Solar dollars


The results of an inquiry into Massachusetts’s growing solar energy industry, published in the winter 2013 edition of CommonWealth magazine and written by Bruce Mohl, confirms understandings popular among alternative energy skeptics. “Solar State – Gov. Patrick is building a fast-growing industry using big subsidies” makes two fundamental points.

“The Patrick administration is fulfilling its solar commitment with the help of generous federal tax incentives and enormous state subsidies paid for by electric ratepayers across the state,” Mr. Mohl writes.

And, “Solar customers save money on their electric bills because they split with the solar developer a subsidy paid for by other utility customers,” Mr. Mohl explains. “In other words, electric ratepayers across the state see their bills go up a tiny bit to pay for the subsidies that allow the electric bills of solar customers to go down, in some cases by half.”

The CommonWealth article does not condemn the solar industry in Massachusetts, which now includes about 1,000 companies employing 10,000 workers. And, Mr. Mohl writes, the cost trend for solar is favorable. But, if your judgment is that, long term, wind and solar power cannot compete with natural gas, coal, nuclear, and hydropower on cost or scale, then the extension of such rich subsidies for solar and the added costs for electricity consumers that result supports a suspicion that the outlook for a useful and economic contribution from these alternative energy sources is doubtful.

“The surge in production of natural gas, the primary fuel used to run the region’s power plants, has halted the upward momentum of energy prices. That means solar will have to travel a longer road before its price becomes competitive,” Mr. Mohl concludes.

Mr. Mohl analyzes the solar business of Broadway Electrical Company, a Dorchester firm. “The company’s most recent and biggest venture is a project on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard to install nearly 50 megawatts of solar power scattered across more than 40 locations. The $200 million deal will help the state reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, allow 17 participating towns and two counties to cut their electric bills dramatically, and return a profit to Broadway. It’s what people in the solar business are fond of calling a win-win-win.”

Broadway builds, owns, and operates the installations. Financing comes from a Houston partner and a 30 percent energy tax credit from the feds, paid in cash to Broadway and its partner. Broadway will get paid a net metering credit for the solar power it delivers to the grid, about 12 to 15 cents of kilowatt hour — a price, Mr. Mohl says, that is about the same as retail customers pay for electricity. Broadway and the towns and counties in which it has built solar installations split the net metering credit. Broadway will also get solar renewable energy credits, worth now as much as 55 cents a kilowatt hour but no less than 28.5 cents, per 1,000 KW delivered. Add the two revenue streams together, Mr. Mohl reports, and the result is that each KW of solar energy yields 41 to 44 cents of revenue to Broadway, its financial partner, and the towns and counties that save money on their electricity bills.

To add a little price perspective, Mr. Mohl explains, “The cost figure is more than twice as much as the initial 18.7-cent contracted price of Cape Wind electricity and six times the 7-cent price most utilities are charging for power now. The premium charge for solar is eventually passed on to electric ratepayers across the state.”

For those interested in the financial underpinnings of alternative energy today, the CommonWealth [] article is worth some attention. Further about the weatherWalking with the dogs Sunday, I was grumpy. Despite the moderate temperature, the quieted wind, the gleaming blue sky, there was that foot of snow we were wading through. It’s just pesky, lovely when the storm ends but inconvenient, slippery, and tricky for walking and driving. I’ve always preferred to visit big snowfalls rather than have them come to visit me.

Years ago, during an agricultural moment in my life in the early 1980s, it was my job to plow the entrance road to the West Tisbury farm I owned. The road led along flat ground to a steep, paved uphill, and the two-wheel drive John Deere tractor with the bucket that I used was not suited to the job. There was no sense starting from the bottom of the hill, no possibility of pushing all that snow up the hill to the farm. The alternative was to build up a head of steam at the top, lower the bucket and barrel down that hill pushing a mountain of snow ahead. Sometimes it worked, but when the snow was deep, my headlong plowing often found me plunging into the woods beside the road then swerving back to the track. The plowed trail made a sort of crude slalom for drivers.

Sunday, I didn’t have to worry about plowing and unsurprisingly, the dogs, utterly delighted by the snow, its wetness and its taste, worried about nothing. Diesel the mastiff has gotten to be an old dog with a graying muzzle and some creakiness, which in a dog as big as he is a profound threat to his locomotion. His rear legs don’t work the way they were designed to. In the deep snow and on the slippery paths, they seem to get tangled, especially at the trot, so to avoid calamity Diesel changes to a kind of hopping gallop that keeps him upright most of the time.

Teddy the pug doesn’t embrace the cold and the snow, especially when it is deeper than he is tall, but he’s excited about it. And, he wants badly to sniff where Diesel sniffs. So he makes for the windswept circles beneath the shrubbery, galloping like Diesel, not for the fun of it but to keep his head above the surface. These two utterly dissimilar buddies were not dismayed at the fruits of the historic northeaster or transported by the decorative alteration of the landscape. To them it was just fun, and consequently the only time Diesel’s four legs worked in the synchronized way they were meant to was when he rolled delightedly on his back in the deepest snow. It raised one’s spirits.