Solar's bright future

Tuesday November 9, 2010

Just as Berkshire County is moving aggressively to participate in the expanding life sciences field (see "Life sciences thrive at our colleges" on opposite page), the county is ambitiously exploiting the growing solar energy field. With good reason, state Secretary of Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles describes Pittsfield as the "solar capital of the commonwealth," but if the city and county are to fully live up to that definition they need to expand their role in the manufacturing aspect of solar.

Mr. Bowles made that remark last month when he was here for the unveiling of a rooftop solar array at Berkshire Community College. The installation of 1,868 solar panels on BCC roofs will produce 25 percent of the college's energy needs. Western Mass Electric Company's solar-energy facility on Silver Lake Boulevard, the first of its kind in New England, will generate 2 million kilowatt hours of energy a year and supply Pittsfield with more than $150,000 annually in tax revenues.

Federal stimulus funds and the state's Green Communities Act were instrumental in making these public-private projects a reality. Under Governor Patrick, who has made alternate energy a priority, the state has invested in the kind of projects that will help the state and nation end its addiction to costly, polluting forms of energy like oil and coal. The governor's re-election should assure that the state continues to progress in this direction.

Unfortunately, America is no longer the manufacturing nation it once was, and China is leaving the nation in the dust when it comes to producing solar panels and other products related to the solar industry. China's solar industry is heavily subsidized, and with Republicans back in control of the House there is no chance of any federal investment in this promising manufacturing field. Under Governor Patrick, however, the state at least has quadrupled its investment in the number of solar manufacturing facilities in the state.

Old-fashioned American ingenuity is on display in North Billerica, where the tiny Stellaris Corporation is developing a new form of solar panel that is easier to install and less costly because the plastic used to coat the panels more efficiently directs sunlight, reducing the amount of expensive photovoltaic material required in each panel. Plastics, of course, has long been a growth industry associated with Pittsfield and Berkshire County. Thriving GT Solar, which is located near Stellaris, makes the equipment that turns silicon into the wafers used in solar cells. 1366 Technologies in Lexington is working on making silicon wafers more efficient.

Berkshire County, from homeowners, to schools, to public buildings, to businesses, should expand its use of solar power. Adding solar manufacturing to the equation would truly make the city and county a solar capital.


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