SALEM, Mass. — From his house on the banks of the North River, state Rep. John Keenan can see the sun rise over the stacks of Salem Harbor Station, a coal- and oil-burning power plant once considered to be among the state's worst for pollution.
Keenan, the co-chairman of a legislative committee on energy and utilities, has been a defender of the facility that is the city's top taxpayer and is due to close next year.
Against that backdrop came an interesting development last week on the roof of Keenan's house - solar panels.
Keenan, a 48-year-old Democrat, said the installation of the panels is not a political stunt. It was instead a choice made by his family that reflects his belief in a mix of energy sources.
Keenan said solar panels also make financial sense. With tax credits, rebates, utility savings and something the state calls “solar renewable energy credits,” the Keenans will pay off their nearly $32,000 solar system in five to six years.
The Keenans' 25 panels will produce more energy than they consume, which means they may not pay an electric bill ever again, either.
They are not alone in their enthusiasm. Massachusetts has experienced a virtual explosion of interest in solar energy over the past few years. There are an estimated 10,000 solar installations in the state, most residential, with the majority coming in the past few years.
When the state's Green Communities Act passed in 2007, only 3 megawatts of the state’s energy was produced by solar power. Today the total exceeds 300 megawatts.
That may be minuscule by power standards — Salem Harbor Station, for example, had a capacity of 745 megawatts — but it's enough to power about 300,000 homes.
Solar panels aren’t for everyone. They are best suited for south-facing houses with little shade. While their prices have dropped, the initial investment is not insignificant, and not everyone qualifies for credits and rebates.
But more families are putting up panels. If nothing else, it gets the neighbors peering over fences.
“That’s part of what we’re trying to do,” Keenan said, “is start the discussion.”
Tom Dalton is a reporter for The Salem, Mass., News.