Home solar power becomes a brighter prospect for many

Just out of view on the back side of Rob and Irene Kneeland’s Colonial house in Sutton, 28 photovoltaic panels are transforming light into power every time the sun shines.

The system came online in December. By March, the Kneelands’ monthly electric bill had dropped from $150 to $38.

“I imagine the next bill will be about zero,” Rob Kneeland said. “It appears that they’re performing as promised.”

Historically, installing solar panels was a pricey proposition — usually something only committed environmentalists with money to spend did. In recent years, however, improvements in technology, falling manufacturing costs, government incentives, and worries about the perils of fossil fuel dependence have come together to accelerate the adoption of solar technologies among everyday homeowners.

Between late 2013 and mid-2016, Massachusetts’ solar capacity more than tripled, from 362 megawatts to 1,174 megawatts, according to numbers from regional electric grid operator ISO-New England.

If you want to consider joining the surge, here’s how it works.

First, determine whether solar panels are feasible for your home. Generally, you will need a roof that isn’t facing north and doesn’t receive too much shade from the south, said Andrew Belden, senior director for renewable energy generation at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.

Your roof should also be large enough to accommodate at least 10 to 15 panels and be relatively new.

“You want to make sure you’re not going to be taking the system down in the next five years to replace your roof,” Belden said. Just about all installers will provide a free on-site assessment.

Next, study up on the basic economics of residential solar. In the past, leasing and power purchase agreements were popular ways for homeowners to get solar power. Under such arrangements, a business builds and retains ownership of a solar system then sells the energy produced to the homeowner.

But today, the price of a residential solar installation is about one-third what it was just 10 years ago, according to a report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. At the same time, financing options have multiplied, making straightforward ownership more economically advantageous.

“More financial institutions are familiar with solar now,” said Tom Kimbis, interim president of the Solar Energy Industry Association, a Washington-based trade group. “Today, you’ve got lots of options.”

The median price per watt of capacity for systems financed through the Mass Solar Loan Program is $4, and the median installation size is 8.1 kilowatts. Those numbers suggest a new solar system could easily run more than $30,000.

Fortunately, several programs can help defray the costs. Federal tax incentives allow you to take a credit worth 30 percent of the cost of the installation. Massachusetts also offers a tax credit of 15 percent of the remaining cost after the federal incentive has been subtracted, with a maximum value of $1,000.

Together, these credits could reduce the cost of a $30,000 system to roughly $20,000 — still a pretty hefty total. To help cover that balance, the Mass. Solar Loan Program will assist you in locating a participating bank or credit union and, for income-eligible households, it also can provide further financial assistance.

Households below 80 percent of median income — the threshold is currently $87,183 for a four-person household — are eligible for a principal reduction of 30 percent. Those below 120 percent of median income — $130,774 for a family of four – qualify for a 20 percent reduction.

Some individual communities may have further incentives — DSIRE.org maintains an updated database of renewable energy programs, state by state

Once the system is installed, ongoing savings will come from two places: net metering and solar renewable energy credits, or SRECs.

When your system is producing more power than you use, the excess electricity flows back into the grid and your meter runs backward, deducting kilowatt-hours from your usage — and your bill. This phenomenon is known as net metering.

If your power is currently delivered by a utility company, your system will almost certainly be able to take advantage of net metering. Homes served by municipal electric plants, however, may not be, so research eligibility before moving forward.

SRECs are certificates representing the environmental benefits generated by your solar system. They can be sold to companies looking to meet regulations, boost their green credentials, or offset their carbon emissions.

An 8-kilowatt system could produce as many as 10 SRECs per year and, though prices fluctuate, one SREC can sell for well over $200. While homeowners can sell their SRECs on their own, many choose to work with aggregation companies, which pool many SRECs and then sell them on behalf of their members.

Once you understand the financial basics, it is time to start shopping for an installer. If you are interested in the Mass. Solar Loan program, start with its list of prequalified businesses. Make sure to contact several installers. But limit your search to companies that are solar specialists, rather than roofers or general contractors who have added solar to their menu of services.

Ask vendors questions until you are completely satisfied with the answers, Kimbis said. He recommended asking how many systems the company has installed in your area, and requesting at least three references.

A potential installer should provide detailed cost estimates, including expected annual production, available incentives, and projections of how long the system should take to pay for itself. Be wary of companies that offer vague assurances instead of hard numbers.

An installer also should arrange for local inspections, connections to the utility, and the paperwork involved in signing you up to receive SRECs.

Finally, once you’ve chosen a company, be prepared to wait. Solar is becoming so popular that there will probably be a delay before you can schedule installation.

“Crews might be scheduling six, eight, 10 weeks out,” Belden said. “There’s a lot of solar activity going on in the state.”

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Organic Checkoff Program Advances

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today released a proposal intended to get more organic food onto shopping lists and dinner plates across the country by pooling money from organic farmers, handlers, and processors to promote the sector, educate consumers, and conduct research

on organic production methods. Once up and running, the program could invest more than $30 million annually, according to estimates by the Organic Trade Association (OTA).

“We’re really pleased the USDA is moving forward this well vetted proposal,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the OTA. “It is an industry self-investment that makes a lot of sense now and will make a lot of sense in the new administration as well.”

The proposal appeared on the Federal Register today, and it’s a big step in a process that has already taken over two years of collaboration by multiple stakeholders. It also arrives at a critical moment for the organic industry. Though organic food is increasingly popular—sales were up 11 percent to $43.5 billion in 2015—U.S.-grown supply isn’t keeping up with demand. Despite the growing market, the complicated and costly process of becoming a certified organic grower keeps many farmers from attempting the transition. At the same time, labels like “natural” and “non-GMO” are sowing confusion with consumers about the true meaning and value of the organic designation. OTA says the proposed program is designed to address these challenges.

But not everyone in the organic industry is on board. Several branches of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, the National Family Farm Coalition, the Western Organic Dairy Producers, and nearly 60 other groups oppose the idea of the program, which they call “an additional tax” on farmers.

Similar plans—called “checkoff” programs—have long existed for commodities such as milk, beef, and eggs. Producers are required to pay into a central fund, and the money goes to education, research, and promotions—think “Got Milk?” or “Pork: The Other White Meat.”

In 2014, a new Farm Bill was signed into law. The legislation allowed organic producers to opt out of conventional commodity checkoffs and called for the creation of an organic program if there was sufficient interest. For the first time, a checkoff program could be defined by how a food is produced rather than by what it is. OTA then submitted an application in May 2015 to the USDA to get the process started.

Here’s how it would work, according to the current proposal: The program, called GRO Organic (Generic Research and Promotion Order for Organic), would be run by a 17-member board of directors, independent of the OTA. Any larger business with an organic certification—from the farmer who grows the organic cucumbers to the processor who turns them into organic pickles—would contribute, unless it already belongs to another checkoff program and chooses to stay with that group. Small businesses—those with less than $250,000 in revenue—are not required to join but can opt in. The board will be made up of a split between farmers and handlers.

“The entire value chain is inextricably linked,” Batcha said. “Acknowledging that, the program is built so that everybody participates.”

Supporters of the proposal include leaders of Organic Valley’s dairy cooperative, Stonyfield Farm, Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs, and Late July Snacks.

The board would run educational initiatives and promotional campaigns intended to boost demand by helping consumers understand the benefits of organic foods. Growing demand, in turn, should help lure more farmers into making the leap from conventional agriculture.

According to the checkoff’s supporters, farmers and processors wouldn’t be the only ones to benefit, however. Together, greater supply and more efficient farming should make organic a more affordable option, said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group.

“Over time, real prices should fall,” said Cook. “That’s a positive thing for consumers.”

At the same time, the program would conduct research into areas such as farming technology and more effective pest control techniques, making production more efficient. At least 25 percent of the GRO Organic funds would go to local and regional research. These funds would also support technical assistance, helping organic farmers improve their growing practices.

Support for the proposal, however, is far from universal.

“The concern we have is checkoffs have not done what they are designed to do,” said John Bobbe, executive director of the Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing, which opposes the proposed program.

Checkoff organizations have a long history of mismanagement and abuse, he said, pointing for example to recent allegations that the American Egg Board illegally used funds to conspire against the vegan mayonnaise company Hampton Creek. Furthermore, he worries that the needs of processors and handlers could override the interests of farmers—who have traditionally received a small portion of the profit from the $40 billion-and-growing organic market.

Batcha stresses that the proposal is designed to avoid the pitfalls that have plagued some conventional commodity checkoffs. Board members are limited to two three-year terms to prevent any one person from accumulating too much influence. In addition, members of the program would have to vote on whether to continue the checkoff every seven years, to hold the organization accountable to those it represents, Batcha said.

“Stakeholders paying in have the comfort that they get to evaluate every seven years whether it’s working,” she said.

Still, many are skeptical of any program overseen by the government. Checkoffs overseen by the USDA are not allowed to disparage other products; some wonder whether it makes sense to promote organic foods without claiming that they are healthier or safer than their less-pricey conventional alternatives.

“You can be more flexible with your messaging and even more efficient with the dollars if you’re not tied to the government,” said Harriet Behar, senior organic specialist with the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES).

And there are alternatives to going through the USDA, she noted. Pistachio growers, for example, have formed a voluntary, independent checkoff that is not subject to the same governmental restrictions.

The proposal released today will be open for public comment for 60 days. Supporters are hoping the incoming administration won’t do anything to interfere with the program.

“This is an industry that came to Washington and said, ‘We want regulation so we can grow,’” Cook said. “That kind of entrepreneurial zeal should not be discouraged.”

Once the proposal has been finalized, organic farmers and processors will get to vote on whether to make the program a reality.

“A yes vote in this referendum would begin this grand seven-year experiment, to see whether industry coordination can make a difference,” Batcha said.

When startups collide: Greentown Labs hopes working elbow to elbow can create innovation

GreentownWhen clean technology incubator Greentown Labs moved from South Boston, Massachusetts, to the neighboring city of Somerville in 2013, the sprawling new facility was a little daunting, said chief executive Emily Reichert. With 18 member companies – all small startups – the organization filled less than half the 33,000 square feet in the building.

“At that time, it seemed like an incredibly big space,” she said.

Less than two years later, Greentown Labs has expanded into every corner of the former envelope factory. With 44 member companies employing 285 people, Greentown Labs has become the largest clean tech incubator in the US, Reichert said. Member startups are working on everything from data-collecting sailboats tofloating wind turbines.

“It’s become a cultural center of forward thinking entrepreneurial activity,” said Gabe Blanchet, co-founder of Grove Labs, a Greentown tenant that is developing residential-scale aquaponic systems that allow tenants to grow vegetables indoors.

The Boston area has long been known as a hub of innovation and entrepreneurial activity, from the computer technology corridor that boomed along Route 128 in the 1980s to today’s flourishing biosciences sector. Greentown Labs aims to join this tradition, giving innovative sustainability-focused startups the traction they need to turn their bold ideas into game-changing realities. But until one of its growing startups makes it big – something that has not happened yet – its model of collaboration and resource sharing remains unproven.

Greentown Labs began in late 2010, when four clean energy startups, all with ties to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, came together to split the rent on a rundown warehouse space in East Cambridge. There, they could tinker, tweak, and try out their intended products. When the warehouse was demolished in 2011, the four companies moved to a space in South Boston, expanding and bringing in more young enterprises. After just two years, the incubator had outgrown its new space and decided to move again.

When Somerville mayor Joseph Curtatone heard Greentown was looking for a new home, he decided to woo the group to his city, offering $300,000 in tax incentives.

“They bring us everything we hope for in the type of companies we need to build our locally-sustainable economy,” said Curtatone, who also ordered one of Grove Labs’ first home aquaponics system.

Framed by lime green and teal blue walls, Greentown’s Somerville office is a tightly-packed collection of desks where employees study product designs, cluster together around laptops, and share ideas and advice over cups of coffee. Workshop space runs along the back and side of the building, where 3D printers whirr, plants grow under LED lights, and prototypes are assembled and honed.

Neither traditional incubators nor shared work spaces are new ideas. Greentown Labs, however, is carving out a distinctive space for itself somewhere between the two models.

Unlike most incubators, Greentown does not take equity in member companies, nor seats on their boards. Accepted companies pay $425 per month for each desk they need and $3.20 per month for each square foot of lab space.

Greentown does, however, shape the workplace environment with a careful member selection process. Successful applicants intend to produce manufactured products rather than software or services, and generally have existing investments from outside sources, Reichert said. To nurture collaboration, Greentown Labs will not accept any companies that are direct competitors with existing members.

Perhaps most importantly, all members must have an interest in cleantech and in building businesses that solve global problems, Reichert said. The result of these policies is a group of companies that easily and eagerly trade expertise and advice, according to those involved.

“Whenever we have a question or a problem, the first thing we do is throw it out to the Greentown email list,” said Ben Glass, CEO of high altitude wind turbine producer Altaeros Energies, another Greentown founder. Someone is almost always able to help immediately, he said.

Greentown also forms partnerships with corporate sponsors, including Shell, Chevron, American Airlines and Microsoft. These sponsorships, which provide about 20% of Greentown’s revenue, according to Reichert, also connect member startups with major companies that in search of new technology. In addition, the incubator hosts networking events and job fairs to help member companies make business connections and find new employees and interns.

Greentown is also hiring a manager who will help the young businesses contact and communicate with manufacturing partners. Often, Reichert said, new entrepreneurs have big ideas, but little practical knowledge about how to make the leap from prototype to production. She hopes the new manager will help bridge that gap.

With the current facility at 100% occupancy, Greentown’s directors are considering what comes next. They are looking at ways to expand within Somerville and exploring partnerships elsewhere in Massachusetts, Reichert said. The group has already started consulting with organizations looking to build their own technology incubators.

Jeff Anthony, director of the Energy Innovation Center at the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said Greentown’s advice has been crucial in developing plans for an innovation center. He point specifically to the idea of “maximizing collisions”: creating a space that generates encounters between occupants and their ideas.

“They’ve been a proven success and we’re hoping to learn even more from them,” Anthony said.

Meanwhile, many will continue watching Greentown to see if a physical space that increases collisions will ultimately end up sparking big wins – or not.

This story originally appeared at TheGuardian.com on April 14, 2015.

Big plans for Ocean Alliance

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GLOUCESTER – Just outside the faded red buildings of the former Tarr and Wonson paint factory on Rocky Neck, new oceanographic technology is taking flight.

On a foggy summer morning, a small robotic drone designed for whale research buzzes and swoops overhead. It is a high-flying sign that the once-neglected site is springing back to life under the oversight of conservation nonprofit Ocean Alliance.

“It’s very exciting, where we’re going with the robotics,” said Iain Kerr, the group’s chief executive. “This is really a new generation in oceanography.”

Slightly more than a year after moving in, Ocean Alliance is realizing its plans to restore the historic waterfront property, long considered an icon of Gloucester’s maritime industry; develop advanced robotic research tools; and become an educational resource for the community.

A robotics lab, which arrived in July, provides the alliance and its partner, Needham’s Olin College of Engineering, the space and tools to develop drones for whale research.

The lab is housed in a converted shipping container once used as a pop-up retail shop by the athletic-wear company Puma. Situated in the alliance parking lot, the container is lined with wood floors and walls; a large parallelogram-shaped window breaks up the front wall.

The space will make it easier for the alliance and Olin to continue work on the drone they affectionately call the SnotBot. This small, automated copter is intended to fly close enough to whales that it can collect samples of the creatures’ blowhole spray to be analyzed for bacteria, DNA, and hormones.

The lab will be outfitted with tools such as soldering irons, 3-D printers, and drone flight simulators to help engineers and students create more reliable, durable, and effective robots. The goal is to create an affordable, easy-to-use drone that can collect data and transmit the information to a computer on land or on a ship. And it must be easy to fly.

“Our ultimate goal is to build an autonomous air vehicle that a sleep-deprived, seasick person can operate,” said Andrew Bennett, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Olin. “Having a trained roboticist on site with you shouldn’t be necessary.”

Once the technology is developed, Bennett said, it will have plenty of marine science applications beyond whale research. He has already started talking with other groups interested in using the drones to track tuna populations and survey oyster reefs, he said.

Eventually, Kerr intends to start a robotics club that would provide instruction and encouragement to adults and students interested in learning more about the field.

“The idea is to support STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education,” Kerr said.

Even as it gets the new lab up and running, Ocean Alliance is also working on the restoration of the paint factory. The seven buildings – built in the 1870s – were once home to the Tarr and Wonson Paint Manufactory, which produced barnacle-resistant copper paint for use on boats.

The company closed in the 1980s and the buildings – some clad in brick, others in decaying clapboards – stood vacant for 30 years. Bricks cracked, clapboards began to chip and rot, on the side of the building the white words “Copper Paint” faded.

In 2008, Ocean Alliance bought the property for $2 million, helped by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation. Initial renovations had to be completed before the group was able to move in.

Over the years, the paint production process caused significant contamination to the property. Kerr, however, sees the situation as a chance for Ocean Alliance to contribute even more to its environmental mission by cleaning up the land.

“It’s exciting that this is a polluted site,” he said.

Thus far, the alliance has refurbished one of the buildings, a sturdy brick structure that now houses its administrative offices. Inside, the space is light, open and modern, with decorations of a decidedly cetacean bent: orca paintings, whale carvings, antique whaling maps.

The restoration of the factory’s 60-foot chimney has just been completed as well, and work has begun on a second building.

Another $4 million will be needed to achieve the remaining renovations at the site, Kerr said. Two of the structures were too dilapidated to be restored and have been razed. The group plans to build new structures of the same dimensions in their place.

Kerr promises to keep the buildings as true to their history as possible. “We’re going to do everything in our power to keep the outside as iconic as we can,” he said.

He hopes to have renovations complete and a dock built by next spring.

The city has embraced Ocean Alliance. With the ongoing decline of the fishing industry, city leaders have been looking for ways to keep the Gloucester waterfront active and thriving. They are encouraging traditional uses, such as seafood processing and tourism, as well as newer industries such as marine science and technology.

Ocean Alliance’s plans to both restore a historic property and encourage scientific innovation on the waterfront are a perfect match for these goals, said Gloucester community development director Tom Daniel.

“The fact that they’re taking an iconic property and putting it back into productive use and restoring it is kind of icing on the cake,” he said.

This story originally appeared in The Boston Globe on August 3, 2014. Click here for the story and a photo gallery.

Emerson game lab aims to fix local, global problems

The game itself is really quite simple. Its purpose, though, could have a profound effect on its players.

Every year, seasonal rains flood the giant Zambezi River in Zambia, often displacing tens of thousands of people who live along it.

So the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre is getting Zambians who live near the river to play a game: text their predictions about changes in the river’s water level, with the best guessers winning points toward a prize.

But the real objective is to get residents to be more attuned to the river’s fluctuations, so they are better prepared as water levels rise, and can escape well before flooding hits their homes.

“The game can literally save lives,” said Pablo Suarez, associate director of research and innovation for the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre.

The game used by the international organization is a product of the Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College, a group of play-oriented programmers, designers, and researchers who see video and computer games as a promising medium for promoting civic involvement and solving problems from neighborhood planning to global warming.

The Cape Cod Commission is currently using the Emerson lab’s platform to run Cape-2-O, as part of a communitywide exercise to gather input on solving the region’s waste-water problems. Players watch short videos about Cape Cod and the water issues it faces, then provide their own answers and suggestions. They can also view and comment on other responses. Some 330 players have enrolled in the Cape Cod game.

To move on in the game, players must answer multiple-choice trivia questions about Cape Cod’s water systems.

Advancing players earn virtual coins they can use to make the trivia questions easier or to make pledges to local nonprofits. The three charities with the most pledged coins will each get $1,000 at the end of the game, while the Cape Cod Commission will use the suggestions from players to help develop a countywide waste-water plan.

Similar Community PlanIt games, as the Emerson lab calls them, have been played by residents in Detroit, Salem, and Quincy. The games all have the same elements, but with features and details customized to the location.

“If we can produce games that are integrated into civic life, then we can create meaningful platforms to make people feel like they can make a difference,” game lab founder and director Eric Gordon said.

Using video games will allow organizers and officials to reach younger people who might find traditional community meetings too staid or too daunting, Gordon said.

Games give people “permission to participate in a way that doesn’t feel as high-stakes as it might otherwise,” he said, and it makes it easier for people who might be reluctant to speak before a public audience to voice their opinion remotely.

The Emerson lab has developed a game, “Civic Seed,” in collaboration with Tufts University. Tufts students interested in doing volunteer work will play characters wandering through a gray landscape, seeking botanist characters who will give them colorful “seeds” they can plant to brighten the drab world.

To earn those seed rewards, players will have to answer questions about civic engagement and their own experience and goals.

Each player is assigned her own hue, so as color spreads through the game, students can track their own progress and that of their classmates. The game will serve as an orientation experience, preparing them for volunteer work in the Somerville area.

“The very act of pursuit in a game — where you’re trying to figure something out and trying to accomplish a goal — actually helps the brain to retain learning,” said Nancy Wilson, interim dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts.

The Engagement Game Lab was born from a series of loosely related research projects Gordon was working on, including one with the City of Boston to incorporate virtual online worlds into urban planning.

That effort led to a game in 2010, called Participatory Chinatown, in which players wandered a virtual version of the neighborhood, searching for resources and exploring potential development sites. Residents could play on their own or at meetings set up by the game developers.

Holly St. Clair, director of data services for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional agency that sponsored the game, said the Chinatown exercise triggered strong responses from players.

“People were talking to each other. That’s what a planning meeting should be like,” St. Clair said. “You should be making connections, you should be learning, you should be trying to problem-solve together.”

The game’s results, along with more traditional community meetings, informed the 2010 Chinatown master plan. Furthermore, the experience convinced organizers there was potential in using games to spur community engagement.

Since its formation in 2010 the game lab has expanded rapidly, to a staff of seven and its own space on Boylston Street. The staff includes full-time professionals as well as student researchers from Emerson and other schools in the area.

The lab is funded by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, as well as contributions from its client communities.

And the list of clients is growing.

The lab has games in the works for South Central Los Angeles and Cape Town, South Africa.

“Street Cred,” a game set to be launched in Boston this summer, will encourage people to report potholes and broken street lights through their phones.

Within a few weeks, a pilot version of the Zambezi game will get underway, and this fall Gordon will teach a class at Emerson in which his students will design games to tackle problems presented by Suarez’s team at the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre.

“We’re trying to push a little farther on what a game can do,” Gordon said.

Igniting Chattanooga’s Superfast Network

Jack Studer wants to fax you a sandwich. And he’s hoping that, eventually, the pack of tech geniuses, visionaries, and entrepreneurs that make up Chattanooga’s inaugural Gig Tank will help him do so.

The Gig Tank, organized by Studer and other Chattanooga businesspeople,  is a summer-long workshop and competition that brings together fledging tech businesses and talented college students and asks them to unleash their creativity on Chattanooga’s gigabit-per-second fiber optic network—the first of its kind in the country.

“We will be pushing them to form teams, target and attack problems, pitch ideas, build concepts and prototypes,” says Brian Trautschold, co-founder of Chattanooga media streaming company retickr and one of the Gig Tank organizers.

While Google has recently made waves with its plans to wire up Kansas City with a 1 Gbps fiber optic system, Chattanooga is already experimenting with what that kind of infrastructure can do. And the results have been encouraging: The super-fast service has sparked technological innovation and helped lure hundreds of jobs to the city…

Read the rest of this story at Good.is, where it was posted on June 19, 2012.