type of installation is best.
Larger projects, like the Douglas Woods Wind project in Douglas, will also take significant amounts of time to get all necessary local and state permits. The Douglas Woods project was proposed in January and is a $57 million, 13-turbine, 26-30 megawatt project that is expected to provide enough electricity for up to 10,000 homes.
Businesses or institutions that turn to renewable energy sources want to look good while saving money and "a lot of folks look at (a wind turbine) and say, 'wow, that's a great statement,'" White said.
And it doesn't just look good. For businesses or institutions with a place to put a turbine, the advantages are twofold. Legislation is expected to pass soon to allow for net metering, a system that allows a turbine owner to count excess power produced against the days and months that it must draw electricity from the grid.
A school like Holy Name Central Catholic Junior/Senior High School, which installed a 600kw wind turbine on its grounds last year, probably doesn't use much electricity at all overnight. Selling the power produced by the turbine during that time "definitely helps with the economics," White said.
That's what the school is doing currently, said Headmaster Ed Reynolds. But once net metering is in place, it expects the $1.6 million project to be paid for within just a few years.
Reynolds said the school's entire heating system is electric and its annual heating bill can be as much as $180,000. "No matter how fast the turbine is spinning, we have to draw from the grid." But Reynolds expects power generated by the turbine in the summer months to offset that. "Over the course of a typical year, it should produce as much as we need."
Here Comes The Sun
The cost of solar installations is coming down, too. Last October the average individual solar installation cost $7.60 per watt. Currently, it costs $6.40 per watt, White said. And the cost of the panels themselves continues to drop. Also, rebates from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative for customers who want to install solar panels can cut the cost of a solar installation in half, White said.
White said he's seen a lot of excitement on the part of solar panel installers.
And that's a little bit of good news in an economy that has dampened the state's renewable energy market, said Phil Giudice, commissioner of the state Department of Energy Resources. "In solar, there's great growth potential. There are 150 companies now in the solar business (in Massachusetts) and they're doing it in every corner of the state," he said.
That wide adaptability may be what gives solar an advantage in the long run, Giudice said. "Wind is a spotty resource in the state. The shore and the hills are good, but it's not going to be on every street corner," he said.
Most of the hydroelectric power the state will ever have has already been developed, Giudice said, and biomass, while relatively undeveloped in the state, shows good potential for heating as an alternative to oil.
But with solar power being provided at rates that can compete with utility rates, "it's time to double down on this," Giudice said. "You can do it just about anywhere and you don't need five years of engineering study to do it."
That simplicity was attractive to Worcester State College, which expects the installation of 540 solar panels on the roof of its Learning Resource Center to be complete by the end of the month. The $870,000 installation was funded by Clean Renewable Energy Bonds from the IRS and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. When it's done, the panels will have a capacity of about 105 kilowatts and will provide about 20 percent of the power used by the center.
"The payback is still up in the air, and we're not connected to the grid yet," said Bob Daniels, one of the school's associate facilities directors. But the project should be paid off in about 15 years and the school is studying the possibility of a wind turbine installation made possible by its proximity to Worcester Airport.
But despite the relative ease of installation and continually improving price, solar projects, as well as any others, took a long break in the first quarter and are only now starting to move forward again, Giudice said.
"It's an uncertain market in a lot of respects, they're uncertain on how to finance anything. Their homes, their businesses; will they be around in six month?" Giudice wondered. "The demand for these (energy sources) couldn't be clearer; it's just a matter of how the next year or two shakes out."
"People are sort of going through this downturn in fits and starts," he said. "Clearly, there are a lot of people who were very badly impacted. Others are still strong, but feel less solid, they don't feel the confidence to spend."
Giudice said the number of inquiries about renewable energy projects and programs coming into DOER was "very strong through December," and April was DOER's "biggest month for inquiries" ever. But January, February and March were dead.
The folks who poked their heads up last month were "people who realize they may not get laid off. They think, 'maybe I can spend the money,'" Giudice said.