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As woods give way to solar farms, state to issue controversial rules that could harm solar industry

Brian Hagberg said that when he bought his dream home in Hopkinton, one of the attractions was a vast tract of woods nearby. Much of that land is now an array of solar panels.
Brian Hagberg said that when he bought his dream home in Hopkinton, one of the attractions was a vast tract of woods nearby. Much of that land is now an array of solar panels.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

HOPKINTON — When Brian Hagberg and his wife bought their four-bedroom home here more than a decade ago, the main appeal was the dense woods just off their backyard, which they were assured would never be developed. For years, their family used the patch of forest in this suburb west of Boston to hike, sled, walk their dog, and experience wildlife close at hand.

Then two years ago, a developer began clear-cutting the woods, denuding more than a dozen acres of maples, oaks, and other large, mature trees to make way for a solar farm. How, the couple wondered, could a renewable energy project meant to reduce emissions come at the expense of removing so many trees, the planet’s primary means of removing carbon from the atmosphere?

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“I consider myself a conservationist, but this is ridiculous,” said Hagberg, whose home is so close to the 2.9 megawatt solar farm that moonlight reflects off the large array of panels and illuminates the back of his home. “This doesn’t seem like the best way to deal with climate change.”

Massachusetts has been a national leader in solar power and now boasts more of the renewable energy than most other states. But it has come at a cost to forests and woodlands, and environmental advocates — not a group ordinarily prone to voicing doubts about renewable sources — say misguided state incentives have encouraged building solar farms on undeveloped land.

Much of a forest in Brimfield has been transformed into a solar farm.
Much of a forest in Brimfield has been transformed into a solar farm. Mass Audubon

Now, with the coronavirus already causing major job losses and great uncertainty in the solar industry, state officials are planning to issue new rules that will sharply limit where solar farms can be built.

“We need to minimize the loss of these valuable natural assets to all forms of development,” said Heidi Ricci, an author of a Mass Audubon report this year that called for the protection of natural land. “We need this natural land to absorb the rain and clean our water, as storms become more intense from climate change.”

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The report said that solar projects accounted for a quarter of all development of natural lands in Massachusetts between 2012 and 2017 and urged the state to instead encourage solar farms on developed property, such as rooftops and parking lots. Without state action, similar solar projects are likely to claim at least another 150,000 acres of natural lands, the report said.

“We need to increase the capacity of land to store carbon,” Ricci said.

But the Coalition for Community Solar Access said the new rules, which are expected this month, could jeopardize nearly 80 projects, eliminating 1,500 jobs and more than $730 million in investments. Nearly 4,300 solar jobs — about half of the industry’s workforce in Massachusetts — have already been lost because of the coronavirus.

“With these rules, basically 80 percent of my company’s pipeline in the state will be canceled overnight,” said Ilan Gutherz, a vice president at Borrego Solar, a community solar developer.

Massachusetts now has 2,800 megawatts of solar electricity — enough to power nearly 500,000 homes — more than all but seven states in the country, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group. Most sites have been built on formerly wooded areas.

Sean Gallagher, a spokesman for the group, said there’s an increasingly difficult balance between land conservation and renewable energy, especially in a relatively small state like Massachusetts.

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The group encourages developers to build on “low-value” wooded areas, with fewer mature trees that absorb the most carbon, he said. They also encourage them to build on rooftops and parking lots, but such projects produce less power and can be more expensive and harder to connect to the power grid.

“It’s hard to eliminate conflicts all together,” he said. “But solar remains a small part of the pie, in terms of development. It’s important not to blow it out of proportion.”

Environmental advocates said the new state rules are overdue, especially because many communities lack sufficient zoning regulations or paid planning staff to keep developers from building in wooded areas of residential neighborhoods.

“This has become an increasingly contentious issue around the state,” Ricci said. “Most of these facilities are going into smaller communities, which are being inundated with these projects.”

In towns on the east side of the Quabbin Reservoir, where land is relatively cheap, local officials have been “at a loss as to how to proceed with so many proposals and complex issues,” said Cynthia Henshaw, executive director of the East Quabbin Land Trust in Hardwick.

“Our communities have had acres and acres of hillsides cleared and good agricultural soils covered in solar panels, with many, many more proposals still under review,” she said. “That makes a huge impact on which lands can be protected for the future.”

The new rules will reduce incentives for large-scale solar farms on land where rare species live and in areas that could break up ecologically sensitive lands.

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But state officials said they’re working to grandfather in projects already in the works, including those slated for undeveloped land. The state’s previous incentives encouraged developers to build large projects on the cheapest land, which was often in undeveloped, rural areas.

“We wanted to strike a balance with the need for clean energy and our shared goals of environmental protection, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration,” said Kathleen Theoharides, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Solar developers have argued that the state has plenty of land and that it’s not unreasonable for some of it to be devoted to a needed source of clean energy. While trees are a carbon sink, sucking greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, solar farms displace the need for fossil fuels, ultimately reducing emissions.

They also questioned some findings in the Mass Audubon report.

For the state to reach its goal of eliminating net carbon emissions by 2050, there would need to be about 25,000 megawatts of solar power, requiring about 70,000 acres of additional natural land to be developed — less than half of what Mass Audubon projects, said Drew Pierson, a spokesman for Bluewave Solar, a Boston-based company.

“Their numbers are inflated — vastly,” he said. With 3.2 million acres of forested land in Massachusetts, about a third of which is already protected, there’s more than enough land to build additional solar farms, Pierson said.

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So far, he said, about 10,000 acres of the state’s forests have been cleared for solar farms.

Ricci questioned Pierson’s math, saying that more than a million acres of land in Massachusetts has already been developed. She said it’s time for the state to build on already developed lands and closer to where electricity is needed.

In such towns as Hopkinton, where several large-scale solar projects are being considered, the risks to the town’s natural lands aren’t considered overblown — especially by those who would live near them.

As a result, town officials have debated whether to create a special district for solar farms, restricting them to certain parts of town.

“We’re losing too much of our forests,” said Morrie Gasser, president of the Hopkinton Area Land Trust, which protects about 900 acres of town land. “There needs to be some changes.”


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.