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State to launch $68m solar panel program

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter J. Howe
Globe Staff / December 14, 2007

Governor Deval Patrick's administration is launching a $68 million program today to increase the number of solar electric panels on Massachusetts homes, businesses, and schools by 600 percent over the next four years.

Patrick's plan, which does not involve new taxes or fees, seeks to greatly simplify the process for people and businesses to get funding for promoting green power, including solar.

The plan includes special incentives for buying Massachusetts-made solar panels and extra aid targeted at lower-income homeowners.

Instead of the system that now requires filling out complicated grant applications and getting an approval that can take months or years, homeowners and businesses following new state rules will be able to get the equivalent of mail-in rebates covering as much as half to two-thirds of what they spent installing solar panels.

Patrick's plan, which is backed by Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, relies substantially on a roughly 25-cent-a-month tax levied on Bay State homeowners' electric bills for the last decade.

A typical home solar system producing 2,500 watts of electricity, about one-third to one-half the electricity an average homeowner would otherwise buy from a utility, costs around $20,000 to $25,000 installed. With the state rebates, homeowners and businesses could save enough on their electric bills to pay off the net cost of solar panels within five to eight years, then reap thousands of dollars in savings after that.

Patrick also wants to create a stronger local market for solar-energy companies that he is pushing to expand in Massachusetts, including Evergreen Solar Inc. of Marlborough.

After getting pledges of state aid from Patrick, Evergreen agreed earlier this year to build a 400-job factory here instead of in Germany, where it gets many of its sales because of strong government subsidies.

"This is a really big deal," said Paul Gromer, executive director of the Solar Energy Business Association of New England, a trade group that represents dozens of area equipment makers and installers. "This program will give us a world-class solar market right here in Massachusetts."

Ian A. Bowles, state secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said Patrick hopes to boost the collective capacity of solar panels installed in Massachusetts from 4 megawatts today to 27 megawatts by 2012 and as much as 250 megawatts by 2017.

That's the equivalent of increasing the number of homes in Massachusetts powered by solar energy from roughly 3,000 now to 20,000 in 2012 and to 190,000 in a decade.

Funding for the program will come from two sources: a $10 million annual commitment from the state Renewable Energy Trust, which collects the 25-cent monthly electric bill tax, and $28 million paid to the state in recent years by NStar and National Grid as compensation for failing to buy enough wind, hydro, and other renewable power to meet state mandates for green energy.

The trust, which is run by the quasi-public Massachusetts Technology Collaborative of Westborough, has funded more than 700 solar installations around the state since it was launched in 2001.

But state officials are eager to streamline its funding process for homeowners and businesses by replacing grant applications of up to 75 pages with a system offering the same kinds of mail-in rebates people can get when buying a television or cellphone.

Officials expect to further adjust details, but currently envision that the program would fund residential projects of up to 5,000 watts and commercial projects of at least 100,000 watts, with a maximum commercial rebate of $1 million per system.

About $16 million of the $68 million will be earmarked for solar installations at public schools and state and local government buildings.

NStar has 1 million electric customers in Boston and 80 Eastern Massachusetts cities, of which just 345 have solar panels installed.

Utility officials are promising to help Patrick's solar push by training call-center workers to answer customers' questions about where to find a solar installer and having energy-efficiency specialists visiting customers' homes identify those that may be especially good for solar.

NStar chief executive Thomas J. May, in remarks prepared for an announcement ceremony today, said, "This rebate program is exactly the kind of shot in the arm that's needed to get more solar panels on homes and businesses throughout the Commonwealth."

Peter J. Howe can be reached at howe@globe.com.

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