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September 10, 2009 : The Boston Globe, Editorial by Robert Culver

Driven by Governor Deval Patrick’s energy policies and fueled by private innovation, Massachusetts is rapidly becoming a national leader in the production of green energy from alternative sources such as wind turbines and solar panels.

But generating sustainable green energy is only half the equation – the supply side. The best minds in Massachusetts in architecture, engineering, and construction are now focusing on demand. In particular, that means creating homes, schools, and office buildings that do not need to use power from the grid or that produce the energy they require from renewable sources.

This month, MassDevelopment challenged four teams of builders to step up with proposals to build 12 units of multi-family housing and eight single-family homes in Devens – and to make those homes close to or completely energy independent. That means that by whatever means the winning team or teams can devise, the homes will use zero net energy. These builders are the first in Massachusetts to be tasked by a statewide development agency to design and build homes that will turn to solar PV, super-insulation, natural light, dramatically efficient appliances, and other innovations – from green roofs to wind turbines to on/off light sensors and radiant floor heating and cooling – to make buildings that provide their own power, use it sparingly, and even create excess power that can be fed back onto the grid. The challenge is particularly daunting given our region’s weather swings from sub-zero winters to the dog days of summer.

The successful team or teams will prove two points at once: that homes that heat and light themselves can be built, and that it can be done at a reasonable cost. These model zero-net energy homes will not be built as high-priced, luxury experiments. Instead, the prospective developers are required to design homes that sell for between $225,000 and $350,000. MassDevelopment wants to prove that sustainable, low-energy construction can be achieved and replicated at an attractive price for the average homeowner.

On their own, the twin goals of affordable housing that neither eats up power nor produces greenhouse emissions make this project worth pursuing. But there is yet another good for this net-zero energy experiment: jobs and economic growth. The architecture, the engineering, the manufactured products, and the processes – all of these areas in the net-zero energy frontier – will advance from experimental to standard over the next decade.

Massachusetts has always been an incubator for technology, from medical devices to biotech to software, and that innovation has created jobs, revenues, and an enviable quality of life. By calling on our best minds to invent the best next way to build for this century, we will position Massachusetts again at the forefront of an emerging economic sector. The development team that finds a novel way to insulate or heat or light a home on this project, and the workers who learn those skills, will find themselves in demand not just here, but across the country.

The project in Devens is the tip of a much larger effort envisioned by the Governor’s Zero Net Energy Task Force. But as each of these efforts goes forward, as our builders create new technologies, our workers learn new skills, and our homes become places that create energy instead of wasting it, Massachusetts takes another step toward a stronger, richer future.

Robert L. Culver is president and CEO of MassDevelopment, the Commonwealth’s finance and development authority.

© Copyright 2009 The Boston Globe.