Massachusetts Colleges Team Up to Create a Bright Future in the Photonics Industry

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Worcester’s Quinsigamond Community College will be teaming up with SUNY Polytechnic Institute and several other educational institutions on a Federal project to advance the applications the photonics industry in manufacturing. The partnership, known as Advanced Manufacturing Partnership 2.0, represents $600 million in Federal funds which will go toward establishing the nation’s first Integrated Photonics Institute of Manufacturing Innovation.

Massachusetts will be teaming up with educational institutions across the nation, utilizing the Commonwealth’s higher educational strengths to explore the applications of the photonics industry in manufacturing. MIT will lead in the development of cutting-edge technology such as robotics and complex medical devices. Meanwhile, Quinsigamond will provide practical training for the development of a middle-skill workforce that will be ready to fulfill a growing number of job opportunities in the manufacturing industry as a whole.

“Massachusetts is a key partner because of the technical expertise of the faculty and researchers here at MIT, and in part, because AIM photonics MIT is coordinating the education and workforce development program for the entire nation in this area,” said Krystyn Van Vliet, a professor of materials science and engineering and MIT’s faculty lead for the project.

The American Institute for Manufacturing (AIM) began an integrated photonics program in July that was announced by Vice President Joe Biden. The AIM integrated photonics program is one of nine such institutions dedicated to different areas of the manufacturing field.

hisotric industryMassachusetts has a long tradition of manufacturing and industrial production. Although textiles and mills may be a thing of the past, burgeoning industries have provided a new realm of opportunity for a state that is already familiar with manufacturing and its challenges. New tech sectors such as biotechnology, wearable devices, and robotics, combined with easy access to the educated work force needed to produce them, has put the Bay State in a favorable position to spearhead the development of future technologies.

“This partnership is key to developing the revolutionary technologies that will underpin the next wave of advanced manufacturing in Massachusetts and ensure the competitiveness of our manufacturing sector as a whole. We are harnessing education and innovation to build a platform for economic growth across Massachusetts. I look forward to seeing the continued great work from our Commonwealth’s innovation and education communities, and [to] participating in this national center with our neighbors in New York,” said Governor Charlie Baker.

The partnership serves as a part of Baker’s ongoing commitment to advancing the manufacturing industry within Massachusetts. Continued growth in the manufacturing sector will lead to new opportunities for everything from electronic design and manufacturing equipment, to medical devices, robotics, cyber security, and more. Van Vliet predicts that the AIM initiative will begin actively producing new technologies and opportunities for advanced manufacturing as early as January 2016.

Will Massachusetts Solar Net Metering Caps Continue?

Solar energy is thriving in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, but the clean energy trend has slowed considerably due to the current cap on solar net metering. Contributing to the decrease is the imminent expiration of Federal incentives for installation of solar energy. Solar net metering allows customers who generate their own electricity from solar power to feed their surplus into the grid, calculated as a percentage of peak electrical usage.

Solar Net Metering Caps Create Backlog

The current caps particularly affect the MetroWest service grid, which is already buying back the maximum amount of solar-produced electricity produced by commercial customers required by state law. This situation has created a waiting list of commercial customers who would like to install solar panel systems but are delaying installation until the caps are raised to make the projects economically viable.

Local business leaders have expressed hope that the solar net metering caps will soon be raised. In late June, the Massachusetts Senate voted 37–0 to raise the caps to 1,600 megawatts, up from the current caps of 1,000 and accounting for approximately 4–5% of the total energy generated statewide. The decision was passed as a part of a larger climate change preparedness bill. Another positive indicator is Governor Charlie Baker’s recent announcement that he plans to file legislation regarding the caps.

Solar Panels Collonial

Solar Detractors Speak Up

Not everyone is in favor of the solar initiative. Associated Industries of Massachusetts has spoken out against the Senate’s move, indicating it could add up to $600 million to the total electric bills of Massachusetts customers who do not have access to solar power. The group has indicated a lift in the solar net metering caps would only put money back into the pockets of the companies installing the solar arrays. Solar advocates say that AIM did not take into consideration the benefits associated with solar energy and merely weighed the up-front costs. Massachusetts has the fifth highest electricity cost in the continental United States.

Unless the Federal government acts, incentives for businesses that adopt solar energy systems will be scaled down in December 2016 and Federal incentives for residential projects will be eliminated. The incentives have spurred the Massachusetts solar industry as the state ranked second in 2014 with 9,400 solar industry jobs. The cost of installing solar arrays has come down in recent years, making them more feasible even without incentives.
Although the initial cost of installation has gone down, solar supporters advocate that it is still too early to remove government incentives as a motivating factor.

Solar Debate Heats Up As Massachusetts Raises Net Metering Cap

The Massachusetts Senate convened last week and responded to on-going pressure by solar supporters with a vote to raise the solar power net metering cap. Net metering, part of the incentives offered to consumers to encourage clean energy development, allows utility users to sell their excess energy back to the grid. The cap represents a percentage of the peak energy usage and limits the amount of energy that solar power users can amass and sell back. Utility companies have argued against attempts to raise the limit, on the basis that consumers without solar power end up paying the difference. The decision to raise the cap was made to help facilitate the state’s goal of developing 1,600 megawatts of solar power by 2020.

The solar energy stipulation was a component of an expansive climate change preparedness bill, sponsored by Senator Benjamin Downing, who believes that the passage of the bill would approximately double the cap. The current cap limits net metering to 4% of a utility’s peak load for private consumers and 5% for public consumers with no limit on residential.

“There’s been a lot of discussion in the theoretical, but not enough in the actual, and the hope is that this is something concrete for people to react to, and I would hope that if the House or if the administration has a different way of going about this that they would put it on paper and we can get to what is our broadly shared goal,” Downing commented to reporters. The bill, which advocates the development of a plan for reacting to the potentially damaging effects of climate change and cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions, is headed to the House of Representatives. Its prospects remain unclear.

Regional utility companies have proposed that Massachusetts legislators support the imposition of a minimum fee on all electrical bills to include customers who generate most or all of their own energy in the cost of maintaining the electrical grid. If the bill is passed, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities would have the authority to disperse the costs associated with additional solar energy generated to other providers and service regions, thus relieving any single utility of the burden of the overall expenditures. The legislation would also shrink the gaps between service areas.

Currently, the cap has already been reached by National Grid, with Eversource close behind. According to Downing, the lines drawn between service territories are fairly arbitrary, and solar development in one county has the ability to benefit nearby towns covered under other service zones. Since the net cap was met this spring, green energy advocates have warned that enthusiasm and available solar projects may begin to disappear, putting Massachusetts at risk for losing its leadership position in the solar industry.

Since solar production began in 2007 under Governor Duval Patrick, the state has added 860 megawatts of solar energy to the power grid. With the end goal of 1,600 megawatts still looming, the solar community has been advocating for a lift to the net metering cap. Although unrestricted residential projects continue to move forward, larger projects for private and public properties have been put on hold. Janet Besser, vice president of the New England Clean Energy Center, has stated that while the sudden increase in solar power was not entirely expected, it is a good sign for the future, and her organization will work diligently to convince House lawmakers they would be prudent to encourage solar power expansion in the state by lifting the cap.

US Oil Fracking: Friend or Foe?

At least two decades of market uncertainty have kept Americans worried about the future of production costs and world market dominance. Fracking in the American Plains and middle regions have influenced a huge transition from complete reliance on near-Asian production, to the re-emergence of US-based goods and services.

The boom in the Dakotas and other fracking regions has reduced the gap between costs of production between the US and countries like China to a paltry 5%. This means, from the popularity of new domestic oil production, that it is absolutely viable for companies to stay in America rather than export production elsewhere. Fracking has been good for technical- and labor-intensive jobs in the field, but it has been meeting significant resistance from state officials concerned about the health of their lands and their constituents—New York has banned fracking in the state because of its potential health risks.

US Oil Fracking Is Our Foe

Fracking has been the source of some controversy. Its supporters champion its financial benefits, while its critics emphasize its environmental and economic hazards. For example, in early June, roughly 3 million gallons of the potentially toxic saltwater produced in fracking pipelines leaked into a North Dakota creek that flows into the Missouri River. Also, Kansas, Ohio, and Texas have all reported that they are experiencing many small earthquakes that rated approximately three on the Richter scale. There is substantial evidence that these quakes are in fact related to fracking.

There are also economic costs to consider, in addition to the problem of the “bust” following the “boom,” which North Dakota is now learning. While North Dakota has experienced a population boom, the development of the infrastructure has not kept up and officials are looking into “surge funding” to help pay for the cost of the expanding infrastructure—in one case, up to $1 billion. That funding is already in jeopardy because the taxes paid by energy companies are declining.

US Oil Fracking Is Our Friend

There is however, tremendous hope for American fracking. A glut of capable and skilled workers is available and waiting to make new US oil fracking wells produce oil like no other wells in the world. According to many reputable sources, the US markets are inclined toward supporting companies that use domestic supplies rather than imported oil sources. It is a magical market relationship that could spark a revolution if the right economic conditions fall into place. Whether the naysayers want to believe it or not, American fracking is an economic giant that could wipe out many modern economic concerns.

Statistics show that thousands of people are flooding to regions with fracking companies and the jobs they promise. Though many of the jobs are being put on hold because of temporary adjustments to international oil–trading indicators, the jobs have not been eliminated. With the foresight of leaders in the domestic oil futures market, US oil fracking dominance could outpace the production in other countries, put tens of thousands of Americans to work, and entice a revolution in domestic manufacturing.

Opposing Foreign Forces in Domestic Oil

Unfortunately, there are a number of reasons the American oil boom is being countered by market forces. Worldwide oil prices are in free fall. Fracking enterprises are creating the perfect conditions for the US as a whole to pull back reliance on foreign oil sources and look to the wells in its own backyard.
The highest echelons of market expertise are indicating that oil-producing nations sense a slowing of economies all over the world. This is even true in the United States. No matter how much cheap, new oil is discovered and put on the market, the lack of an industry to buy it will mean that prices will sink.

Does Massachusetts Need a New Pipeline?

Last year, plans from a Houston energy company to introduce a new natural gas pipeline in New England sparked fierce debate, and the conversation is ongoing. Kinder Morgan, introduced The Northeast Energy Direct Project, which is a proposal to build a pipeline that would connect Massachusetts to abundant natural gas sources in Pennsylvania shale fields. However, the plan has met with significant resistance from local communities.

The initial proposal had the pipeline entering Massachusetts in Richmond at the border with New York. The pipeline would then skirt the upper western edge of MA and end in Dracut. Local residents of the towns that would be affected were quick to fight the idea of subjecting their communities to the construction and potential danger for explosions. In the face of such intense opposition, Kinder Morgan has since replotted the course of the pipeline. It now veers north into New Hampshire before coming to an end in Dracut.

Although the pipeline now bypasses many Massachusetts communities, it still faces avid disapproval from locals.

Massachusetts uses natural gas to heat about half the homes in the state, with two-thirds of the state’s electricity also being fed by natural gas. The share is only expected to increase as dilapidated coal plants shut down. Last year, two of MA’s coal plants ceased to function with a third expected to die out in 2017.

In a state where hard winters are a commonality, this is a disturbing trend. Gordon van Welie, head of ISO New England, the region’s power grid operator, said the region is already running out of available pipeline capacity to provide power during times of high demand. This has created issues such as shortages and spikes in wholesale prices of natural gas.

The volatile fluctuation in heating costs can cause havoc for residents and businesses, not to mention chilly living conditions. Without a steady estimate of fuel costs, business owners have a hard time budgeting and allocating funds to shipping and wholesale costs. According to the Beacon Hill Institute, the introduction of the new pipeline would save small businesses $1,238 annually. Industrial businesses would save an $25,415 annually.

Opponents of the pipeline believe that introducing another source of fossil fuels to the state is not the answer. Shanna Cleveland, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said the region should pursue energy efficient practices more aggressively and find ways to keep the demand for natural gas steady. A study conducted by Black & Veatch has shown that another pipeline would be unnecessary if renewable power and energy efficiency can keep natural gas demand flat.


Solar Power Finally Gets Its Time In the Sun

Solar power is on the rise and threatening to unseat coal and nuclear power as the primary source of our energy. While the technology to harvest energy from our nearest star is nothing new, advances in efficient collection and storage have positioned solar power to take its place as a major power supplier over the next 30 years.

Advocates of solar power recently called on officials to lift the caps on solar energy production, which has created a major deterrent for companies considering investing in the switch to solar, or even producing compatible equipment.  While opposition has been expressed, perhaps most obviously from existing utility providers, Massachusetts administrators are taking a measured approach to address the solar issue in a balanced manner with a focus on long-term planning.

This type of resistance in the US may explain why it’s trailing behind Germany, China, Italy, and Japan in solar power installations, however, the US is expected to increase its solar installations significantly over the next few years. It will be interesting to see if the anticipated growth in the US  is met in light of the strong opposition from utility companies trying to protect their bottom line.

Experts now suggest solar power could provide up to 10 percent of our global energy within the next decade. Already accounting for 1 percent of global energy production, solar is quickly gaining popularity as costs decline and access to photovoltaic equipment and infrastructure increases.

Capacity for solar production is expected to multiply rapidly and is predicted to offer up to 3k gigawatts of clean, renewable, usable energy. According to a new study by UBS, the convergence of increased energy demands, more efficient power storage, and affordable solar solutions have set the stage for solar power to become a viable energy source for home use. While utility companies will still be an important player in managing power storage and use as the transition progresses.

The UBS study suggests dramatic decreases in battery cost, up to 50 percent by 2020. Combined with the increased popularity of battery-powered cars and homes, the picture this analysis paints is clear: solar power has finally found its time to shine.

Solar Energy Industry: Lift of Net Metering Caps

Stalwarts and leaders of solar energy industry gathered on Tuesday to call for the lifting of the caps on solar production, which has been a major reason for impeding projects on the development of the solar power industry in the Bay State. This cap has been deterring some major companies to invest their money in solar energy projects and has also put many of the current projects on hold in 171 cities and towns within National Grid’s service area.

“It’s not like a future problem, it’s a right now problem,” said Director of Policy and New Markets, Hannah Masterjohn at the Clean Energy Collective.

A new policy introduced as Net Metering allows electricity customers to offset their bills by receiving the retail rate for the energy produced in excess by solar panels. Residential projects under 25 kilowatts can benefit from this new policy, even though large scale government-owned and private projects are controlled and limited by caps.

The solar production cap is becoming a serious problem for customers who are limited in the steps they can take to reduce their energy costs. Currently, the Baker Administration is looking to find long-term solutions rather than quick solutions to solve this problem. The administration opposes short-term lifts of the net metering caps without a clear long-term focus on promoting clean energy and lowering costs for ratepayers.

Katie Rever, director of state affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association, has been trying to convince lawmakers to consider both the lifting of the net metering cap and implementing a long-term fix to resolve the problem.

Department of Public Utilities also opposes the lift of the net metering caps arguing that it would result in higher bills for the customers without solar panels. For the last few years, Department of Public Utilities have floated the idea of charging a minimum bill from all customers regardless of whether they produce their own electricity or not. It was expected to be charged as a payment to cover the expense of maintaining electricity service and other infrastructure.

“There’s only one wallet in the room, and that’s the customer,” said O’Connor who co-chaired the 17 member task force with Burgess.

Head of PowerOptions, an energy-buying consortium, affirmed that renewable energy and energy efficiency have seen growth recently, yet it has not benefitted the customers who are still paying high prices for gas and electricity.

New England States Explore Energy Alternatives

Energy is expensive everywhere. However, while it may not be widely known elsewhere around the country, it is certainly no secret to those of us living here in Massachusetts that the commonwealth ranks as one of the most expensive when it comes to energy costs. With this in mind, state legislators and energy companies are making a concentrated effort to procure alternate sources of energy to augment current supply.

Officials from the state’s utilities and energy boards hope to source renewable energy from northern regions of the U.S. and Canada while simultaneously opening channels of less expensive natural gas via pipelines from both southern and western areas.

As part of this “diversified” solution, supplies of Canadian hydroelectric power already being generated will be imported while northern New England continues to develop wind farms on a mass scale.

National Grid, a provider of both gas and electric services in the Commonwealth, issued statements saying that both energy sources should be approved. Marcy Reed, the president of National Grid Massachusetts recently stated: “We say we need both pipelines.” National Grid normally “stockpiles” imported liquefied natural gas that is shipped in through port facilities. However, the gas was traded on a global market last year, and New England was the highest global bidder for those natural gas supplies. According to various sources, during the last three winters since 2011-2012, New England paid $1.6 billion to $3.8 billion higher wholesale electricity costs than has been typical.

The Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy is getting ready to hear from clean energy industry officials and those representing energy derivatives from power plants.  Committee Co-Chairman Sen. Benjamin Downing, pointed out that utility companies believe a lack of capacity in gas pipelines is the main culprit behind rate hikes during recent winter months and say there is an urgent need for natural gas flowing into the state from external sources.

According to Matthew Beaton, the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, other energy experts are saying the scarcity of natural gas is a “regional affair” and governors from several New England states are convening soon to discuss regional energy policies.

Massachusetts a Leader in LEED-certified Construction

For the third consecutive year, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts ranks among the U.S. Green Building Council‘s Top 10 in the US.

The rankings consider sustainable building design, construction, restoration and rehabilitation and, in terms of square feet per capita, Massachusetts is fifth-best in the country for projects that adhere to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, adding 99 LEED-certified projects last year.

The top four states, from bottom to top, are: Virginia, Maryland, Colorado, and Illinois.

Matthew Beaton, the state’s Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary, said that the ranking was an endorsement of Massachusetts’s requirement that all new construction and major renovations meet the state’s LEED Plus green building standard. “Clean energy is yielding significant economic benefits with 10.5 percent job growth in the last year and 47 percent growth since 2010,” said Beaton.

The standard demands that energy performance for the new or renovated building be at least 20 percent better than the state’s building energy code, that the outdoor water consumption must be reduced by at least 50 percent, and that the indoor water consumption be reduced by at least 20 percent. In addition, principles of smart growth and smart energy must be promoted.

Presently, there are 37 LEED-certified buildings in the state, with 70 percent of them certified either gold or platinum.

Beaton said in a statement, “This recognition is another example of Massachusetts’ commitment to strengthening our economy, shaping our energy future and protecting our environment through clean jobs and technology.”

The numbers bear those comments out, with almost 6,000 clean energy-related businesses in Massachusetts, employing a total of over 88,000 workers.

Beaton also pointed out that Massachusetts was again – for the fourth consecutive year – named by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy as the top state in the country in energy efficiency.

Snow Throws Wet Blanket on Economy

Starting in late January, Massachusetts has been battered by major snowstorms that have blocked roads, buried parking spaces, and caused widespread power outages. MBTA service has been limited, and even shut down in places. Snow and ice continues to block roads, keeping people away from shops and restaurants and impeding industrial and agricultural operations.

According to Christopher Geehern of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, employees are having trouble getting to work, and companies are having difficulties distributing their products. Industrial businesses are also spending a lot of time on snow removal.

Here are some other ways the snow is impacting the economy.

The Mystic Generating Station, an eight unit oil and natural gas power facility on the Mystic River across from Charlestown, lowered output to keep snow and ice in the river from making the plant malfunction. Workers also shoveled the flat roofs on the facility constantly. Kevin Thornton, a spokesman for the plant’s owner Exelon, said that the plant put workers in a hotel and provided food to make sure that they could get to work despite the snow. The plant has about 100 workers and the ability to power roughly two million homes. “The biggest costs have been snow removal,” Thornton said.

Insurance broker Marsh & McLennan in Worcester is seeing more claims for ice dams on roofs that have caused leaking and collapses. Jerry Alderman, president of property and casualty in New England, expects an increase in auto claims from snow and ice as well. Snow removal services are stretched very thin.

Economist Michael Goodman said that all the bad weather in January and February could cost the state billions of dollars while, according to a study by IHS Global Insight, a one day shutdown due to snow in Massachusetts would cost the state’s economy about $265 million.