Mass. Green Energy Companies Eye Other States' Stimulus

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Standing in front of an array of solar panels at a Nevada Air Force base on Wednesday, President Obama praised the role he says the economic stimulus will play in developing alternative energies.

"The nation that leads the world in creating new sources of clean energy will be the nation that leads the 21st-century global economy," Obama said. "That’s the nation I want America to be and that’s the nation you want America to be."

The stimulus package includes $70 billion for energy-related programs. Some of that will go to the Commonwealth and local governments here. But Massachusetts’ growing green-energy sector is also looking to get some of the dollars earmarked for other states.

Not far off Route 128 in Newton is the headquarters of a booming wind energy company. In just five years, First Wind has gone from six employees to 170. Paul Gaynor is the CEO of First Wind. He says his finance department has been a "hubbub" of activity ever since the collapse of the financial markets.

That’s because financing has dried up for the wind energy projects that Gaynor’s company designs and develops. They cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The company has had to cancel or postpone some projects. Gaynor hopes the federal stimulus package will turn things around, because it includes loan guarantees for green energy.

"From our perspective it’s going to be a huge contributor to our funding sources over the next couple years," he says. "Virtually every project in our portfolio is a candidate for the stimulus monies."

Stimulus monies won’t be the dealmaker for Ameresco that it is for First Wind. But the stimulus will still bring the Framingham energy efficiency company more business.

"Maybe 5 percent, 6 percent," says David Anderson, the executive vice-president. Ameresco helps companies and government entities retool their facilities to save energy. They use those savings over time to fund the upgrade. That’s called a payback.

Anderson says federal stimulus money won’t bring in any new projects. But he says Ameresco’s potential customers around the country will probably use stimulus dollars to make more and bigger upgrades.

"For example, window replacements, roof replacements," Anderson says. "There is an energy component, but it’s very small. So the payback on a financial basis is pretty long. But the stimulus dollars can help buy that down and make it fit in a comprehensive package that wouldn’t have fit otherwise."

At a conference in Boston last week, green-energy entrepreneurs attended a session on how to tap federal stimulus money. Many Massachusetts companies will not get their hands on any stimulus dollars, according to the head of the New England Clean Energy Council. But Nick d’Arbeloff says that’s not necessarily bad.

"The stimulus bill is akin to declaring a gold rush," he says. "And as with the gold rush, there wasn’t that much gold, not that many people got rich off the gold. But it sure as heck led a lot of people to move West.

"And in large part I think that’s exactly what the stimulus bill can do. It can catalyze lots of investors, lots of entrepreneurs, lots of established companies that aren’t in energy to move into energy as they seek to capitalize on these available government dollars."

But those dollars – whether they head straight to Massachusetts or indirectly to Commonwealth companies doing business for other states – they only do what they’re supposed to do when the money actually flows. And so far, says First Wind CEO Paul Gaynor, hardly any has. "The stimulus bill’s now law. But they really have to get the money out the door," he says.

With projects and jobs on the line, he says the Massachusetts clean energy sector can’t wait forever.

This program aired on May 28, 2009.

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Curt Nickisch Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.



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