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Olver, MoCA want $7M solar panels

The key to proceed the regeneration of cultural building is not only on the aspect of form, but also on the environmental friendly design.
For example, renewable energy is part of an economic development strategy, as well as the traditional economic policy tools.

Article Published: Friday, July 23, 2004 – 9:59:49 AM EST
Olver, MoCA want $7M solar panels
By Karen Gardner
North Adams Transcript

NORTH ADAMS — With nearly three-and-a-half acres of roof tops ready to harvest sunlight for use as energy, a $7-million solar power project Mass MoCA officials thought had died 18 months ago may yet turn the museum green.

Were Mass MoCA to build solar panels as a source of renewable energy, it could provide the museum with about half of the energy it needs to light and cool its buildings.

Last year, Mass MoCA’s electric bill was “well over $250,000,” said Joseph Thompson, museum director. “It just keeps going up and up and up.”

Mass MoCA’s electric bill is taking up more and more of the museum’s budget as energy prices escalate, Thompson said.

Enter U.S. Rep. John W. Olver, D-Amherst, who happened to call Thompson several weeks ago. He was interested in several projects, including those involving the arts and renewable energy.

“And a light bulb went off and I said, ‘Well, we’ve got a project that could combine all of that,'” said Thompson.

The only problem is, with a $5 million to $7 million price tag, the solar idea is a very expensive one, and something Mass MoCA doesn’t have the money for.

Thompson said for the project to happen, significant federal funding would be necessary.

“It’s an idea that I thought was gone, but because of Rep. Olver’s interest in conservation and renewable energy … perhaps this idea comes back alive.”

Olver said Thursday that he has a strong interest increasing the use of renewable energy as part of a national energy policy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and to preserve the environment.

“I am also particularly interested in the idea of renewable energy as a potential growth industry for the Northern Tier region of Massachusetts,” said Olver.

“Placing solar panels on some of Mass MoCA’s buildings is an intriguing idea. Not only could such a project reduce energy costs for the museum, it has the potential to give the region a major presence in solar energy technology development and could serve as an educational tool for area colleges and schools,” he added.

But, while some federal funding might be possible, Olver said it is “far too early to assess how possible at this point.”

Olver spokeswoman Nicole LeTourneau said the congressman is awaiting a formal project proposal, and the earliest he could secure funding for it would be next July 1, as part of the federal budget for fiscal year 2006.

Thompson said Mass MoCA is working on the proposal, which he expects to be completed by the end of the summer.

Renewable energy is part of an economic development strategy Olver is researching with about 40 Western Massachusetts communities in mind. A draft report on strategic investment initiatives for the “Northern Tier,” discussed last week at a conference hosted by Olver, states that a solar energy system at Mass MoCA “… could generate a megawatt of electricity and would be one of the largest single installations in the state.

“This project has the potential to give the region a major presence in photo-voltaic development in the Northeast and possibly nationally as well, establishing Mass MoCA as an arts/eco-industrial site,” according to the report.

Thompson noted that three of the nation’s largest manufacturers of solar panels are based in Massachusetts.

“So that’s also something that we’d be promoting as a strength of the state,” said Thompson.

There also would be a large public education component to the project. Ideas include a large dial being placed in the museum lobby, to show if the sun was making more energy than was being used. The first roof to get solar panels would be Building 12, which boasts the “MASS MoCA” sign.

“Our visitors are instinctively aware of the energy challenge here. Our comment book is always full of people who come through and they see these are old buildings.”

One of the first things people ask once they see Mass MoCA’s old, drafty, 19th-century buildings is, “How in the world do you heat and light this place? It must be difficult,” said Thompson. “And it is.”

“Our audience is interested in new ideas, environmentally aware, interested in conservation,” Thompson said. “They see these old buildings, and if they could see a demonstration project, showing how even in New England solar panels can provide significant amounts of use, even in a place like this, which is a hard one to light, to provide electricity for, that they would see the long-term value in this.”

Although the museum had approached the Renewable Energy Trust 18 months ago for help with making the idea a reality, like Mass MoCA, that group could not afford the millions of dollars necessary for the project.

Created by the Massachusetts Legislature in 1998, the trust aims to generate economic and environmental benefits for the state by pioneering and promoting the successful commercialization of renewable energy technologies.

Should federal funds become available for the project, Thompson hopes the Renewable Energy Trust would participate in some way. The two organizations already collaborate on numerous education programs, including the current “Windfarm” exhibition at Kidspace.

“It would make so much sense, and it’s just one of those things you know in your heart of hearts, in five or 10 years, when electricity gets more and more expensive, it’s going to make more sense then,” he said.