NASHOBA PUBLISHING/AMELIA PAK-HARVEY

Steven Strong, president of Solar Design Associates in Harvard, offered a number of solar energy techniques to a small crowd of town officials and interested citizens at a forum on new construction and renewable energy on Thursday.

By Amelia Pak-Harvey

apak-harvey@nashobapub.com

DEVENS -- Renewable energy is here, it's growing and it's actually feasible.

That was the general takeaway from the "green" building experts at a workshop on renewable energy and new construction. The discussion was one of six held by the Montachusett Regional Planning Commission and Northern Middlesex Council of Governments, two planning groups given a grant to plan sites for renewable-energy facilities in the two regions.

Carter Scott of Transformations Inc. discussed net zero energy houses that his company has built in Devens, Townsend, Princeton and elsewhere across the state.

The company did its first zero-energy home in Townsend that ranked at -4 on the Home Energy Rating System index -- meaning the home actually produces an excess amount of energy that it does not need. Net zero energy homes have a score of 0.

Transformations also built net zero energy homes in Devens and other custom homes in Westborough, Stow and Maynard, winning various energy awards from the U.S. Green Building Council, Gov. Deval Patrick's Zero Energy Challenge and more.

Scott highlighted a few tricks of the trade, including super insulation to save on heat energy. Mitsubishi heating units, which hang on the wall, also help with heating in the winter.

"You're basically heating these houses with a couple of hairdryers," Scott said. "One hairdryer upstairs, one hairdryer downstairs."

Though completely energy efficient, the appearance of many of the houses had no remarkable difference from the average home -- except for the back.

Solar panels lined the back roof of many of the houses, sometimes generating more electricity than needed each year.

Jonathan Abe of Blacksmith Solar told the crowd that there is a lot of quality and efficiency in vendors, consultants and equipment for solar power.

He noted the historical trend is about to change, as solar projects of 500 kilowatts or more have begun to dominate the market.

"Probably in 2014, close to 90 percent of solar installed across Massachusetts will be large ground-mounted systems," he said.

Abe outlined a number of financing options, from net metering credit agreements to site leasing. A building owner could lease his rooftop space for a solar project while purchasing power for it.

"There's a lot more financing, in my opinion, than there are good solar projects to go around," he said. "So if you have a good rooftop project, you'll be able to find a financing system that meets your needs."

Solar power is still in its very early stages in Massachusetts, he said.

"This is a great time to be a building owner, just looking at solar -- tons of resources, competitive market, a lot of opportunities to get a really good deal."

Steven Strong, president of Solar Design Associates, went through a number of case studies on how his company made solar buildings work, from residential to municipal.

The company faced a challenge in Seattle, when it had to design a zero net energy building that seemed impossible.

"It was clear the building just could not get there," he said. "There's too much energy demand for the roof space."

Yet the group was able to create an extension of the roof -- made of solar panels -- by passing it off as an awning under city ordinances, he explained.

"There are ample reasons why business as usual is not working," he said. "And we still have a choice. What kind of a future do we want?"

Glenn Eaton, executive director of MRPC, said the workshops have had a pretty good response. Interested citizens and town officials have attended.

"People pretty much have a general idea of the why," he said. "What they're struggling with and looking for information on is how to do it, how to finance it."

The two planning groups will have a report by mid-summer that will make recommendations for renewable-energy sites and possibilities in the two areas. 

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