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Saving Graces

Clarence Smith, owner of Final Touch Barber Shop in Springfield

Clarence Smith, owner of Final Touch Barber Shop in Springfield

While outwardly in the business of providing energy, Eversource is making a name for itself in the business of conserving energy as well. Indeed, it has a deep portfolio of initiatives that are slicing energy bills, reducing peak-demand periods, and making a real impact — on both Main Street in Springfield and main streets across the Northeast.

Clarence Smith doesn’t have any trouble remembering when Eversource Energy entered his life — and his business — and helped him see the light, in all kinds of ways.

It was early June 2016. Muhammad Ali had recently passed away, and the boxing legend was on everyone’s mind. Coincidentally enough, he was also on Smith’s wall — the back wall of Final Touch, his barber shop on State Street in Springfield, to be more precise.

A representative of Eversource, the energy company based in Hartford and Boston, with a large presence in Springfield, happened to walk by and see the mural, said Smith, adding that he came in for a closer look, an impromptu visit that led to a wide-ranging discussion and, eventually, some improvement in the numbers on his electric bill.

“He was coming from a meeting at the health clinic across the street … he walked by and said, ‘wow, that’s a beautiful picture,’” Smith recalled. “We talked about Muhammad Ali, I showed him other pictures I had, and I eventually learned that his father used to do some boxing.

“We had a conversation about boxing, and then he said, ‘hey, I work for Eversource. We run a program — how would you like to be part of it?’” Smith went on, finishing the story (sort of) about how he became involved with the utility’s Main Street Energy Efficiency program, which has now impacted businesses on a great many streets in several different communities, and is now focusing on the Indian Orchard section of Springfield.

Through the initiative, business owners save an estimated $600 to $1,000 a year in energy costs through steps that include new and more efficient lighting, occupancy sensors, programmable thermostats, and water-saving devices.

Penni McLean-Conner

For both Eversource and Massachusetts, Penni McLean-Conner says, conservation is the “first fuel.”

The Main Street initiative is one of many that Eversource has launched with the broad goal of reducing overall energy consumption across the region and across the Northeast, involving communities, neighborhoods, and landmarks ranging from the corner market to Springfield’s Union Station; from Fenway Park to TD Bank Garden.

Others include a small-business program that provides no-interest loans to ventures to undertake similar energy-efficiency projects, often with dramatic results, such as those recorded by the Dakin Humane Society at its facilities in Springfield and Leverett.

There’s also a new focus on solar power, electric-car charging stations, and initiatives to improve storage in many locations — from UMass campuses to Cape Cod — with new technology, including lithium ion batteries and so-called ‘ice batteries’ (more on them later) to better handle peak loads, help alleviate outages, and improve reliability.

And while reducing the amount of energy consumed may seem counterproductive for a utility that sells that commodity, it makes perfect sense, said Penni McLean-Conner, senior vice president and chief customer officer for Eversource, noting that energy conservation is now a state priority and a state mandate.

“We’re at the end of the pipeline, so energy is expensive, and therefore it’s important that we leverage this resource and use it as wisely as possible,” she explained. “And Massachusetts leaders have recognized that conservation is the first fuel, something that was established with the Green Communities Act. And with that, the state has created the regulatory framework and policy framework that has allowed utilities to thrive by investing in energy-efficiency solutions.”

And Eversource has, indeed, invested in a number of these solutions, designed, overall, to help reduce the state’s carbon footprint and, locally, enable utility customers of all sizes and all business sectors to do what Smith did — trim (that’s one of his industry’s terms) his energy consumption.

“Our entire energy-conservation portfolio looks like an asset,” said McLean-Conner, who oversees a team of some 1,200 employees charged, overall, with managing the customer experience and developing ways to improve it. “In a three-year period, our energy-efficiency programs will build the equivalent of a 750-megawatt power plant. That’s powerful, because can you imagine siting a 750-megawatt power plant and getting all the lines up?”

Kim Kiernan, energy efficiency consultant for Eversource

Kim Kiernan, energy efficiency consultant for Eversource, with Charles Brush, owner of Indian Orchard Mills, which has benefited from the utility’s energy-conservation programs.

For this issue and its focus on green energy, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Eversource’s Main Street program and its many other initiatives aimed at helping businesses become greener — and save green at the same time.

Current Events

Charles Brush says he’s “a small business that manages space for lots of small businesses.”

That’s an intriguing, but accurate, description of the Indian Orchard Mills, a large mill complex along the Chicopee River that is home to more than 150 businesses. Many of them are artists who don’t use large amounts of electricity, but maybe half are manufacturers that do, especially those that make use of compressors.

“When machines start up, they create a demand — when machinery kicks on, it creates a higher rate that we pay,” said Brush, who has already had the lighting at the mill changed once through the Main Street program. With another upgrade to LED now in the discussion phase, he’s also hoping to perhaps implement some other electric-efficiency programs regarding machinery and compressors.

“We’re talking about doing what’s known as soft-starting,” he explained, “so that when a compressor comes on, it doesn’t just go from ‘off’ to ‘on,’ which creates that load; it soft-starts the motors so it doesn’t create a spike in demand.”

As noted, Brush is not your typical small business participating in these energy-efficiency programs — his mill complex boasts more than 500,000 square feet of space being put to all kinds of uses. But his issues are in many ways the same as those facing business owners occupying one-tenth, one-hundredth, or even one-thousandth of that footprint, which is about what Smith’s barbershop covers.

Every small-business owner is looking to reduce energy consumption and, therefore, their monthly bill, said Kim Kiernan, energy efficiency consultant for Eversource and manager of the Main Street program, and the utility is committed to helping as many as it can.

“Our plan is to have everyone changed over to LED lighting by 2021,” she said, stating just one of the program’s goals, adding that the Main Street program, which started in Springfield and has been expanded to several other communities, has assisted more than 600 businesses to date.

While all business owners are in the same boat when it comes to energy consumption and the need to reduce it, very large customers do have their own specific issues and challenges, said McLean-Conner, adding that Eversource breaks down the business community into several categories of customers, with usage being the determining factor.

“We don’t look at business customers as one homogeneous group; we realize that our customers have different needs, so we do a lot of segmentation,” she said, adding that very large customers — think colleges and universities, hospitals, the new MGM casino, large manufacturers, and refrigerated warehouses — have their own account executive assigned to them.

But there are also teams assigned to different business sectors comprised of large users — education, healthcare, food-processing plants, and others — with the specific goal of identifying ways to save.

“And each of the solutions for those sectors is different,” she explained, citing the example of higher education and work the utility has done in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“When I’m working with education, there’s considerable focus on labs, said McLean-Conner. “Those labs have intense energy needs, so the focus is how we reduce that. MIT was one of the first customers to sign on with us with a strategic energy agreement, a multi-year agreement and a public commitment by MIT and Eversource to reduce energy use over a period of time.

“They have actually increased square footage and reduced overall energy consumption — it’s a tremendous story,” she went on. “But it’s been done through the investment of wise energy-efficiency efforts, whether it’s building envelope and ensuring that the building itself is well-insulated, or heating and ventilation to make sure those systems are increasingly controlled, and lighting, which is obviously huge.”

There are a number of these tremendous stories being written, said both McLean-Conner and Kiernan. Like the one at MIT, they involve the customer partnering with Eversource to achieve stated goals when it comes to reducing energy consumption.

“In a three-year period, our energy-efficiency programs will build the equivalent of a 750-megawatt power plant. That’s powerful, because can you imagine siting a 750-megawatt power plant and getting all the lines up?”

They involve communities — Springfield was among the first, if not the first, city to ink what’s known as a strategic energy agreement with the utility — as well as large customers (UMass Amherst and Yankee Candle in this market are some of the examples cited), and literally thousands of small businesses.

“We try to develop custom solutions for these large organizations,” said McLean-Conner, noting that, at Yankee Candle, for example, the utility worked with the company to showcase various lighting options for franchisees — systems that would not only enhance the customer experience but reduce energy consumption and lower electricity bills.

Watt’s Happening

One of the keys to achieving those goals is making a dent in peak-demand periods, an important development for all commercial consumers, said McLean-Conner, because they pay not only for the energy for they use, but for the peak usage as well.

And recent trends show the peak moving higher, she said, motivating utilities like Eversource to look for innovative solutions, many of them involving a combination of energy conservation and storage of power for use during those peak-demand periods, usually in the middle of the summer when chillers of all sizes are operating at once.

“We want to avoid building resources just for those peak moments — we want to clip those peaks,” she explained, adding that one initiative in that realm is the installation of a large lithium-ion battery-storage system with the goal of reducing peak energy demand on the campus.

Funded through a $1.1 million state grant from the Advancing Commonwealth Energy Storage project, the battery-storage system will provide power that would otherwise have to be purchased from the power grid at premium rates — and it will also provide a research site for clean-energy experts, researchers, and students, said McLean-Conner.

Ice batteries do much the same thing, she noted, adding that there are a few in place across the state. These thermal storage systems produce ice at night when the demand for energy is at its lowest point. When the outside air is hot, the stored ice melts and is used to cool the building with existing air conditioning ducts and fans, but not the compressor, which requires power, she explained, adding that shifting power demand from peak times to non-peak hours is one of the major goals of the energy efficiency programs.

While working to reduce those peak-demand periods through storage initiatives, Eversource continues to work with business owners of all sizes to reduce energy consumption.

With the Main Street program, it works with very small businesses, generally shop owners who are leasing property. Launched in 2015, the program has program has focused on different communities — Pittsfield, Easthampton, Southwick, West Springfield, Ludlow, and Greenfield among them, with Hadley and Amherst next on the schedule — and sections of Springfield each year.

In the City of Homes, work began, appropriately enough, on Main Street, moved to State Street, then to the ‘X,’ and now, as noted, it is focused on Indian Orchard and customers like Charles Brush. There are some 400 small businesses in the Orchard, as it’s called, and Kiernan would like to sign up at least half of them.

That will be a challenge, she noted, because these are partnership efforts, and sometimes, some selling is required to recruit these partners.

Indeed, Kiernan noted that small-business owners, especially those who take part in the Main Street program, are, generally speaking, understandably worried about possible scams and wary of claims of reduction in their energy bills. But once Eversource can convince them to not only listen to the pitch — sometimes it’s difficult to even get a foot in the door — but implement many of the suggested steps, they’ll discover that the savings are real.

The process, with both the small-business initiative and the Main Street program, begins with an assessment by electrical contractors and then development of a detailed plan to reduce consumption. Lighting, specifically a switch to LED lighting, is a big element in these plans, said Kiernan, calling it “low-hanging fruit,” but important fruit, generally able to yield a 40% reduction in cost over what was in the ceiling.

But there are other considerations as well, such as refrigeration, HVAC, motors and compressors, occupancy sensors, programmable thermostats, and others, she went on, adding that measures are implemented without interruption to the business in question.

Eversource provides an incentive to participate, Kiernan added. With the Main Street program, 100% of the project’s cost is covered by the utility, and with the small-business program, 70% of a project’s cost is covered, and the utility will finance the rest over two years, with a zero-interest loan.

Generally, the cost of the loan is more than covered by the savings generated by the measures implemented, she went on, adding that the customer’s bill doesn’t increase through participation. When the loan is paid off, the bill will then decrease by that amount.

In many cases, as noted, all this sounds too good to be true, and utility customers need to be convinced that it isn’t, Kiernan went on, adding that, while it works diligently to do this, often it has help from those who can see first-hand that the benefits are real.

Positively Charged

People like Clarence Smith. He’s become an ambassador of sorts for the Main Street initiative, encouraging many of his business neighbors to take part.

“People don’t believe it until they see it,” he explained, noting that he’s encountered plenty of initial skepticism about the project. “I’m a testament to this program; I’ve seen how it’s worked for us, and if people ask me, I’ll tell them it can work for them, too.”

It all started when someone from Eversource saw his mural of Muhammad Ali and came in for a look and a talk — a talk that led to another of thousands of small steps to reduce energy consumption across the state and the region.

As McLean-Conner noted, conservation has become the first fuel for Eversource, as well as the state, and this mindset is creating a spark — in all kinds of ways.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Green Business

Pet Project

Carmine DiCenso

Carmine DiCenso stands by the solar installation on the roof of Dakin’s facility in Springfield.

Carmine DiCenso says there’s a changed atmosphere at the Dakin Humane Society facilities in Springfield and Leverett these days — in many different respects.

Indeed, due to comprehensive spaying and neutering programs, overpopulation among canines and felines is far less of a problem than it was even a few years ago, and, as a result, there are, generally speaking, fewer animals up for adoption in these centers.

Meanwhile, societal changes have made adoption a more accepted and therefore more popular practice. “Culturally, everyone wants to rescue a pet now,” said DiCenso, Dakin’s executive director, adding that, as a result, many of the pets that wind up in the adoption centers are not there for long stays.

Those that are tend to be older and often have physical and/or behavioral-health issues and thus need more time at the shelter to become ready for adoption, said DiCenso. “We’re spending more time and resources to rehab animals, and that’s a bigger challenge,” he explained, adding that the agency is shifting its focus to work with animals in the community — by providing food, vaccinations, and other necessities — with the goal of keeping them out of shelters.

But these are not the only changes to the environment at Dakin.

The others involve energy-efficiency, and while many cannot be seen (such as the solar installations on the roofs) or heard, they are important developments in Dakin’s ability to carry out its broad mission.

That’s made clear by current numbers and those that DiCenso is projecting for a few years out. He expects that, when the latest round of planned improvements — efforts to better seal skylights and windows to improve efficiency and replacement of a 21-year-old, very inefficient inefficient chiller — are implemented, the nonprofit agency will see annual energy savings approaching $50,000 at the Springfield site. In six to 10 years, he projects that the number will be closer to $200,000.

“And that money would be diverted right into director programming,” he explained, “and meeting the needs of our animals who need more from us — here in the shelter and out in the community.”

Backing up a bit, DiCenso said Dakin has undertaken a number of significant steps to become more energy-efficient over the past few years, many in what amounts to a partnership with Eversource, largely because it needed to, especially in Springfield.

The 47,000-square-foot facility, formerly home to the MSPCA, was built just over 20 years ago, a different era when it comes to energy efficiency, said DiCenso, adding that discussions about doing something with a building that had become a large drain on the budget began years ago.

And with a two-year, $95,000, no-interest loan from Eversource as part of the utility’s small-business retrofit program (see related story, page 18), Dakin has addressed many of these glaring needs. Indeed, starting in late 2016, the nonprofit has undertaken several initiatives, including:

• Lighting conversions. Dakin switched from fluorescent to LED lighting in many areas of the Springfield building. The parking-lot lights, formerly multi-vapor models, have also been converted to LED. Meanwhile, occupancy-sensor switches were installed in several rooms, replacing traditional on/off switches that are often left on long after people have left the room.

• An HVAC upgrade, specifically adding a dedicated domestic hot-water system that uses just the right amount of energy needed to have hot water on tap. Previously, Dakin relied on large boilers to heat even the smallest amounts of hot water.

• Variable-frequency drives. As part of the HVAC upgrade, Dakin added these drives to achieve more scalability in controlling indoor climate, said DiCenso, adding that it also installed carbon-dioxide detectors to control the amount of outside air (hot or cold) coming into the building to control costs.

“The fans were either on or off, and it took a tremendous amount of energy for them to cycle up and turn on fully, and that’s a waste of energy,” he explained. “What we have now are variable drives, which slowly build up to speed and only bring them to the level you need; instead of going from zero to 100 every time you turn them on, if they only need 25% of the energy, that’s what they’ll turn on to.”

As for the solar installations, installed in 2018, they were made possible by a gift from area residents Brian Adams and Morey Phippen, who have funded solar projects for a number of nonprofits in the area, said DiCenso, adding that, through these installations, both facilities are realizing substantial savings on their electric bills, especially the Leverett site.

“It will take a few years to really see those cost savings,” he said. “But we’ll get a bigger bang for our buck in Leverett because it’s a smaller building and the solar installation will be able to take more of the load; we do think our energy costs will drop 50%.”

Between the two buildings, as he noted, the overall savings will likely exceed $200,000, a budgetary windfall, if you will, that will be needed in the years to come.

That’s because, while the landscape has changed, overpopulation is no longer a real issue, and rescuing animals has become more popular, there are still many needs to be met when it comes to that constituency.

Because it now far more energy-efficient, Dakin will be better able to meet them.

— George O’Brien

Green Business

A Change at the Checkout

Volunteers at the annual Source to Sea Cleanup

Volunteers at the annual Source to Sea Cleanup always seem to pick up the same amount of plastic waste, meaning something has to change further up the chain.

Americans need to start talking about plastic waste, Bob Bolduc said. For proof, look no further than the customer who visits Pride Stores regularly for lottery tickets — and wants them in a plastic bag.

“What does that tell you and me? That the world has a big education problem. We need to talk about it.”

Bolduc, who owns the Pride chain, and his team have done just that, deciding to eliminate plastic bags at checkout counters across the chain. The ban went into effect on May 1.

“We’re happy to do it,” he went on. “We’re getting mixed reviews, but we think people in time will come around. Everyone’s got to do their share. This is a little thing we should have done a long time ago.”

As part of the conversion, Pride will give away reusable bags as long as supplies last, and give a 5-cent discount whenever a reusable bag of any kind is used.

“It was the right thing to do; it’s that simple,” Bolduc said. “Anybody who cares about our planet realizes it’s one of the easy fixes, so we decided to do it right away. There have been a few customers who complained, but most customers have been understanding, some have applauded us, and some — here’s the good news — said, ‘I don’t need a bag at all.’ That’s the best response, because paper bags aren’t the solution, either.”

Pride isn’t alone. Big Y Foods recently announced it will eliminate single-use plastic bags from checkouts at its 70 supermarkets and specialty stores, along with its Big Y Express gas and convenience locations, in 2020.

“We’re getting mixed reviews, but we think people in time will come around. Everyone’s got to do their share. This is a little thing we should have done a long time ago.”

Big Y supermarkets in six area communities — Adams, Amherst, Great Barrington, Lee, Northampton, and South Hadley — have already made the switch to comply with municipal bag bans, and that got the company, which has implemented a number of sustainability-minded practices over the years, thinking.

“We have a handful of stores that are in towns with bag bans, which makes it a hodgepodge for us,” said Claire D’Amour-Daley, Big Y’s vice president of Corporate Communications. “The first stores were tougher — people got mad at us. But it’s much more commonplace now, with these town ordinances. Most people support it, and the employees support it.”

Eliminating the single-use bags chain-wide, she added, simply made sense.

“It’s a start. We continue to look at all types of packaging we can substitute — we’re looking at alternative sources of everything — but we figured we’d start with the bags.”

Massive Impact

As one might imagine, plastic bags create an inordinate amount of waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 380 billion plastic bags are used in the U.S. each year. If not disposed of properly, this plastic can end up in waterways and forests, where it can harm fish, marine animals, birds, and other wildlife.

As a large chain, Big Y uses 100 million plastic bags and 3.5 million paper bags at its checkouts each year. The company recognizes that paper isn’t the answer to this waste problem, as the paper-production process is harmful to the environment, causing increased greenhouse-gas emissions and deforestation, which is why it’s promoting the adoption of reusable bags through in-store promotions (like buy one bag, get one free) and signage.

Signage at the South Hadley Big Y

Signage at the South Hadley Big Y reminds shoppers they won’t be getting plastic bags there.

The Connecticut River Conservancy understands the impact of waste more than most. CRC volunteers have cleaned up more than 1,000 tons of trash over the course of 22 years at its annual Source to Sea Cleanup.

“It’s clear that repeated cleaning is not the solution to our trash problem,” said Andrew Fisk, executive director. “We need to redesign our economy so there isn’t waste in the first place.”

The CRC is taking a three-pronged approach to that campaign: corporate pressure, consumer pressure, and legislative efforts.

“We realize, by going out and cleaning it up, how big it is, but we’re still doing the same work year after year,” said Angela Chaffee, communications director.

“There are things that can be done to stop trash from ending up in riverbanks in the first place. That’s what we want to start working toward,” she went on. “Littering is definitely part of the problem, and we encourage people not to be litterbugs. But there are choices people can be making every day at the consumer level — things like reusable bottles, shopping bags, and coffee mugs. A lot of people think that doesn’t make a difference, but it absolutely does.”

On the subject of corporate pressure, she mentioned Dunkin’ Donuts as an example of a company that needs to do more — as evidenced by the countless plastic DD cups that get picked up at every cleanup.

“We see those all the time; they tend to gather in parking lots and storm drains on the street, which directly connect to our rivers. We got to thinking, why are these businesses making things that end up as trash in the rivers? They say, ‘it’s not us, it’s our consumers’ — but why not give your consumers better options? Dunkin’ does have a reusable mug program, and they could be incentivizing that a whole lot more.”

The goal isn’t to burden companies, Chaffee said, but to sit down at the table with them to formulate strategies for reducing waste. If that doesn’t work, she encourages consumers to speak up with their money.

“They can say, ‘hey, I’m a customer, and I love your coffee, and I want you to do it this way, not that way.’ That has been downplayed a little bit. The power of that dollar is more than people think. The public has a role and a voice.”

The third step is working with legislators to craft laws, like plastic-bag bans. “We support any municipality that wants to pass a ban because it does contribute,” she said. “But we feel the best way to solve the problem is a statewide ban, not different rules depending on what town you’re in.”

Northampton was among the early adopters of a plastic-bag ban about five years ago. Mayor David Narkewicz recalled that some shop owners were concerned about the impact on their business, that it might put the city at a competitive disadvantage. But they were given plenty of transition time, and the fears turned out to be unfounded.

“I don’t think anyone has been able to say it had an impact,” he told BusinessWest. “Stop & Shop totally ran with it. They switched without any issues — Walmart, too. And Big Y is voluntarily getting rid of plastic bags in all their stores. So I think we were ahead of the curve.”

He noted that entire states — California, Hawaii, and New York — have banned single-use plastic bags without much pushback from customers. “I think it’s part of the environmental ethic we have here in Northampton. On so many levels, it made sense to people here.”

Terry Masterson, the city’s Economic Development director, agreed. “My job for a while was to deal with businesses that didn’t comply — and we had one. Customers want to see it, and store owners want to provide it.”

Next Steps

D’Amour-Daley agreed that banning plastic is a positive step customers will adjust to — hopefully by embracing reusable bags, not relying on the paper bags available at checkout for 10 cents a pop. “California has had a ban for years. People get used to it once you put a line in the sand.”

Big Y has a history of promoting sustainability, she noted, including almost daily donations of unsold food to the five food banks within its marketing area. Last year, the company distributed 6.4 million pounds of food, including 2.4 million pounds of meat and 1.4 million pounds of produce. Big Y locations also participate in paper and cardboard recycling programs and composts 2,500 tons of food annually. In addition, it has championed other energy-saving initiatives, such as the use of solar arrays, LED lighting, and reclamation of heat from refrigeration systems to heat the stores during the winter.

“We continue to look for other types of packaging that are better for the environment,” she added. “People expect that now, and we recognize we have more work to do.”

Bolduc noted that Pride looks for ways to be more environmentally progressive as well, including charging stations for electric vehicles at new stores; the use of high-efficiency refrigeration, heating, and air conditioning in all stores; conversion of all hand dryers to cold air only; and climate-controlled stores for optimum energy reduction.

The bag ban, he said, was a comparatively simple step, and one that raises awareness of sustainable practices among customers. After all, he added, “we’re all in this together.”

Chaffee welcomes such moves. “The fact that we’re having this conversation at all is a good step forward,” she told BusinessWest. “Every little bit helps move us in the right direction. We want companies to step up and do more.”

As for individual consumers, “a lot of times, people think just one person won’t make a difference,” she added. “But you don’t have to do everything 100% perfectly. If you’re doing one small thing to make a difference, think about the millions of people across the country and around the world; it does add up and has a huge, positive impact.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Green Business

A Hot Topic

The Center for EcoTechnology has carved out a significant legacy over the past four-plus decades by promoting green energy, waste reduction, and a host of other environmentally friendly initiatives — partly because it effectively conveys how such practices are good for not just the planet, but the bottom line. Two new solar-access projects — one for homeowners, one for businesses that use a lot of hot water — are no exception.

After decades of connecting businesses and homeowners with renewable-energy solutions, the Center for EcoTechnology in Florence keeps coming up with new ones.

Take, for example, a solar-access program specifically for middle-income homeowners, making it possible for qualifying families to procure solar panels and heat pumps with no upfront costs.

“A lot of middle-income homeowners have not been able to take advantage of owning their own solar arrays,” CET President John Majercak said. “They can make a fixed payment for electricity to somebody who owns the equipment, but there are many more benefits to owning the panels.”

To introduce more households to those benefits, CET has worked with UMassFive College Federal Credit Union on a loan product that not only makes it easier to purchase solar panels — CET actually makes the first six payments on the 10-year loan — but includes a warranty on all equipment and labor for the life of the loan.

“This product makes it possible for a homeowner to own the solar panels and heat pumps,” he explained. “We set it up to make sure what they pay on the loan is less than what they’re paying now for heating and cooling, so they see immediate savings, and after 10 years, they own the system outright, so the heating and cooling, when powered by solar panels, is essentially free after that.”

Then there’s a new program that works with businesses that use a lot of hot water — think breweries, hospitals, laundromats, and many others — and connects them with incentives for solar hot water.

Andrew Mankin (pictured) and Gary Happ recently had a solar hot-water system installed

Andrew Mankin (pictured) and Gary Happ recently had a solar hot-water system installed at their business, Barrington Brewery.

“That’s a program available to any business or farm in the state — including multi-family buildings and nursing homes — that use a lot of hot water year-round. It’s a great technology where we use solar panels to heat water, as opposed to make electricity,” Majercak explained. “For folks who use a lot of hot water in their business, it’s a really economic way to make hot water. It’s technology not a lot of people know about, compared to solar panels that make electricity. So we’re doing a lot of outreach and hand-holding, getting businesses to look at the proposals, the free technical assistance, and the incentives available from the state.”

In both cases, CET partners with state agencies like the Department of Energy Resources (DOER) and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) to bring the economic and environmental benefits of solar energy to customers who might not have considered them before.

“If we can help someone’s life be better or their business perform better at the same time we’re helping the environment, it just makes so much sense,” he said. “So we’re always pushing harder to make more of it happen.”

Home and Business

In the case of solar hot water for businesses, CET provides solar hot-water installers to get the project done, information on grants and rebates to help cover costs, and step-by-step guidance through the whole process, Majercak said, adding that other businesses that might benefit include hotels and restaurants, car washes, and community centers and resorts with large indoor swimming pools — any business, really, with year-round use of heated water in large quantities.

A solar hot-water system essentially captures heat from sunlight and circulates the thermal energy to a water tank. Solar hot-water systems reduce reliance on traditional water-heating fuels, such as oil, electricity, or propane, saving consumers money on their energy bills. These systems can provide up to 80% of domestic hot-water needs. Incentives of up to $100,000 are available for qualifying projects, Majercak said.

“The technology has been around for a long time — for decades, really — but it’s improved over the past five to 10 years, and word hasn’t really gotten out how effective it is,” he noted. “We’ve helped a variety of different businesses and been very successful saving them a ton of money — things like a multi-family building that has central hot water, or a farm that has a cheese-making factory on the side. It doesn’t cost anything to have us come out and do an assessment and see if it would be a good match for you.”

John Majercak

John Majercak presents information about CET’s impact during the organization’s annual meeting.

Business owners Majercek has spoken with are often surprised at savings they didn’t know existed, he noted.

“There’s so much information out there, but people don’t always think of their energy costs as something that’s controllable — they say, ‘oh, wow, it costs a lot of money to heat hot water, but what can I do?’ They think of it as the cost of doing business, rather than something they can improve on by using new technology.”

The same is true in the residential market, to some degree, he said, but to those who have signed on, the benefits are evident, including, again, step-by-step guidance through the program from CET, the 10-year warranty on equipment and labor, and a reduction in energy costs right from the start along with increased home value — not to mention a 30% federal tax credit and a 10% tax credit from the Commonwealth for solar installation.

While most homeowners know what solar panels do — convert sunlight into electricity to power a house without any pollution or carbon emissions — heat pumps aren’t as commonly understood, Majercek said.

Rather than burning fossil fuels to produce heating and cooling, heat pumps move heat from one place to another — bringing heat into the home in the winter and removing heat in the summer. Advancements in the technology now allow for excellent performance even on the coldest and hottest days of the year.

“This is a great new program,” he told BusinessWest. “The state specifically targeted middle-income homeowners, helping them get financial help and hands-on assistance from us to take advantage of these two technologies — solar photovoltaic panels and heat pumps, which are becoming much more commonplace.”

Even so, he said, many homeowners have been reluctant to pay the up-front costs for energy-efficient technology, which is why the loan product CET is using — ensuring that their costs don’t rise from what they’re already paying — is so attractive.

Some of those who believe in solar power but fear the initial costs sign onto power-purchase agreements with solar-panel owners, he added, “and that’s OK, but they don’t get the benefits of ownership — the tax credits, the renewable-energy credits. They’re missing out on one of the best parts. This program helps them take advantage of that, and it’s affordable for them right from the start.”

A Green Legacy

Connecting individuals and businesses with green energy solutions is a large part of CET’s mission, but that mission has taken many forms since the organization’s mid-’70s inception.

At first, CET focused on energy conservation, in particular partnering with utility companies on the relatively new concept of ‘energy audits,’ whereby a consultant visits a home or business to talk about ways in which their building or operation could be revamped to save on energy costs.

Other early initiatives included the development of a passive solar greenhouse at Berkshire Botanical Garden and Project SUEDE, a program that taught solar energy, energy-conservation theory, and carpentry to unemployed people, who then installed 31 solar space-heating systems in low-income households.

CET still conducts energy audits, helping homeowners and businesses understand the value of sustainable systems and educating them on the incentives available to make changes. But the organization has become much more, expanding its mission into a host of new opportunities, from composting to food-waste reduction.

Paulina Alenkina, a CET employee

Paulina Alenkina, a CET employee, says she’s glad she took advantage of the solar-access program.

Through a program called RecyclingWorks in Massachusetts, CET offers technical advice and assistance to companies regarding recycling and composting waste. In doing so, it has worked with companies ranging from small shops to large entities like Big Y and Titeflex.

Another success story at CET has been EcoBuilding Bargains, which began life as the ReStore in 2001 before undergoing a move and rebranding seven years ago.

In its first incarnation on Albany Street in Springfield, the ReStore dealt in recycled building materials, with the twin goals of saving builders and do-it-yourselfers money while reducing the burden on landfills. A move to Warwick Street in 2011 involved a $900,000 energy retrofit on the existing building on that site — a good example of CET practicing what it preached.

CET is also making an effort to raise up the next generation of green innovators, through a fellowship program it launched seven years ago. Five fellows per year — recent college graduates from across the U.S. — are chosen to work with CET for one year and receive training in environmental science, energy efficiency, waste reduction, and other aspects of green business. They’ve gone on to work at similarly minded nonprofits, and also corporations looking to go green.

Meanwhile, with utility incentives making energy-efficient technology more affordable for Massachusetts businesses, the Center for EcoTechnology continues to works with Columbia Gas and Berkshire Gas to help companies navigate the incentives and options available.

“The state has goals for how much renewable energy it wants to create, and it wants to address climate change and access all the benefits these technologies and services provide,” Majercek said. “Those goals align closely with our mission. We’re trying to bridge the gap between what we’d like to happen and what’s actually happening in the world.

“If we can come in and provide some education and hand-holding to make it simple for people,” he went on, “the technology can ensure that people get benefits, and the environment gets benefits, too. We’re helping people be more comfortable and save money — and saving the planet. It’s a triple bottom line.”

All Aboard

Businesses can also boost the new solar-access program for middle-income homeowners simply by letting their employees know it exists, he added. “Many businesses have lots of employees that fall into the middle-income bracket and would be able to benefit from the program. We can provide information for companies: newsletters, posters, lunch-and-learn presentations for employees and staff. Businesses can help employees go green and save money; it’s an easy thing to promote, and a win for any employee who would qualify.”

Such initiatives have been a win for CET as well, which not only reached but surpassed its program goals in the most recent three-year period.

“That’s exciting,” he said. “Everyone who works here is extremely motivated by our mission and the impact we can make.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Green Business

Fueling Interest

Jim Cayon says he’s just looking for some opportunities

Jim Cayon says he’s just looking for some opportunities to show what the Environmental Engines products can do.

Jim Cayon says he’s looking for an opportunity. A chance. A break. An open door.

He probably used all those words and phrases as he talked with BusinessWest about relatively new and occasionally misperceived products and his ongoing quest to prove that they work, can save users money and substantially reduce pollution. To do that, he needs an opportunity to demonstrate all his technology could do for them.

The company is called Environmental Engines, and it offers motor oils with a 30,000-mile lifespan, Cayon claims, as well as advanced protection technology (APT), a synthetic metal treatment that’s been proven to substantially decrease friction. The result is a reduction in damaging harmonics and wear on the engine as well as transmissions, which improves performance and fuel efficiency while significantly lowering carbon emissions.

It can do this, he said, for cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, boats, you name it.

Cayon, who handles the Northeast sales region for the Nevada-based company and was an exhibitor at last fall’s Western Mass. Business and Innovation Expo, told BusinessWest that he’s been approaching various businesses and municipalities to consider his oils and treatments as a solution in further reducing maintenance costs and emissions. (The lubricants alone reduce related expenses and dirty-oil waste by two-thirds or more, he claims).

And for the most part, he’s still looking for an entity to take that chance.

And he understands, generally, why that is.

Many businesses with fleets, not to mention and municipalities are loyal to the products they’re already using — and are contractually obligated in some cases — and these factors make it difficult to avail themselves of such opportunities, said Cayon, based in Easthampton.

“It’s human nature to resist change, yet on the other hand, there is some preconception about what the Environmental Engines products are or aren’t,” he explained.

“They’ve already made up their minds,” he went on, adding that the motor oil industry isn’t easy to break into because of brand loyalty and long-standing relationships. “In many cases, they think they know what is — they think it’s that thing they’ve heard or read about that doesn’t work — and so they don’t even want to consider trying it.”

Cayon doesn’t give up easily, and he’s working hard to make it as simple as possible for those he’s talking with to put the company’s products to work. And he brings with him what he considers some very compelling arguments, not just about the APT ceramic protection and motor oils, but also about how they would fit in nicely with many companies’ ongoing efforts — and missions — to become more ‘green’ and Earth-friendly, but also more bottom-line conscious.

At present, Cayon has been focusing much of his time and energy on getting the ear of area municipalities, many of which are actively engaged in efforts to become ‘green’ and energy efficient, and not just because it’s the right thing to do. There are frequently considerable cost benefits to doing so as well.

“If everyone in this half of the state were to use our on-time engine treatment, in terms of cars, light trucks, and motorcycles, we’re talking about the elimination of up to 1.5 billion pounds of regional vehicle emissions every year. The impact is profound if I get to that level, but …”

Cayon noted that the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission has, among its many goals, a desire to reduce carbon emissions in this by 80% by 2050. And then he threw out another number that should get someone’s attention.

“If everyone in this half of the state were to use our on-time engine treatment, in terms of cars, light trucks, and motorcycles, we’re talking about the elimination of up to 1.5 billion pounds of regional vehicle emissions every year,” he told BusinessWest. “The impact is profound if I get to that level, but …”

He didn’t finish, but made it clear that he would like to start with at least one city, town, or large business fleet and expand from there.

He has extended invitations to every community in Berkshire, Franklin, and Hampshire counties, with Hampden and most of Worcester County to follow.

What he’s sending them is a fairly comprehensive explanation of how APT ceramic protection works, and how it could change the equation for the municipality in question.

Here is how it works. APT is a nanotechnology that permanently embeds into the metal parts within an engine to form what Cayon called a “microceramic seal” on all metal parts within an engine. Indeed, these treatments can be applied not only to engines and transmissions, but hydraulic systems, fuel pumps and injectors, drive trains, air conditioning systems, power steering systems, and more.

Elaborating, Cayon said APT molecules are able to penetrate sludge and residual buildup on surfaces without the use of solvents. It forms a ceramic shield that protects the engine from heat, allowing for exceptionally high temperatures without any damage and metal wear. Once bonded, the surface is smooth with fewer pores for particulates to latch onto, said Cayon, therefore repelling potential carbon buildup back into the lubricant stream, where it is cleaned by vehicles’ inline or bypass filtration system.

“The two major benefits are emissions reduction and better engine responsiveness — which is going to be correlated somewhat with fuel efficiency,” he explained. “And the responsiveness factor is important; if you have vehicles you’re relying on like ambulances, fire trucks and police cruisers, for example … those are vehicles that need to be performing at a very high level.”

That’s the message Cayon is trying to convey to potential clients of all kinds in both the private and public sectors. There are many challenges to getting that message across, but he’s going to keep trying, because if they do listen, they will likely be compelled to respond to what they hear.

Like he said, he’s looking for a chance, an opportunity to become the solution for companies looking to reduce their carbon footprint as well as motor oil costs. But the real opportunity could come to those who open their doors to it.

Green Business Sections
Hadley-based Venture Has Big Plans for ‘Small Wind’

Patrick Quinlan, left, and Bill Stein

Patrick Quinlan, left, and Bill Stein, with an HR-3 model wind turbine outside their Hadley facility.

When Patrick Quinlan and Bill Stein went about the task of assigning a name to the company they started in 2012 to design, build, and service small wind turbines, they quickly settled on ‘Black Island.’

That phrase may not mean much to most people — Quinlan joked that many who hear it think it has something to do with pirates — but it does resonate with those who know their geography. Or their wind power.

Black Island, so named because of a distinct lack of snow — there is also a White Island nearby that obviously has some — is in the Ross Archipelago in Antarctica. It is home to a major U.S. telecommunications center, and is among the most climatologically inhospitable places in the world.

The official population is zero, and for good reason — actually, several reasons. The island is often visited by category-5 hurricane winds exceeding 150 mph, temperatures regularly dip south of 40 below zero, and the island is in absolute darkness for almost half the year.

For nearly three decades now, the facility there — America’s South Pole communications link to the world — has been powered in part by several of the so-called HR-3 (3-kilowatt) series of small wind turbines built by a Vermont-based company called Northwind Power Co, later renamed Northern Power Systems.

It was this product that Quinlan and Stein were recruited to essentially reintroduce to the market — Northern exited this stage in favor of ‘big wind’ products several years ago — by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). This was an entrepreneurial challenge they accepted, in part because they were both unemployed at the time, but also because they’ve been working in wind power throughout their careers and saw vast potential for products that fall in the category of what the industry calls ‘small wind.’

These would be units rated at under 10 kilowatts, said Quinlan as he spoke with BusinessWest in the company’s R&D facility in the ironically named Propeller Building on River Drive in Hadley. And there is growing demand for such products among commercial, industrial, and even residential users, he noted, adding that a study conducted by Navigant Research revealed that the market for small wind turbines will double to $3.3 billion annually by 2018.

An installation crew

An installation crew is seen with one of the HR-3 models in operation on Black Island in Antarctica.

There will likely be many competitors for that growing pie, but Black Island, which also plans to develop a 1-kilowatt version of the HR (high-reliability) product, will be well-positioned, he noted, steering the conversation back to Antarctica and the brand name chosen for this venture. That remote location has become a proving ground of the highest magnitude for the HR series of products, he said, adding that the company uses a photo of an installation on that South Pole outpost, along with the slogan “Toughest Wind Turbines on the Planet,” in its marketing materials.

And while there aren’t many, if any, other places like Black Island, reliability, in general, has been an issue with small wind turbines, said Stein, adding that the Black Island product distinguishes itself in this regard due largely to a spring-damper system called VARCS (variable-angle rotor-control system), which enables the turbine to handle high winds by pitching the rotor upward into a helicopter position when winds are strong.

“The demonstrated survivability of our H-3 wind turbine is exemplary, and uniquely distinguishes our design,” he said, adding this competitive advantage is important because demand for such turbines will be great in areas where competitively priced solar power is not practical — like Antarctica and other places that don’t get much year-round sun.

The current business plan calls for the company to build a small number of 3-kilowatt wind turbines in the Hadley facility — it has already filled a few orders from the U.S. Air Force — and eventually scale up production of those units, most likely in conjunction with Greenfield-based Applied Dynamics, while also introducing the 1-kilowatt unit capable of powering a home or small business.

“We’re leveraging the great reputation of the HR series to build a very solid, practical wind turbine that we think will be attractive to everybody, because small wind does not have a great reputation for reliability otherwise,” said Quinlan. “And there are so many great applications for small wind.”

For this issue and its focus on green business, BusinessWest examines an emerging local company that is looking to make a powerful statement in an intriguing and potential-laden industry.


Turns for the Better

Quinlan told BusinessWest that naming a wind-turbine company Black Island is similar in many ways to a carmaker naming one of its products after a racetrack where it has enjoyed great success — and that has happened many times over the years, with the Dodge Daytona, Chrysler Sebring, and Pontiac LeMans, among others, coming to mind.

That’s how powerful a statement he believes the brand name makes, and how much it resonates with the company’s audience.

“Among the people who purchase small wind turbines, they know about the Black Island facility and respect what’s happened there,” he said. “In many instances, people have called them legendary wind turbines because they’re so anomalous in their reliability.”

Quinlan and Stein have been telling the Black Island story repeatedly over the past few years as they’ve taken their venture off the drawing board and into reality and worked to differentiate themselves from what they call “commodity small wind turbines.” For example, there was the presentation given before the Mass. Clean Energy Center (MCEC), which eventually gave the partners a $150,000 grant to help get the planned 1-kilowatt unit off the ground.

In addition to lessons learned in the climate of Antarctica, Quinlan and Stein told the MCEC — as they have other groups and BusinessWest — that, when it comes to small wind turbines, there is a lot of “junk” out there.

“In short, small wind turbines are disappointing customers,” Quinlan explained. “There is a strong need for a cost-effective, reliable, and productive alternative that is dependable.”

All those words could be used to describe the original HR-3, he went on, adding that the product had made a name for itself in Antarctica and other remote locations, so much so that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory launched a search for a company that would service existing models and create what amounts to the next generation of the product.

It focused its efforts on Stein and Quinlan, two veterans of what could be the called the wind-power movement, who are now partnering with Lawrence Mott, an engineer on the originally built HR-3, on the Black Island venture

Quinlan is the former associate director of the UMass Wind Energy Center and has been involved with wind power for more than 30 years. He worked at Southern California Edison and AeroVironment Inc. on wind-turbine testing and in-field troubleshooting, and worked with individual electric cooperatives and municipal utilities across the West on wind-power projects. In Washington, he served as a renewable-energy expert as a Congressional fellow, working for the ranking member of the House Science Committee, and then as ASME White House technology fellow supporting the presidential science advisor at the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Stein, meanwhile, is a former senior research fellow at the UMass Wind Energy Center who also began work in the field in the early ’80s.

He started building wind turbines at Clark University, worked at Natural Power Inc., a wind-instrumentation company, and started his own wind-power company, Astral Wilcon, a manufacturer of 8- and 15-kilowatt residential-sized wind turbines. He worked briefly at MIT’s Fusion Energy Laboratory and at Yankee Environmental Systems, where he developed meteorology instrumentation.

With $180,000 in funding from the NREL, the partners eventually set up shop in Hadley and contracted with the agency to design and then test a modified HR-3 at Texas A&M University’s Alternative Energy Institute. During those tests, the turbine ran flawlessly, said Quinlan, adding that, since then, the company has produced a handful of the units and sold two to the Air Force.

It hopes to secure more orders at the Small Wind Conference in Stevens Point, Wis. later this month, he went on, adding that the partners project sales of perhaps 20 units this year.

The company also sells new and refurbished parts  for the roughly 100 legacy HR-3 units still operating around world, mostly in remote locations such as mountaintop installations and offshore oil rigs, said Quinlan, adding that this component of the business provides a steady cash flow that makes the venture less of a business risk.

Looking forward, the partners are optimistic about scaling up production of the HR-3. Quinlan projects sales of the $39,000 turbines possibly reaching 100 units by next year.

“We’re targeting organizations that highly value reliability,” he said, adding that failures in the field can be extremely expensive and disruptive because getting service is so difficult and time-consuming. “This includes government agencies that have telecommunications networks, telecom companies that have microwave towers, oil and gas companies, and microgrids — small, self-contained utilities.”

Meanwhile, climate change may create business opportunities in another of the world’s most remote outposts — the Arctic, he explained.

“The Arctic will soon be navigable,” he told BusinessWest. “And there’s a lot of interest in setting up telecommunications systems there to support ship traffic, and that could create opportunities for us.”

The partners are also optimistic about development of the 1-kilowatt model now on the drawing board, with a prototype expected soon.

That product will compete with solar and other options for the business of those willing and able to use renewable energy to power their homes and businesses, said Stein, adding that, while solar has become an attractive option now that the price tag for such installations has come down in recent years, there is, and will continue to be, decent demand for wind power.

That’s because there are some places where solar is not a viable option, and where wind is, because it’s plentiful, said Quinlan.

“We’re looking at the windy states — the whole center of the country and the coasts,” he said, adding that preliminary projections forecast first-year sales of perhaps 1,000 units, and 5,000 annually within a few years.

Demand may be bolstered by growing need among businesses, government operations, schools, and other facilities to continue operating after a weather disaster or power outage, he went on, adding that small wind can provide that capability.


Gust in Time

When Quinlan and Stein were asked if they’ve been to Antarctica to see their product in action, they both enthusiastically said ‘no,’ although Stein admitted that it might be fun to go there — “for a few days, maybe, and at the right time of year.”

There are no plans for such an excursion, or to visit any of the other remote locations where the company’s turbines are in operation or will soon be put to use.

“We know what these units can do — we don’t need to go to the South Pole,” said Quinlan, adding that pictures from such outposts will suffice.

But Black Island will always be a big part of this company. As Quinlan said, it has been a proving ground, and because of that it is now a brand name — one that is expected to do big things in the world of small wind. n


George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Green Business Sections
Amherst Farmer Refines Method of Growing Plants Without Soil

Joseph Swartz

Joseph Swartz shows off the roots of lettuce plants growing hydroponically in his greenhouse at Swartz Family Farm in Amherst.

Imagine growing 120,000 pounds of food each year without any soil on top of public housing in the Bronx.

Although the idea may sound farfetched, it’s not a fantasy. Instead, it’s one of many projects that Joe Swartz of Swartz Family Farm in North Amherst has accomplished in recent years.

Swartz is a master hydroponic gardener who has taken the industry to new heights. In fact, the New York City farm he designed for Skytop Vegetables was the first in the nation to be grown on top of a public-housing structure. “I did the early sketches on my kitchen table in Amherst,” he said, as he talked about the 8,000-square-foot rooftop farm that opened in February 2013, and provides fresh, nutritious vegetables to residents of the building and neighborhood as well as patrons of nearby restaurants and markets.

Swartz has gained international recognition as an expert in hydroponics, which is a method of growing plants without soil. They are planted from seeds in holes set in plastic containers and thrive on a nutrient solution dissolved in water that runs beneath them and is recycled after the plants take what they need from it.

Swartz has 28 years of experience in operating a year-round, pesticide-free, hydroponic vegetable-and-herb facility in Amherst. It’s a field he entered long before most people thought about where their produce came from and environmental concerns created a demand for locally grown vegetables and fruits.

As a result, Swartz has become a leading expert in hydroponic system design, high-end crop production, biological pest control, system troubleshooting, and much more, and has spoken all over the U.S. and in many foreign countries about his groundbreaking work.

“It’s very gratifying, and when I think of the evolution of all that has happened in the industry since I began my farm, it’s mind-boggling,” he said, adding that he gave a recent lecture at a national conference in Las Vegas and was just invited to speak at a major agricultural conference in England.

The concept of transforming unused rooftop space into a hydroponic garden has many environmental benefits, which include water conservation. “All rainwater that strikes a flat roof has to be channeled into the city’s stormwater systems, and most systems in U.S. cities are completely overwhelmed; one inch of rain that falls on an acre equates to 27,000 gallons of water,” Swartz explained, adding there are more than 15,000 acres of rooftop space in New York City alone.

“But a rooftop greenhouse has gutters on all sides, and rainwater is sent into an underground tank, where it is filtered, cleaned, and used for farming,” he went on. “So it allows us to take a waste product and convert it into food in a very sustainable manner.”

Benefits also accrue from the fact that a rooftop greenhouse shares synergy with the building. Sun that hits the roof and requires the building to be cooled is absorbed by the crops, which also absorb heat from the building in winter, preserving it rather than having it simply go into the atmosphere, Swartz said.

In addition, the system takes heat from the building’s smokestack and uses it to heat the greenhouse. “It capitalizes on heat that is normally wasted. Plus, the greenhouse has thermal curtains that hold the heat in at night. So it’s a win-win situation for the building owner and the owner of the garden,” he told BusinessWest. “It also produces jobs for local residents without many job skills and allows people in the neighborhood to get fresh, nutritious food that doesn’t have to trucked in from thousands of miles away.”

And rooftop gardens, which are rapidly expanding across the country, also provide inner-city children with agricultural knowledge. “We worked with a local school in the Bronx, and a frightening number of children thought milk was made in a manufacturing plant. They had no concept that it came from an animal,” Swartz said. “And most of the people in the neighborhood got their food from a small convenience store and did not have access to nutritious, locally grown vegetables and herbs until the garden was created.”


Growing Venture

Swartz Family Farm has been in business for 100 years, but Swartz likes to keep a low profile, and there are no signs to mark the entrance to his home, greenhouses, and acreage on 11 Meadow St.

“My grandfather Joseph and his wife Anastasia purchased 40 acres and started this farm after they came here from Poland in 1919,” he said. The couple grew mixed vegetables and tobacco and raised their family on the site.

Swartz’s father and uncle took the farm over in the ’50s and turned it into a large-scale potato-growing operation. In addition to growing potatoes on their farmland, they rented land in Hadley, Amherst, Sunderland, Hatfield, and South Deerfield; at the peak of their business, they were raising 300 acres of potatoes.

But his uncle died in 1970, and in the ’80s, the price of land became exorbitantly expensive due to extensive residential development in the area. “As my father got older, he scaled back to the 40 acres here.”

Swartz was in high school when he realized farming his family’s land on a seasonal basis was not a viable option because the economy was booming and seasonal help and additional farmland for crops were unavailable. “So I decided I had to look at a small-scale, very intensive type of agriculture,” he said.

His interest in controlled environmental agriculture, or hydroponics, began in 1985 when he was a student at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass Amherst. He learned the system had been pioneered in Holland and had expanded to the United Kingdom and Spain, where hydroponic greenhouses were operational year-round.

“The same nutrients you would normally apply to a field are dissolved in water,” he noted. “The plants take what they need, and the rest is recaptured and reused. It only requires 10% of the water needed for conventional agriculture, so it is a very environmentally friendly form of agriculture.”

However, the university did not have a program where Swartz could learn how to implement this growing method on a large scale. But he was fortunate enough to meet a retiree living in Ashby, Mass. who was running a small greenhouse growing hydroponic flowers. He had been the lead associate at Cornell University’s research center on Long Island, was originally from Holland, and had pioneered a large portion of the hydroponic technology that was being implemented in the U.S.

Swartz received valuable guidance from him on how to produce a premium product year-round inside a greenhouse on his property.

But when he began building a greenhouse on his family’s land and shared his plan with local farmers, they thought the idea was ridiculous.

“I was considered a crackpot. We have a very tight-knit agricultural community in the Valley, and no one understand why I would grow produce in water when there was beautiful soil here,” he recalled. “But for me, it was a necessity.”

The day after Swartz graduated from UMass, he began working in his new, 5,000-square-foot greenhouse. “At that time, there were 13 hydroponic farms in the state, and today we are the only one of them that is still in operation — we have the longest-running hydroponics farm in the Commonwealth,” Swartz told BusinessWest, adding that he also grew seasonal vegetables on the farm’s 40 acres and sold them to traditional markets.

But his greenhouse thrived. “In my first year, I produced more than 80,000 heads of Boston lettuce in it. In a field, you only get 5,000 heads per acre, and you can only plant one crop. But I was able to plant year-round,” he said, explaining that he devised a system where he was continuously harvesting and reseeding in different sections of the greenhouse.

Paradigm Shift

Swartz has continued to produce hydroponic crops at Swartz Family Garden for 30 years. Lettuce has always been a staple, but after his initial success, he built two other greenhouses and soon was shipping 300 cases of sweet basil a week to 42 Whole Foods stores across the Northeast.

About 15 years ago, when hydroponics became more well-known, Swartz delved into consulting work, which was a natural transition, although he continued farming his own greenhouses. “There were very few experts in the U.S. back then, and there wasn’t much information about how to grow hydroponically on a sustainable, commercial scale,” he said.

Over the past five years, as awareness and concern about the environment escalated, the demand for local products began to rise.

“Public awareness changed buying habits, and the demand for urban agriculture began to grow,” Swartz said. “It was a paradigm shift because, before that, food was produced on large commercial farms which were often not even in this country.” In fact, when he first began to sell Boston lettuce, there was nothing but iceberg lettuce in the stores, and there was no demand for any other variety.

About four years ago, Swartz was approached by two men who were starting a company called Sky Vegetables. “They wanted to take the concept of urban agriculture one step further and build commercial farms on flat city rooftops, because there is so much of that space that is unused,” he said.

He became their director of farming, and in 2009 began designing a hydroponics rooftop garden for a new LEED Platinum-certified building in the Bronx that would be used for public housing. Arbor House was completed in 2012, and the rooftop farm opened in February 2013.

“The space was leased for $1 for 99 years, and lettuce and cooking greens such as chard, kale, sweet basil, upland cress, and baby bok choy are grown there. Sky Vegetables operates the farm independently, and the building’s residents have the opportunity to get food from it via a community-supported agriculture program,” Swartz said.

Today, his wife, Sarah, operates their hydroponic farm in Amherst, which sells produce to local vendors such as Atkins Market. Swartz left Sky Vegetables six months ago to consult full-time with growers across the globe. He just finished an ongoing project in Kuwait and is going to Dubai to assist a large-scale farm in replicating a hydroponics system in Singapore. “I need to fine-tune the system before they can expand and replicate it,” he explained.

Limitless Potential

Swartz has more than 49,000 hours of greenhouse production time and has also done consulting work in a variety of settings. This year he has already been to Nassau, Bahamas; Santa Cruz, Calif.; Atlanta; Halifax, Nova Scotia; and Las Vegas.

“Hydroponic gardens range from simple, home-built systems that are outside, to conventional greenhouse systems, to very high-level, computer-controlled greenhouses, to a garden in Nova Scotia that grows without sunlight inside a warehouse, using LED lighting,” he explained. “It’s a 100% controlled atmosphere — and the final frontier is space.”

Indeed, he noted that a colleague, Gene Giachumelli, professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona, is designing a hydroponics food-production system for outer space, where one of the challenges is zero gravity.

“It’s a very interesting industry, and hydroponics is the safest food-production method possible,” Swartz said, as he stood on his family farm, gazed at his greenhouse, and recalled his own history.

“My father and many other people thought I was crazy when I started this. But I have taken the farming techniques I developed in the Valley and am working with growers across the globe today,” he said, adding that pesticides are not needed, and “you cannot get safer food products.”

That endeavor has no limits, and Swartz will continue to grow his own business as well as help other people across the world create farms without soil, sunlight, and other factors — in the process transcending what any farmer could have imagined several generations ago.

Green Business Sections
Gold Circuit E-Cycling Carves Out a Unique Niche

Matt Pronovost

Matt Pronovost says the mission at Gold Circuit E-Cycling is controlled growth.

Matt Pronovost calls it his “museum wall.”
It’s little more than a few wooden shelves in the back of the room cluttered with what could only be described as electronic artifacts, especially if you’re under age 40. There are a few 8-track players in the mix, two movie projectors, a ’60s-era console television (a model that sat on the living room floor), a turntable, an old Atari system, several beta camcorders and transistor radios, and maybe a half-dozen rotary telephones of various colors and shapes.
And then, there are the computers, most with brand names and model numbers that achieved fame (or infamy) but disappeared from the landscape decades ago. A Commodore 64 sits between a Digital UT102 and a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III microcomputer. All three probably came out of the box 30 years ago, and they certainly look their age.
Pronovost said it takes something really unique to make the wall these days — like the old washboard and basin that came in a few weeks ago — partly due to the fact that he’s just about out of display space. But it’s mostly because he’d rather devote his time to the 99.9% of the stuff that comes in his door that he doesn’t even think about keeping.
This is what Gold Circuit E-Cycling is really all about.
This bin of circuit boards

This bin of circuit boards is one of many crowding the floor at Gold Circuit E-Cycling.

It’s a three-year old enterprise devoted to the recycling of computers and electronic equipment, an intriguing and fast-growing venture now occupying roughly half of one of the dozens of buildings comprising the sprawling Ludlow Mills complex. And it would seem to be the right business in the right place at the right time.
Indeed, as technology advances at a rate so rapid that it seems like a 40-inch flatscreen TV or five-year-old PC might soon be candidates for the museum wall (and there are more than a few of both on the floor waiting to be dismantled and recycled), area business owners and residents are increasingly challenged by the question of what to do with yesterday’s electronics as they acquire tomorrow’s products.
And Gold Circuit was created to provide an answer.
“Increasingly, people are realizing that there’s a solution to their problem, and it’s not the garbage can,” said Pronovost, adding that the business of e-cycling, as it’s called, is not exactly new, but it is picking up steam in the Northeast after migrating from the West Coast (as many trends do) a decade or so ago. “We’re here to help people make the responsible choice when it comes to unwanted electronic equipment.”
This venture, which recorded 25% growth in its first full year in business and will likely double its volume this year, collects or ‘demanufactures’ computers, electronics, batteries, home appliances, lawn equipment, metal furniture, copiers, printers, medical equipment, power tools, tires, fluorescent bulbs, styrofoam, pellet-fuel bags, and more, and sells the parts and material for scrap, thus keeping such items out of the waste stream.
There are charges for some products that are dropped off at the facility — anything with glass or refrigerant, for example, and tires as well — but many items can simply be left free of charge. And the company is making it even easier by staging collection events, such as one held recently at East Longmeadow High School.
Several dozen pieces of equipment arrive at the Gold Circuit facility each day, meaning the company is already essentially at full capacity in a 15,000-square-foot location it moved into just last year after outgrowing its original, 6,000-square-foot home in the Ludlow Mills complex.
When, how, and where the company next expands is a critical question, said Pronovost, adding that at present, the goal — and the challenge — is controlled, smart growth.
“I don’t want to grow too fast because expenses can really take off if you’re not careful,” he explained. “Like any business, we have to stay within ourselves and expand in a smart way.”
For this issue and its focus on green business, we look at a company that is certainly larger than the sum of all those parts amassed on the Gold Circuit floor.

Here’s the Breakdown
As he gave BusinessWest a tour of his facility, Pronovost stopped briefly at the museum wall — he tried, unsuccessfully, to find a date on that washboard — but quickly moved on to several large cardboard boxes, each destined for a vendor that would recycle the material in question and/or extricate the more valuable materials from them.
There was one for clean (as in unpainted) aluminum, a material that will fetch 65 cents a pound, he said, and another for ribbon wire, most of it from PCs. Three boxes contained low-grade, medium-grade, and high-grade circuit boards, respectively, designations that indicate that amount of gold in each one. And there were others for everything from transformers (separated by size) to plastic (one for lighter colors and one for black).
Meanwhile, there was a huge box filled with Styrofoam that was used to keep many of these products safe in their boxes. Sold by the bale, this material has a number of potential future uses, said Pronovost, especially as a composite material used in everything from furniture to picture frames.
How he came to be an expert on the future lives of such materials — and to create a business focused on e-cycling — is an intriguing story based on the most basic principles of entrepreneurship: seeing a need and creating a service to meet it.
“To be honest, I pretty much fell into this,” he explained, while retracing a career that started with work supporting those using computers, not breaking them down into component parts.
He started in what he called the “desktop-support field,” working at MassMutual for a few years before moving to a firm in Connecticut where he handled hardware setup and configuration work, as well as equipment auditing. As that company was repeatedly sold to larger corporations, with each transaction accompanied by a change in equipment, Pronovost segued into resale of the old hardware and, eventually, into selling parts and material for scrap, an operation carried out in-house.
“I had the right background to distinguish whether the parts I was looking at had value outside of scrap — whether they could be wholesaled out or brokered out, whether we tear it down or not tear it down,” he noted, adding that he quickly moved up the ranks within this division. “I made the transition from technician into sales, and was doing well with generating revenue.”
However, the Great Recession changed the equation quickly, he went on, adding that he was one of many to be laid off and forced to settle on a new career path. His was entrepreneurship.
“I decided to do it myself,” he said, with the ‘it’ being e-cycling. “I could see that there was a lot of opportunity, especially here in Western Mass.”
Elaborating, he said that there were, and still are, national outfits that would work with large corporations, such as MassMutual and Aetna, to help them scrap electronic equipment, but such operations historically haven’t had much interest in small businesses or residents. Meanwhile, some communities had collection operations (most of them pricey) at their transfer stations, he went on, but there was a definite void in service to large portions of the local market, and this was the need he set out to address with Gold Circuit.
He opened the doors in October 2010 and started small, handling the bulk of the work, including most of the demanufacturing, himself. Growth, he noted, has come through awareness — of both his company’s services and the need to seek out earth-friendly ways of dealing with yesterday’s electronic devices.

Hard-driving Entrepreneur

Employees at Gold Circuit

Employees at Gold Circuit ‘demanufacture’ a wide array of computers and electronics, with parts and materials sold as scrap.

Using an old laptop as an example, Pronovost said there is a good deal of scrap value in such devices, and his company has become adept at squeezing every cent from them.
“The screen, if it’s unbroken, can be torn down and reused,” he told BusinessWest. “The main [circuit] board probably has the most scrap value in that laptop, but the hard drive comes out to be shredded, and there’s a lithium battery — and right now, lithium is one of those commodities that’s sought after. Everything has scrap value.”
On the day BusinessWest visited the operation, there were several dozen old laptops awaiting their fate. A few of them might actually be sold to resellers if they are in very good condition, said Pronovost, as will the various pieces of equipment — computers, printers, VCRs, phones, air conditioners, toaster ovens, and more — crammed into the 20 or so large boxes on the shop floor.
This is a busy time of year — good weather inspires people to clean out their homes and businesses, apparently — and the floor is crowded with “inventory,” he went on, adding that Gold Circuit currently has several days worth of devices to demanufacture, and more comes in every day.
Pronovost has tweaked his original business plan slightly, but for the most part, the document’s projections for volume, or weight (400,000 pounds of material in 2012), revenue, growth, and employment have been on the money.
They were based on a number of factors, but mostly the incredibly fast pace of progress with computers, cell phones, and other electronic equipment, and the market for used items — or the lack thereof, as the case may be.
Indeed, he said that PCs more than seven years old, and some much younger than that, have little value other than as scrap when their owners decide to upgrade. And the same is largely true for today’s televisions.
“The older ones, those 20 or 25 years old, are still working,” said Pronovost with a laugh. “The newer HD models … they don’t work. And when they break, you generally have to replace them.”
This phenomenon is one of the many factors contributing to the company’s impressive growth rate, he continued, adding that others include everything from a lack of competition locally to strong word-of-mouth referrals, to heightened efforts in recent years to market the company.
But much of it comes down to partnerships, or working with a host of constituencies, from individual communities to area colleges and universities, to encourage responsible disposal of unwanted electronic items.
When the town of Longmeadow opened its new high school, Gold Circuit took roughly 12,000 pounds of old computers and other electronic equipment from the old one free of charge, said Pronovost, adding that another example of such partnership-building was the recent collection drive at Holyoke Community College to benefit a scholarship fund at the school. Participants paid a small fee to organizers to have everything from an old cell phone to a garage-cluttering air conditioner hauled away by Gold Circuit.
Such events are win-win-wins, said Pronovost, noting that the scholarship fund grows, the planet benefits because such items don’t wind up in area landfills, and Gold Circuit gains some invaluable exposure.
Looking ahead, he said the company, which now has four full-time employees, and several part-timers, will continue its efforts to chart steady but controlled growth.

Parting Thoughts
Pronovost said his museum wall often generates interest and conversation.
“People will say, ‘holy smokes, a Commodore 64 — I had one of those back in…,’ and they start adding up in the years,” he said, adding quickly that, while nostalgia is fine, it’s not what this business is all about.
Instead, it’s about meeting a growing need among area businesses and communities, and a desire to do the right thing when it comes to disposing of old equipment, styrofoam, and more.
“People are learning … they’re understanding that you can’t just throw things like this away,” he said, sweeping his hand across the shop floor. “And we’ve become an answer to their problem.”

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Green Business Sections
‘Going Green’ Investment-tax Credits Have Many Benefits

Kristi Reale, CPA, CVA

Kristi Reale

‘Going green’ is a term that is rapidly gaining momentum in our economy. No longer an ideal for just the early adopters or the environmentally conscientious, going green, or investing in processes, equipment, and energy that are environmentally sustainable, is becoming a distinctive tool for many businesses.
Customers like to see that their products were made in a green environment, prospective employees see energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable workplaces as being preferable to the traditional workplace, and, more than anything, companies are choosing to do business in an environmentally sustainable way — a triple bottom line. And as the trend to go green becomes more and more prevalent in our economy, there is a lot of information suggesting that the fiscal and tax benefits of investing in green energy and equipment are significant. However, these benefits are not always clearly outlined in black and white. It’s important to understand how the credits work and, more importantly, how they apply to you and the investment that you’re planning to make.
Income-tax credits are direct reductions of a taxpayer’s income-tax liability. Generally, the investment-tax credit permits a reduction in tax liability based upon the taxpayer’s qualified investment in certain kinds of property placed in service during the taxable year. Thus, the investment credit is an incentive device, intended to stimulate the purchase or modernization of certain kinds of productive assets. This intent is achieved by permitting the purchaser or constructor of qualified property to reduce their federal income-tax liability by a percentage of the amount they spend for the assets. To this extent, it departs from the concept of a tax imposed on net income.
Form 3468 is used to claim the investment-tax credit. Investment-credit property is any depreciable or amortizable property that qualifies for the rehabilitation credit, energy credit, qualifying advanced coal project credit, qualifying gasification project credit, or qualifying advanced energy project credit. The energy credits are detailed below.
You cannot claim the credit for property that is:
• Used mainly outside the U.S.;
• Used by a governmental unit or foreign person or entity;
• Used by a tax-exempt organization unless the property is mainly used in an unrelated trade or business;
• Used for lodging or in the furnishing of lodging; or
• Property that has been expensed under section 179 accelerated depreciation.

Energy Credits
The business energy credit is either 10% or 30% of the basis of energy property placed in service during the tax year. To qualify as energy property, the property must meet the performance and quality standards that have been prescribed by regulations in effect at the time the property is acquired; be depreciable or amortizable property; be constructed, reconstructed, or erected by the taxpayer; or acquired for original use by the taxpayer.
Energy property that qualifies for the 30% credit is listed at Internal Revenue Code §48(a)(2)(A)(i), such as:
• Solar: the credit is equal to 30% of expenditures with no maximum credit and includes equipment that uses solar energy to generate electricity or heat and cool a structure.
• Fuel cells: the credit is equal to 30% of expenditures with no maximum credit; however, the credit is capped at $1,500 per 0.5 kilowatt of capacity.
• Small wind turbines: the credit is equal to 30% of expenditures with no maximum credit for small wind turbines placed in service after Dec. 31, 2008.
Other energy property qualifies for the 10% credit, such as:
• Geothermal systems: the credit is equal to 10% of expenditures with no maximum credit and includes geothermal equipment and heat pumps used to produce, distribute, or use energy derived from a geothermal deposit.
• Microturbines: the credit is equal to 10% of expenditures with no maximum credit; however, the credit is capped at $200 per kilowatt of capacity.
• Combined heat and power: the credit is equal to 10% of expenditures with no maximum credit, and applies to property placed in service after Oct. 3, 2008.
The basis of the energy property must be reduced by 50% of the energy credit determined. The business energy credit is not allowed for any portion of a property that also qualifies for the rehabilitation credit. Energy property that qualifies for a grant under §1603 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is not eligible for the energy credit for the tax year the grant is made or any subsequent tax year.

Renewable-energy Facilities
On Feb. 17, 2009, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The purpose of the act was to preserve and create jobs, promote economic recovery, and invest in infrastructure that will provide long-term economic benefits. Provisions in the recovery act allow for irrevocably electing an investment-tax credit under §48 rather than a production tax credit under §45 for specified renewable energy facilities.
These provisions allow the taxpayer to make an election to receive an income-tax credit calculated at 30% of the cost of the qualifying property in the year it is placed in service, as opposed to the production-tax credit claimed over a 10-year period based on the electricity produced.
To qualify, this property must be tangible personal property (not including a building or structural components); constructed, reconstructed, or acquired by a taxpayer; depreciable; and for original use. The taxpayer must make a separate, irrevocable election for each qualified investment-credit facility.

Credit Recapture
Recapture of either all or a portion of the credit applies if, in the first five years, the investment-tax-credit property is disposed of, the use of the property changes so it no longer qualifies, the business use of the property decreases so it no longer qualifies, leased property is returned to the lessor, or the taxpayer receives §1603 grant money for the property.
Some exceptions to the recapture are death of the taxpayer, transfer between spouses in a divorce under §1041, and a mere change in the form of business in which the property is retained as investment-credit property, and the taxpayer retains a substantial interest in the business.
In summary, these credits appear extremely favorable. However, there are limits that apply, such as passive-activity limitations for certain pass-thru entities, basis limitations, and the effect of alternative minimum taxes.
Before embarking on projects based solely on the benefits of credits, you should consult your tax advisor. n

Kristi A. Reale, CPA, CVA is a senior manager with the Holyoke-based public accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 322-3533; [email protected]

Green Business Sections
Recent Developments Spur New Solar-energy Projects In Massachusetts

Nicholas Lata

Nicholas Lata

Massachusetts has experienced rapid growth in its solar-energy sector in recent years.  The total capacity generated by solar energy in Massachusetts has doubled in the last two years, reaching 105 megawatts (enough to power more than 15,000 homes) in 2012, a figure that is forecasted to quadruple by 2020.
Massachusetts’ renewable-energy sector now employs more than 64,000 people statewide (including nearly 10,000 in Western Mass.) and is projected to grow 15% per year. Massachusetts is now considered to be one of the best states in the country for solar development, a phenomenon driven largely by the state’s numerous initiatives to promote clean, renewable energy.
What follows is a rundown of these incentives and other issues involved with the development of solar-energy projects.

Massachusetts Incentives
The Massachusetts solar market is driven by a statutory requirement for utility companies to generate a percentage (7% in 2012) of their electricity from renewable sources. This figure is scheduled to rise 1% per year until 2030, when it will reach 25%.
Utility companies that fail to generate sufficient electricity from renewable sources are required to pay a fine equal to $600 per Megawatt hour (MWh) the utility company falls below the requirement. In lieu of paying this fine, utility companies may purchase solar renewable energy credits (SRECs) from solar developers. Eligible solar developers receive one SREC for every MWh of electricity generated. Solar developers seeking to earn SRECs must apply through the Mass. Department of Energy Resources, and certain restrictions apply.
In 2011, solar developers produced only one-third of the 78,577 SRECs demanded by utility companies. As a result, there was a ready market for SRECs, which traded at approximately $550 per credit. The proliferation of solar development caused the supply of SRECs to exceed demand in 2012. In response, most solar developers have begun entering into futures contracts with utility companies, assigning all SRECs earned in the future for approximately $200 to $250 per SREC.
Finally, for projects that produce more electricity than is consumed on site, Massachusetts provides two options for solar developers to market excess electricity. The first is simply to sell the excess electricity to the local utility at the ‘dump rate’ (about $0.035 cents per kilowatt hour, or kWh). The second is to apply for net metering with the state Department of Public Utilities (DPU). Net metering entitles the solar developer to sell the electricity at a slight discount below the market rate to electricity consumers, typically at a slight discount below the market rate, which is usually $0.12 to $0.15 per kWh for commercial consumers.
A recent DPU order added a few wrinkles to the process for qualifying for net metering, particularly where the property being developed consists of multiple parcels of land.

Federal Incentives
The federal government allows an investment-tax credit equal to 30% of the investment in qualifying solar-energy property. Combined with accelerated cost-recovery rules under the tax code applicable to solar-energy property, this may allow solar developers to operate tax-free for many years.
The issue for many solar developers is that they do not have sufficient income to monetize the full value of the credits and deductions. Many solar developers have sought to bring in outside investors with greater ‘tax appetites,’ which has led to the formation of joint ventures and other arrangements.

Development Issues
On its face, Massachusetts law exempts solar-energy systems from local property taxes. Recently, however, several bills have proposed carving large-scale commercial systems out of the exemption, particularly ground-mounted systems. Although none of the bills passed, the state Department of Revenue has taken the position that systems are exempt only if all of the electricity is used on site.
In response, many developers have either sought properties occupied by businesses with great energy needs (i.e. manufacturers) or negotiated payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) agreements with towns in order to fix payments over the lives of projects. In addition, landowners selling or leasing land which is currently taxed as agricultural or forest property to solar developers may be subject to conveyance taxes, rollback taxes, and a town right of first refusal.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts law prevents towns from passing zoning bylaws that preclude the installation of solar-energy systems. Initially, developers interpreted this law to provide as-of-right siting for solar projects, which would allow projects to progress without the issuance of special permits.
Nevertheless, most towns have interpreted the as-of-right siting to apply only to small, roof-mounted systems, and have passed zoning bylaws that restrict the installation of larger, ground-mounted systems (especially systems exceeding 250 kW). Even where a friendly bylaw is in place, the permitting phase for large-scale projects generally takes at least six months.  Robinson Donovan is currently assisting a national solar developer in the development of a proposed 14-MW solar-energy system on 160 acres of land in Monson.

Project Economics
In general, the cost of installing a solar-energy system is based on its energy-generating capacity, ranging from under $3 per watt for large-scale commercial systems to as much as $6 per watt for smaller residential systems. Although the amount of electricity generated by solar-energy systems is relatively low compared to the investment required, projects can be profitable when incentives are taken into consideration.
When SREC values were at peak levels in 2011, solar projects frequently had rates of return in the range of four to six years. Returns have declined to where rates of return in the range of seven to nine years have become more realistic. Returns may be substantially lower for projects which fail to qualify for SRECs and/or net metering, as described above.
Nevertheless, with the Bay State’s commitment to renewable energy, it is likely that solar incentives are here to stay. Furthermore, advancements in solar-energy technology are simultaneously reducing costs and creating new applications.

Nicholas Lata is an associate with the Springfield-based law firm Robinson Donovan. He has been involved with several projects involving solar power; [email protected]; www.robinson-donovan.com