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Editorial: Sparks over Solarize Northampton’s choice of a non-local installer

GAZETTE FILE PHOTO
Solar panel installation

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Three people had a tough choice to make the other day in Northampton. Which company should get the nod to install photovoltaic systems through the Solarize Northampton project?

The stakes were high. This would be the city’s chance to leap forward as a solar community. The state’s Clean Energy Center is pushing to increase the amount of electricity generated by the sun and selected Northampton for this year’s round of projects. For rival bidders, the choice was for keeps. Every installation takes a rooftop out of play for a generation. They stood to win easy access to eager customers, as well as tax credits.

One candidate, meantime, urged the selection panel to consider keeping the project local. While it couldn’t match the financials of a national rival, Northeast Solar of Hatfield argued that it reinvests up to 70 percent of the money it receives into the local and state economies, compared to 25 percent for national firms.

As a story on Page One today explains, the local committee chose a national installer, Real Goods Solar. Chris Mason, Northampton’s energy and sustainability officer, confirmed that getting as many solar panels in place as possible drove the decision. Real Goods also offered better incentives, including the possibility that participants could receive a $1,200 signing bonus.

This week, people interested in powering homes and small businesses with solar can turn out to hear from that firm. But they may also encounter guerilla marketing from Northeast Solar. Its president, Gregory Garrison, says he knows in business you win some and lose some. While now at a disadvantage, he plans to press the value of investing in a local company. Garrison believes something is wrong with a system that looks mainly at the number of solar panels placed and does not value broader economic development.

We sympathize with both arguments. Incentives are powerful tools, and cash in hand would help bring more households into the program. But Garrison is right to bemoan the lost potential for more robust investment in our region through Northampton’s partnership with a national company rather than a local one. Garrison’s partners were to be the Hampshire Council of Governments, a public entity, and local investors able to put up about $5 million.

The “buy local” movement is well established in our region and helps guide consumers who want their dollars to work overtime by recirculating locally. In our economic system, people have many choices. In this case, a committee made a choice that limits the ability of customers to choose to support a local business.

The Clean Energy Center is supposed to support both renewable energy and economic development. It was created as part of the Green Jobs Act of 2008 to spur clean energy projects “while creating high-quality jobs and long-term economic growth for the people of Massachusetts.”

If you buy electricity, you are paying for the center’s work. In the case of Solarize Northampton, that investment will profit far-off investors. It could have done more to help the Valley economy.

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