BOSTON (AP) – Despite its long winters and aging housing stock, Massachusetts has a sunny future in solar power – both as consumer and producer.

That’s the word from environmentalists, business leaders and state officials who say solar energy is key not only to the state’s energy independence, but to its economic health as it seeks to leapfrog to the top of the clean energy pack.

And while battles rage over wind farms and LNG terminals, solar power – free, clean and as limitless as the clouds allow – has been largely untouched by political wrangling.

Just this week, the state saw a flurry of solar energy developments.

Gov. Deval Patrick announced solar panel manufacturer Evergreen Solar was planning to double the size of its plant at the former Fort Devens and expand its work force from 300 to 1,000 workers.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino unveiled a new push to increase solar capacity in the city to 25 megawatts by 2015 – beginning in part with the Boston Red Sox’s plan to install a solar water heating system at Fenway Park.

And on Saturday, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced the creation of a new Institute for Sustainable Energy Systems, focusing on the development of better solar energy techniques and so-called “green building” technology.

The initiatives – including a state-sponsored rebate program for companies and individuals who install solar panels – is part of an overall strategy to make sure Massachusetts is on the leading edge in the innovation, production and use of the sun’s power.

“We are now among the leadership states on solar energy,” said state Environmental Secretary Ian Bowles.

Environmentalists say the shift to an alternative energy future will continue to gain momentum as the cost of oil increases and the state builds the needed solar power infrastructure.

Gov. Deval Patrick has set a goal of the production of 250 megawatts of solar power by 2017. A single megawatt can power several hundred homes and 250 megawatts is the equivalent of a medium-sized natural gas power plant.

The state has already started a solar rebate initiative to jump-start the process. Under the Commonwealth Solar program, businesses and homeowners will be eligible for rebates of at least $2 per watt. Commercial customers who install a typical 50 kilowatt solar power system can expect to reduce costs by 40 percent.

Other changes are on the way, including legislation winding its way through the Statehouse that would make it easier for homeowners with solar panels to sell energy back to the power grid.

“I think we are going to start to see solar all over the place and we need to,” said Sue Reid, a staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation. “We are seeing Massachusetts actually reinventing itself as a hotbed of solar and other clean energy.”

One of the top examples is Evergreen Solar.

The company, which makes solar panels, is riding the crest of a spike in demand. The company is already sold out through the end of the year.

Company spokesman Chris Lawson said Patrick’s commitment to expand the state’s reliance on solar energy was one incentive for Evergreen Solar to remain in Massachusetts. He said the company’s biggest customer is Germany – which also has a cooler climate somewhat similar to the Northeast.

That should help allay fears that solar power won’t work here, he said.

“Solar works better when you have cool, sunny days, so a solar system here in Massachusetts, if you have access to the sun and aren’t shaded by trees, can work as effectively as in a very, very hot climate like Arizona,” he said.

Another Evergreen Solar customer is the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which plans to install solar panels at its Deer Island wastewater treatment plant.

Patrick also wants to put panels at other state facilities, including Worcester and Salem state colleges, the Soldiers Home in Chelsea, and the Cedar Junction and South Middlesex state prisons.

In Boston, Menino announced the Solar Boston program, a two-year $550,000 initiative to help increase the city’s solar generating capacity. The program will help map and market solar energy systems citywide as well as help build individual solar projects.

Menino’s goal of producing 25 megawatts of solar energy in Boston by 2015 will get the state 10 percent of the way toward the overall goal of 250 megawatts.

The state is also relying on its brain power.

On Saturday MIT President Susan Hockfield teamed with Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to announce the founding of the MIT-Fraunhofer Institute for Sustainable Energy Systems in Cambridge. The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems is one of the largest solar research labs in Europe.

The center’s goal is to dramatically reduce the cost of solar over the next five years by using new materials and “smart electronics” to research, design and build better solar modules that can be easily fitted to new and existing buildings.

It’s part of the overall push for the design of “green building” standards intended to reduce reliance on traditional energy sources.


On the Net:

Commonwealth Solar:

Evergreen Solar:

Fraunhofer Institute:

AP-ES-04-13-08 1450EDT

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