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The MBTA as renewable energy pioneer

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  April 26, 2013 12:45 PM

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Here’s an idea: If all 138 parking lots owned by the MBTA were covered with canopies layered with solar panels, could we help the environment and save money at the same time? Well, no.

A trio of researchers, including two from Boston University, worked through that thought experiment in a study published in March. They calculated that such a large network of solar panels would be capable of meeting nearly 14 percent of the total electricity demand in Massachusetts while sparing the atmosphere 54 tonnes of carbon dioxide. The photovoltaic canopies would also reduce something known as the urban heat island effect, by providing shade for nearly three million square meters of heat absorbing blacktop.

But here’s the bad news: The project would cost $1.46 billion to implement and, thanks to ongoing maintenance costs, almost none of that would end up being recouped by electricity revenue. Given that, the Boston University study does less to highlight an innovative energy strategy, and more to dramatize the tremendous economic obstacles to a renewable energy future.

UPDATE. Shortly after posting this I received an email from the MBTA explaining that in fact they are already moving ahead with plans to place solar photovoltaic systems at two sites: Readville Yard 5 in Dedham and Wonderland Garage in Revere. The systems will be built by Gehrlicher Solar America Corporation and will provide the MBTA with an estimated $48,900 in annual revenue.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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