Tapping into the Market: Local Firms Profit by Taking a Risk, Helping Environment

By Becky W. Evans
Standard-Times Staff Writer

It is said that New Bedford once “lit the world” with whale oil and spermaceti candles procured and produced by the city’s whaling industry, which thrived in the first-half of the 19th century only to collapse in the second half with the discovery of petroleum products.
More than 100 years later, the world’s dependence on oil for energy is being blamed for global warming as well as conflict in the Middle East. Escalating oil prices feed the public’s disillusionment with so-called dirty oil and drive demand for cleaner energy derived from the sun, wind, waves, tides, soybeans and other renewable sources.
By tapping into the growing market for alternative energy sources that emit few, if any, global warming gases, New Bedford officials hope to stimulate the city’s stagnant economy and create much-needed jobs.
“We want to be the key source of alternative energy research and production,” Mayor Scott W. Lang said during a global warming rally this spring at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
With its deep-water port, rail access, cheap housing and skilled labor force, New Bedford has the potential to attract manufacturers of wind turbine parts, solar panels and a variety of other alternative energy products, said Matthew Morrissey, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council.
“The Northeast has massive opportunities for offshore wind,” Mr. Morrissey said. “Turbines and wind blades have to be made somewhere.”
The city appears to have the support of the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick, which is seeking to expand the state’s burgeoning alternative energy sector for the same reasons as New Bedford: economic development and job creation.
“It might actually work in New Bedford €¦ and we want to help with that,” said Ian Bowles, secretary of the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
Massachusetts is home to 556 companies specializing in energy efficiency, renewable energy or clean energy consulting, state officials said. The so-called clean energy technology cluster has created 14,400 jobs and is the second largest in the country, after California, in terms of venture capital investment in the industry, which was $250 million in 2006.
At the inaugural meeting of the state’s Clean Energy Roundtable in June, Gov. Patrick told two dozen executives about his strategy to make Massachusetts a “world center of clean energy technology.” It includes a streamlined permitting process for sites, financial incentives to attract companies and a reformed regulatory environment that supports clean energy.
Since Gov. Patrick took office in January, the administration’s business development and energy and environment officials have met with 50 clean energy companies from inside and outside the state. Their first victory came in April, when Evergreen Solar Inc. of Marlborough announced plans to build its first U.S. manufacturing plant in Westborough.
The state lured Evergreen with $23 million in grants, up to $17.5 million in low-interest loans, and a low-cost, 30-year lease of the state-owned property in Westborough, according to the Associated Press.
The $150 million plant is expected to create up to 375 jobs when it opens next year.
Massachusetts scored big again in June, when the U.S. Department of Energy chose Charlestown to host a $20 million wind-turbine blade-testing facility.
The announcement was a blow to New Bedford, which had lobbied for the facility to be located on the South Terminal waterfront, next to the Shuster Corp. on Hassey Street. The site was ruled out due to dredging requirements and a study showing it lacked space to move the 330-foot long blades.
Mayor Lang says nothing was lost in trying to compete for the facility.
“I think it was an important exercise to show people we can be a real strong city in regard to providing opportunities for alternative fuels or science,” he said. “I am still very enthusiastic.”
He cites two local companies, Ze-Gen and Vectrix, as evidence that an alternative energy cluster is taking shape in New Bedford.
Ze-Gen set up a trash-to-energy test facility at New Bedford Waste Services, LLC on Shawmut Avenue at the suggestion of the state Department of Environmental Protection, which permitted the project. The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, the state’s development agency for renewable energy, awarded $500,000 for the facility. An additional $600,000 investment came from the Massachusetts Technology Development Corp., a venture capital firm.
The biomass company plans to spend the next year testing whether its gasification technology can convert construction and demolition waste, mostly wood, into a synthetic natural gas that would later be combusted to create electricity. The process is expected to emit fewer global warming gases than leaving the waste in a landfill or generating the electricity from fossil fuels.
If the concept proves successful, company president Bill Davis says the next step would be building a full scale plant, most likely in New Bedford.
“We’ve had enormous receptivity on the part of the city, which is creating a cluster around clean technology,” he said. “That kind of commitment from the city makes it a whole lot easier to move quickly, and our objective is to move quickly €¦ There is a great local workforce available to us and relationships have already been built.”
On the opposite side of the city, Vectrix has been designing and testing high-performance electric scooters for the past nine years in the old Berkshire Hathaway mill complex in the South End. The company has 21 employees.
Peter Hughes, vice president of technology for Vectrix, says New Bedford was chosen for the pilot testing facility due to its cheap rent, access to good engineering talent, and proximity to Providence, Boston and Cape Cod. Those same features should continue to draw alternative energy companies to the area, Mr. Hughes said.
The company is opening a scooter manufacturing facility in Poland to be near its target market in Italy, he said. Electric scooters, which don’t pollute the air as much as gas-powered scooters, are in high demand in Europe, but the market has yet to take off in the United States.
Jim Sweeney of Sustainable New Energy, also known as CCI Energy, calls himself an energy consultant and project developer. He opened the New Bedford branch of his Plymouth-based company at the Quest Center on Purchase Street in January 2007, hoping to gain a foothold in SouthCoast’s emerging renewable energy sector. So far, he is involved with turbine projects in Fairhaven and Dartmouth, and has proposed an additional project to power the New Bedford wastewater treatment plant with three turbines.
Mr. Sweeney, who was recently appointed to the mayor’s sustainability task force, is optimistic that alternative energy could bring economic rewards to New Bedford, but to attract more companies the city needs to improve its green image.
“New Bedford has got to be the leader in environmental issues to make people want to set up shop here,” he said.
He suggests the city install “lots of renewable energy” and push the use of biodiesel as an alternative fuel for the fishing fleet.
Commerical fishing fleets contribute to global warming by burning fossils such as marine diesel. The world’s fisheries account for about 1.2 percent of global oil consumption and emit 130 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, according to a 2005 study published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. If ranked as a country, fisheries would share the Netherlands’ position as the 18th most oil consuming nation in the world.
Other items on Mr. Sweeney’s “green wish list” for the city include new building codes that promote energy efficiency as well as bylaws for zoning areas for wind turbines.
Clyde Barrow, executive director of UMass Dartmouth’s Center for Policy Analysis, doesn’t think New Bedford needs to get any greener to attract alternative energy companies, though, he says, it could provide an added incentive.
“One of the things governments can do with new industries is provide an initial market for that project,” Dr. Barrow said. “It becomes a way to nurture and incubate those firms.”
Examples include using wind to power wastewater treatment plants or solar to power schools and other municipal buildings, he said.
To woo Evergreen to Westborough, the state set a goal of increasing installed solar power from 2 megawatts to 250 megawatts within 10 years, according to state officials. It also brokered a partnership between Evergreen and NSTAR to market solar power to electricity customers.
Gestures such as that will help attract additional clean energy companies to Massachusetts, said Warren Leon, who directs the Renewable Energy Trust for the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. “Companies go to states where they feel wanted,” Mr. Leon said. “I think clean energy companies feel wanted in Massachusetts.”
The trust, which is the financial arm of the collaborative, recently made a $300,000 loan to a small start-up company in Fall River. Ocean Renewable Power Company, which is setting up its headquarters at the UMass Dartmouth Advanced Technology and Manufacturing Center in Fall River, will build systems that generate electricity from ocean tidal energy, Mr. Leon said.
He says the company is a good example of the type of alternative energy businesses that will be attracted to Massachusetts. Bigger manufacturing facilities such as Evergreen Solar will be the exception.
“We are seeing a large number of small start-up companies,” he said. “We hope that some of these companies will grow and prosper and that ultimately there will be a large number of jobs.”
Whether those jobs will come to New Bedford is difficult to predict.
“We could extol the virtues of various parts of the state, but ultimately companies have to decide based on their business interests,” he said.
Mr. Morrissey, who heads up the New Bedford Economic Development Council, says New Bedford is well positioned to become a center for alternative energy, but the city isn’t banking on the sector as its only economic driver.
He sees alternative energy as “a spoke on the wheel” along with life sciences, healthcare, biotechnology and marine science.
“New Bedford’s economy must be diversified to sustain the ups and owns,” he said. “In the past, the city was too dependent on one industry. We have to diversify.”
It remains to be seen if New Bedford’s alternative energy sector will grow large enough to light the world again—or at least, SouthCoast.
Contact Becky W. Evans at revans@s-t.com
Published: July 29, 2007

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