Director of Policy at Lincoln-based Mass Audubon; Shirley resident
The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources recently revised its financial incentives for solar arrays to reduce the loss of forests, rare species habitats, and other sensitive lands. The incentives, with some exceptions, will no longer be provided for large projects built in those areas. This was a smart decision, and more still needs to be done.
Solar power must be rapidly accelerated. We are running out of time to transition to clean, renewable energy and avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Rising seas, increased temperatures, more frequent droughts, and storms of greater intensity are already impacting people and nature in Massachusetts and globally.
Yet our natural land is also critical to fighting climate change, providing valuable services including carbon storage, water supplies, locally-produced food, shade, and habitat for fish and other wildlife. The beauty of nature and opportunities for outdoor recreation are essential to our health and quality of life.
One-quarter of all new development in recent years in Massachusetts – 6,000 acres – has been conversion of natural lands to solar arrays. These two climate change solutions need not conflict. We can have solar power and protect our precious forests, farmlands, and wetlands. Let’s get solar off the ground, both figuratively, by growing the solar industry, and literally, by installing it mostly within the more than one-fifth of Massachusetts already developed – on rooftops, parking lots, and other altered sites. New Jersey and Rhode Island have plans to meet their solar goals this way, and Massachusetts can, too.
Placing solar close to where power is needed is efficient and contributes to the reliability of our energy system as we green the grid. Building large generating facilities in rural areas requires expensive improvements to the electric grid.
The proliferation of large solar projects is creating conflicts within rural communities ill-equipped to update their plans and zoning, and undermining public support for renewable energy. Forcing electric ratepayers — who fund the incentives — to pay for clear-cutting forests and converting residential districts and farmland into industrial power plants is not economically, socially, or environmentally sustainable. We can and must do better, and these regulations take us in the right direction.
Vice President of Policy and Strategy for Borrego Solar Systems, whose East Coast headquarters is in Lowell
It’s difficult business developing solar in Massachusetts. In our experience, the state has one of the toughest permitting environments in the country, with both local and state agencies scrutinizing every aspect of these projects. State leaders have set strong climate targets, most recently a goal of zero net emissions by 2050. But when it comes to solar, the state’s current policy misses the forest for the trees.
Reducing emissions to near zero by 2050 is a huge task. The Brattle Group estimates New England needs to install as much as 7 gigawatts of clean generation each year to stay on track with its regionwide climate goals — as much as eight times more than we currently install. Much of that generation could come from other clean energy, but Brattle estimates we’ll need 107 GW of solar to reach these targets.
Where is all that solar going to come from? Currently, the answer is unclear. We calculate that under the new state policy adopted in July, 40 percent of Massachusetts is now excluded from the crucial state incentive program that enables solar developers to secure financing. When combined with already-unavailable land, nearly 90 percent of the state is now virtually undevelopable, based on calculations by my solar company and the Coalition for Community Solar Access. That’s a devastating blow for the industry and its workers. But the new policy is even more troubling because of how it will set back our climate goals.
Optimistic estimates conclude that, at most, 14 GW of solar could be placed on New England’s rooftops and contaminated areas. Even if we could reach that level — and that’s a big if — we’ll still need to find ways to deploy another 93 GW of solar to meet our goals. If we’re serious about decarbonizing our economy, we will need more ground-mounted solar, not less.
Thankfully, solar can be deployed in ways that create new habitat for pollinators and wildlife. With thoughtful siting and good development practices, we don’t have to choose between protecting our climate and protecting open space. But bending the curve on climate change requires far more nuance — and more ambition — than the state’s new solar rules allow.
As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.