, Salem, MA

August 21, 2013

On the sunny side

Salem rep joins solar boom; panels to power whole house


---- — SALEM — From his house on the banks of the North River, state Rep. John Keenan can see the sun rise over the tall stacks of Salem Harbor Station, the coal- and oil-burning power plant.

Keenan, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, has often been cast as a defender of the “filthy five” plant, the city’s No. 1 taxpayer, an aging facility that will close next year.

Now, he faces a new round of criticism from some environmentalists due to his support for a natural gas plant proposed for the site by 2016.

Against that backdrop, an interesting development took place last week on the roof of Keenan’s home. Solar panels were installed.

This is not a political stunt, Keenan said, but a personal decision by his family and a reflection of his belief that the state needs a mix of fuel sources, and that renewable energy, like solar power, plays an increasingly important role.

“We’re doing it, No. 1, because we think it’s the right thing to do, and No. 2, because I want to promote renewable energy,” the 48-year-old Keenan said while seated at a dining room table with his wife, Kara.

For the Keenans, solar panels also make financial sense.

Thanks to state and federal tax credits, rebates, utility bill savings and something the state calls “solar renewable energy credits,” the Keenans will pay off their nearly $32,000 solar system in five to six years.

The 25 panels on their roof will produce more energy than they consume, which means the Keenans may not pay an electric bill ever again.

“We can actually apply the credits to other people’s bills,” his wife said, “so we could pay my parents’ electric bill.”

The Keenans are not alone in their enthusiasm for solar energy. Massachusetts has experienced a virtual explosion of interest over the past few years.

There are an estimated 10,000 solar installations in the state, most of them residential and the majority coming in the past few years.

When the Green Communities Act passed in 2007, only 3 megawatts of the state’s energy was produced by solar power. Today, the total exceeds 300 megawatts.

While still minuscule by power standards — Salem Harbor Station, for example, had a capacity of 745 megawatts — it is enough to power about 300,000 homes.

The state is way ahead of its solar schedule.

It set a goal of 250 megawatts of solar power by 2017, and hit that mark in May — four years early. As a result, Gov. Deval Patrick has set a new goal of 1,600 megawatts by 2020.

“It is the fastest-growing energy resource in probably all of New England,” said Mike Judge of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources.

Numbers in Salem could jump even more. The city, along with Swampscott, has been selected to take part in a grant program, Solarize Mass, which could start as early as next month.

The rapid rise of solar power in this state is fueled by a combination of factors, including generous financial incentives and a drop in the cost of equipment, much of which comes from China.

The Keenans proudly boast that their solar panels were made in the United States.

Even though prices have dropped, solar panels aren’t for everyone. They are best suited for south-facing houses with little shade and long hours of sunshine. The initial financial output is not insignificant, requiring many people to take out loans or even refinance mortgages. And not everyone qualifies for credits and rebates.

But solar power is slowly taking hold as more families put panels up on the roofs. If nothing else, it gets the neighbors peering over fences.

“That’s part of what we’re trying to do,” Keenan said, “is start the discussion.”

Tom Dalton can be reached at