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The MBTA as renewable energy pioneer

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  April 26, 2013 12:45 PM

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Here’s an idea: If all 138 parking lots owned by the MBTA were covered with canopies layered with solar panels, could we help the environment and save money at the same time? Well, no.

A trio of researchers, including two from Boston University, worked through that thought experiment in a study published in March. They calculated that such a large network of solar panels would be capable of meeting nearly 14 percent of the total electricity demand in Massachusetts while sparing the atmosphere 54 tonnes of carbon dioxide. The photovoltaic canopies would also reduce something known as the urban heat island effect, by providing shade for nearly three million square meters of heat absorbing blacktop.

But here’s the bad news: The project would cost $1.46 billion to implement and, thanks to ongoing maintenance costs, almost none of that would end up being recouped by electricity revenue. Given that, the Boston University study does less to highlight an innovative energy strategy, and more to dramatize the tremendous economic obstacles to a renewable energy future.

UPDATE. Shortly after posting this I received an email from the MBTA explaining that in fact they are already moving ahead with plans to place solar photovoltaic systems at two sites: Readville Yard 5 in Dedham and Wonderland Garage in Revere. The systems will be built by Gehrlicher Solar America Corporation and will provide the MBTA with an estimated $48,900 in annual revenue.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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