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Massachusetts Energy: Follow the Green Brick Road

Washington may not get it, but from environmentalists to entrepreneurs to tradespeople, green is gangbusters.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009
Illustration by Mark Roessler

This past August, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed into law two bills that have gotten a lot of people excited—and probably made some regional power companies groan. In truly savvy political maneuvering and creative management of both tax structures and environmental laws, the state has whipped up what could become a startlingly effective impetus for positive change, titillating the imaginations of a broad range of groups from environmentalists to entrepreneurs to organized labor.

The equation? It seems to come down to the basic tools of coercive action: the carrot and the stick.

The carrot: The Green Jobs Act of 2008. Written primarily by State House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, the Green Jobs Act will provide $68 million over the next five years through grants and other direct state funding for green jobs initiatives in Massachusetts. The New England Clean Energy Council (NECEC) has projected that implementation of the plan could create upwards of 20 new clean energy companies in the state and attract up to half a billion dollars in venture capital from myriad sources. Theoretically this would create more than 10,000 new jobs and around $50 million a year in new income tax revenue.

The stick: The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008. The law is aimed primarily at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts by requiring a reduction of 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050, with a goal of 25 percent reduction by 2020. Specific target goals will also be set for 2030 and 2040 by the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, and will presumably implement the reduction requirements through mandatory industry technology upgrades and some form of carbon trading system.

"This legislation builds on the energy, oceans, and biofuels bills passed this session--all positioning Massachusetts as the clear national leader in creating a clean energy economy," Governor Patrick said upon signing the bills into law. "Massachusetts will lead the way in reducing the emissions that threaten the planet with climate change, and at the same time stimulate development of the technologies and the companies that will move us into the clean energy age of the future."

What most prospective players in this game are chomping at the bit for now is an answer to when and how the bills' pledged funding will begin to be injected into the state's economy. Certainly recent developments in state, national and global economies have made many state initiatives that seemed like rays of hope slip into a gray area of questionable fundability, perhaps pushing them back a few burners on the crowded stovetop of priorities. Still, many remain hopeful, and there exists both an organized, eager academic/industrial base in the sector with business plans already in place, and a hungry workforce just waiting for the day they can wake up and start installing solar panels and processing biofuels.

Nowhere was this sentiment more evident than at Springfield's recent Clean Energy Connections conference, which brought together hundreds of bright-eyed, forward-looking Bay Staters anxious to network, amass relevant information and carve out their own niches on the green frontier. Highlights of the conference included a keynote speech by author/activist Bracken Hendricks, a former special assistant to Al Gore during the Clinton administration. Hendricks is a co-author with Congressman Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) of the book Apollo's Fire (see www.apollosfire.net), which has been touted as a viable blueprint for reforming national energy policy.

Closing the all-day affair was Powershift: Massachusetts' New Clean Energy Landscape, a policy panel featuring overviews of recent Massachusetts energy legislation and a question-and-answer session with state Rep. Daniel Bosley, state Sen. Benjamin Downing and Commissioner of the Mass. Department of Energy Resources Phil Giudice. Exhibitors included locally based solar companies like Hatfield's Stiebel-Eltron and Adams' Berkshire Photovoltaic Services; "green" builders, whose mission is to incorporate green technologies like radiant floor heating into new construction and encourage the efficient insulation of existing structures; schools, including Holyoke Community College, Greenfield Community College and UMass-Amherst, that are increasingly offering courses in what they perceive to be a growth field; banks and green investment resources, including People's Bank and the intriguing non-profit broker New Generation Energy, various 'think tanks' and even a Home Depot booth, which was pushing the cream of its insulation products crop.

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Stiebel-Eltron, a Germany-based company with its U.S. headquarters in Hatfield, is a wholesaler whose primary business is helping to design solar-thermal heat and hot water systems. It also sells new-generation technology items like tankless water heaters (www.stiebel-eltron-usa.com). Berkshire Photovoltaic Services designs solar-photovoltaic (electricity-producing) arrays for qualified candidate locations, and even offers to process applications for its clients to see if they qualify for federal and state tax incentives as well as a smattering of regional and private trust grants. Its perhaps most visible work to date is evident on the roof of Mass MoCA's Building 5 Gallery in North Adams (www.bpvs.com).

Another presence at the conference was Fraunhofer-U.S.A.'s partnership in contract research with M.I.T., founded in May, 2008 and dubbed the Center for Sustainable Energy Systems (www.fraunhofer-cse.org). Employing hordes of highly-qualified research scientists and well-equipped, test-versatile labs, it states its goal in the solar arena as "to significantly reduce the cost of solar over the next five years by employing advanced materials and 'smart' electronics to research, design and build better 'plug-and-play' solar modules." It also has a mission in the area of green building: to adapt advanced technology to reduce the energy consumption in new and older buildings.

In a similar but more local capacity, Holyoke-based Greendustry Park, LLC (www.greendustrypark.com) offers business planning and development, engineering, prototyping, marketing strategies, networking opportunities and even "back office" support (including things like legal and payroll services) to nascent businesses in the green sector. Companies like this will likely be key to the success or failure of many a hopeful startup, for though amongst the greenies there are certainly plenty of well thought out plans for potential businesses, the field may also suffer more than the average from an imbalanced ratio of idealistic vim to marketplace savvy.

Also in the mix of vetting new green-industry endeavors and perhaps helping to separate the wheat from the chaff are entities like Boston's New Generation Energy (NGE, www.newgenerationenergy.org), which describes itself as a "non-profit organization that supports community-based renewable energy projects." NGE's goal is to provide low-interest loans to qualifying applicants in New York and New England that produce or distribute renewable energy utilizing solar-PV, solar-thermal, wind, biomass and cogeneration capacity, as well as loans to support energy efficiency improvements. On its other end, NGE offers a safe place for conscientious investors to rest their capital resources, and provides guilt-free (if relatively modest) returns on its investments as well.

NGE's associate director Karla Franco explains that the organization raises the funds for its below-market-rate loan program through the sale of "Renewable Energy Investment Notes" (REINs). Sold in denominations ranging from $1,000 to $1,000,000 and up, they are basically fixed-interest, fixed-term debt notes. NGE hopes to make investing in renewable energy a less risky, more mainstream concept via the program, and if more entities like theirs begin to pop up, returns might even begin to rise significantly as borrowers' businesses start to take off and show profits. In many ways, ideas like NGE's could make the green revolution a self-fulfilling prophecy, much as the dot-com explosion of the late '90s created a multibillion-dollar sector of business virtually overnight.

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The climax of the event was the Powershift panel discussion, which was skillfully moderated by professor of economics and director of the UMass-Amherst Center for Public Policy and Administration M.V. Lee Badgett. Here the panelists relayed, to the best of their knowledge, the progress of the brand-new landmark legislation and attempted to answer the slew of questions from detail-hungry listeners about how, where and when the bills' accompanying funds would begin to be distributed and how to apply for them. Net-metering was also a hot topic, and skeptics voiced their concerns about the possibility of such forward steps being bludgeoned to death on Beacon Hill by the big energy lobby like previous efforts of similar scope, both locally and nationally.

One local entity who interrogated the panel was Easthampton Mayor Michael Tautznik, whose primary interest seemed to lie in unraveling the specifics of the Green Communities Act. Signed in July of '08, this law got the state's green legislation rolling and appears to provide a number of incentives to municipalities to consider implementing green initiatives.

"We've started to look at qualifying for the GCA," Tautznik said in an email to the Advocate. "In terms of actually getting things accomplished, we conducted energy audits on our larger facilities using a DOER [Department of Energy Resources] grant, the Planning Board is looking at the required zoning changes, and we are applying to the PVPC [Pioneer Valley Planning Council] for assistance to develop a carbon inventory." Mayor Mike also had some well thought out suggestions on developing municipally-based/privately-owned solar "farms" on closed landfills:

"We [cities and towns] all have one or two [landfills], and they must be kept mown and maintained at fairly significant costs," he explained. "Trees cannot be grown on them for fear of damaging the cap, so there are no shading problems for solar panels. With the rack system in use on rooftops you don't need deep soil penetration for footings or foundations. If such systems can be fed into the grid at retail (using net-metering) they will make money. If they make money, Americans will invest in the technology and businesses will be formed to build them."

Still, Tautznik remains doubtful that many of these ideas can become reality without significant national leadership on the issue. He was recently quoted by MSNBC.com's Bill Dedman (from a post-election email query of 1,000 mayors that solicited their top two suggestions for President-elect Barack Obama's "to-do list") saying, "There needs to be a program through which assistance (financial, technical, and possibly legal) can be provided to local and regional governments to give us the capacity and opportunity to participate in the nation's energy independence efforts in a meaningful manner. Existing green energy programs rely on the actions of the for-profit marketplace, using income tax credits and private sector trading expertise to make the difference in successful implementation. Government energy use is significant and extremely visible. Making it the focus of such initiatives would go a long way toward instilling that same ethic in our constituents."

Robert Pollin is professor of economics and founding co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at UMass-Amherst. He recently co-authored a report entitled Green Recovery: A Program to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low-Carbon Economy, which offers a detailed economic plan for implementing a rapid, $100 billion clean-energy stimulus package that could transition the U.S. into a low-carbon economy, creating 2 million jobs in the process.

According to the report, the six-pronged, infrastructure-focused plan could "create nearly four times more total jobs than spending the same amount of money within the oil industry," including "good" jobs (jobs paying at least $16 dollars an hour). It would be especially curative for the hard-hit construction and manufacturing sectors, where Pollin et al. predict that their proposed initiative could help restore most of the nation's 800,000 lost jobs in those areas. (Readers can download the report at www.peri.umass.edu).

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Even if some aspects of a green revolution in New England (and the country in general) still appear painfully far off, there is no shortage of people preparing for its eventuality. From green-heavy curricula at academic institutions and regional labor initiatives to increasingly eager entrepreneurs and even hard-nosed venture capitalists, rank-and-file citizens are ready for it. One hopes that the grass-roots clamor will be loud enough to force progressive measures through the halls of American bureaucracy. Still, even if the K Street lobbyists manage to keep Congress dragging its feet through the dregs of the petroleum paradigm, the beautiful thing may be that if worse comes to worst, we may not even need them.

"The great thing about a green employment initiative," says Patricia Crosby, executive director of the Franklin Hampshire Regional Employment Board, "is that it isn't reliant on some big companies moving into the western region. It creates new jobs, creates new small businesses and creates new advancement opportunities within an array of existing businesses. Just as information technology trends, skills, and capacity cut across all industries in the '80s, a green initiative has the potential to affect work and jobs across the board.

"Our current partnership includes everything from HVAC [heating, ventilation, air conditioning] firms to architects and construction supply stores to electricians. Jobs being posted by partners range from a data entry clerk and sales assistant at places like Solarwrights to a residential energy specialist, energy auditor, and cellulose installation installer, as well as, of course, PV-installers and solar hot water technicians."

In academia, perhaps one of the best harbingers of employment and technological trends to come, the green writing is quickly beginning to cover more and more of the chalkboards as well. Richard Gottlieb, a stalwart of the solar industry since its infancy, teaches classes in solar PV technology at Greenfield Community College as well as the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) in Port Ewen, N.Y. Gottlieb teaches general overview courses and classes for more specific professional groups such as solar installers and electricians.

"We're doing double sessions almost everywhere we teach, as we're getting about twice as many people signed up for each class," says Gottlieb. "We're also getting invitations to teach at new locations every week. There is enormous interest in green technologies."

The solar guru does double duty as a private sector instructor and system designer, putting in time at Poughkeepsie's Atlantis Energy, Inc. and at his own Sunnyside Solar, Inc., a small company based in Guilford, Vt. whose tongue-in-cheek motto reads "The Gentle Electric Company. We bring good things from light." He is also involved with Tinmouth, Vt.'s upcoming Solarfest, a three-day festival of renewable energy and sustainability workshops that takes place on July 10-12, and will also feature music on 100 percent renewable energy-powered stages. For more information on the event, visit www.solarfest.org.

"Green is the new red, white and blue," chirps New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who, though his shift toward sensational globalist proselytizing has made him something of a caricature of himself, occasionally still hits the nail on the head. In this case, he's right about the writing on the global wall: if America doesn't get its collective ass in gear for the clean energy revolution, it will be left eating the dust of emerging economic powers who will—namely China and India, who currently boast labor forces and trade surpluses that are quite up to the task. In the absence of a competitive effort in the green sector, the United States' economy could quickly become a dinosaur in an age of sleek, streamlined mammals, which could ultimately render it not unlike the former Soviet Union—a society of poor, underemployed citizens, a nation both technologically and ideologically outdated. Hopefully, leadership from states like Massachusetts and California will help to avert this scenario.

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