New Bedford Builds Reputation with Solar Panels

By KAT FRIEDRICH/ecoRI News contributor

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — The post-industrial cities of the Northeast have plenty of catching up to do. Or at least, that’s the dominant narrative. But this city of nearly 95,000 is working hard to build a new and glowing reputation by capitalizing on renewable-energy opportunities.

“One of my main priorities as mayor is to improve the city’s overall image,” Mayor Jon Mitchell said. “Being seen as progressive on renewable energy and other green initiatives can be a very powerful antidote to the stigma associated with being a post-industrial city.”

After four years of an aggressive municipal renewable-energy initiative, a recent report by Environment Rhode Island entitled “Shining Cities: At the Forefront of America’s Solar Energy Revolution” featured New Bedford as an up-and-coming solar-power leader. The report says only New York City is ahead of New Bedford in installing solar in the Northeast.

“We have stepped forward as the leader in municipal renewable-energy programs,” Mitchell said in a State of the City address. “The city is now purchasing more electricity from solar than any municipality in the commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

In 2013, the state Department of Energy Resources gave New Bedford a “Leading by Example” award in recognition of its strong commitment to renewable energy.

“Every city needs to play its part in reducing carbon emissions, and for us, solar was one of the answers,” Mitchell said. “I do take to heart the idea that to affect climate change we have to act locally.”

New Bedford’s civic leaders see solar power as a way to save the city and its taxpayers money, build the city’s reputation nationally, promote environmental responsibility, teach youth about energy-related careers, reuse contaminated brownfields safely, and create local jobs in a growing industry.

That’s a lot of leverage for New Bedford’s taxpayer dollars. More than 12 megawatts of solar power have already been installed, according to the Shining Cities report.

And New Bedford needs all the leverage it can get. According to the SouthCoast Urban Indicators Project, residents of the Providence/Fall River/New Bedford metro area have a per-capita income of $20,447 — much lower than the $33,966 that is the average in Massachusetts. Also, the area’s cost of living is second only to Boston, when compared with other Massachusetts metro areas.

Building a brighter future for New Bedford depends, in part, on attracting new jobs in growing industries. The solar and wind industries are two industries that local leaders hope can generate economic growth. The Beaumont Solar Co., for example, is giving preference to local job candidates and has hired graduates of New Bedford’s technical high school.

On a contaminated brownfield near two schools, the city has contracted with Con Edison Solutions and BlueWave Capital to build a solar project. This solar installation is intended to be used to help support energy education and encourage students to consider working in the renewable-energy industry.

Project partners also will build a solar farm on top of a Superfund site known as Sullivan’s Ledge. This is an unusual use of a Superfund site, according to Mitchell.

The city also is engaging homeowners in a solar program called New Bedford Energy Now — a program that hires local contractors. The program reportedly provides relatively affordable rates, thanks to a creative financing arrangement in which Real Goods Solar owns both the solar panels and the energy they produce. The company installs the panels for free and then sells the power to homeowners at a discounted rate.

A total of 73 residential solar projects have been installed, with a total savings of $31,000 annually. Mitchell said he is interested in seeing this program expand in the future.