The dairy barn at The Farm School in Athol is home to about a dozen cows, a few small rooms filled with cold tanks and pasteurizing equipment, and, most days, classes of Boston-area middle schoolers learning about work, farming, and being good environmental stewards.
By now, the barn could also have been home to 88 solar panels to help power the farm’s operations and offer another lesson for visiting students — one about clean energy, and how everyone has to do their part to address the climate crisis.
But The Farm School has run into a hurdle that’s tripping up communities, nonprofits and solar developers across the state: a maxed-out electric grid that’s slowing Massachusetts’ progress on solar energy to a crawl at the very time that it ought to be soaring.
Massachusetts has long been a national leader in solar adoption, thanks in large part to an innovative incentive program that drove early developments. But now, it’s a different narrative: there’s very little room on the electric grid for new projects to connect. Hundreds of projects, totaling more than 400 megawatts, are being held up while the state and utilities determine how much additional electric infrastructure is needed and where, and who should pay for those upgrades.
“Massachusetts is somewhat of a victim of its own success,” said Michael Porcaro, the director of innovative grid solutions at National Grid. “We’re not replacing a circuit breaker or replacing a bit of wire on the road anymore. We’re talking about substation-level investments, things that take a lot of time to develop and accurately scope.”
The delays are adding up. A forecast released earlier this month by the Solar Energy Industries Association and the energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie found Massachusetts falling behind in solar installations, with the state dropping to 27th in the nation from 11th just two years ago. Statewide solar installations fell to 292 megawatts in 2023 — less than half of the state’s all-time high of 622 megawatts in 2021, according to data from Wood Mackenzie.
At the current rate, Massachusetts is on track to hit six gigawatts of installed solar by the end of 2028, far short of Governor Maura Healey’s goal of 10 gigawatts of solar by then, which would be enough power for well over 1 million homes. And, as delays have hit Massachusetts particularly hard, some developers are bringing their projects to other states.
“It’s really concerning because Massachusetts has very ambitious and very important climate targets,” said Valessa Souter-Kline, the northeast regional director of SEIA. “We’d like to clear these logjams and get to that deployment.”
Advocates say it’s particularly worrisome because the offshore wind industry — another cornerstone of Massachusetts’ plan to slash emissions by half by the end of the decade — is also missing deadlines and facing uncertainties due to financial and supply-chain troubles spurred by the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and inflation.
Add it up, the story at The Farm School is emblematic of the situation in the state. After years of planning, fund-raising and applying for grants, the school was working with two different developers to apply for connections to the grid. They were added to what’s known as a group study, a collection of solar applications of a certain size from a specific part of the state.
Those studies take time — in some cases, years — to better understand the demands on the grid, and where upgrades to the electrical infrastructure would be needed. And those fixes don’t come cheap: upgrades to substations could cost as much as $870,000 each, and much more if multiple upgrades are needed at one station, according to data from National Grid.
As the utilities and the state Department of Public Utilities work through the applications, some projects are at risk of losing their financing. At The Farm School, that resulted in a tough choice: downsize the projects so they don’t trigger the group study, or wait it out and hope the study is completed before its grants expire.
To avoid the group study, The Farm School agreed to downsize and alter its installation in order to not overwhelm the grid.
“It’s kind of a morale buster,” said Jeannie Ramey, who sits on the board at The Farm School. “You get into the nuts and bolts of it and you find out that it’s not only not easy, it’s one roadblock after another.”
Ben Underwood, co-CEO of Resonant Energy, one of the solar developers for The Farm School, said it’s particularly frustrating because his firm’s projects aim to bring solar to affordable housing, schools, and nonprofits. He said the group study process can lock up a project for years; Resonant currently has 18 projects affected by delays.
“We see it as a significant equity issue,” Underwood said, because early grid capacity was largely used by larger-scale solar projects that benefited developers, landowners, and investors. “We’re trying to bring those same benefits to affordable housing, to nonprofits, to urban customers, to renters, to low-income communities, and now all these projects are getting stuck.”
All the while, costs are going up and the state’s solar incentive program, SMART, which provides incentives to make the economics of solar feasible, will eventually expire when it runs out of funds.
The good news, however, said Massachusetts Energy Resources Commissioner Elizabeth Mahony, is that a new incentive program is in the works and she expects the state to discuss a new iteration of solar incentives with developers next year.
“These challenges have forced us to take time to make sure that we’re doing this right,” Mahony said. Among the questions she expects Massachusetts to tackle are where to put more panels, how much more grid capacity is needed, and how smart technologies and battery storage can ease the burden on the regional grid.
Earlier this year, Massachusetts released a detailed analysis mapping out viable locations for new installations that showed the state has enough room for a whopping 52 gigawatts of electricity, and even more if locations with some downsides are included.
That fills renewable energy advocates with hope the state can move past this lull, and that the dip in installations in the past two years was only the result of natural growing pains before the next big boom.
In the meantime, solar advocates and developers say they want the DPU to hire more people to address the problems and implement regulatory fixes to cut out some red tape.
“We have projects that submitted interconnection applications in 2018 that still don’t have authorization to interconnect because they got sucked into group studies,” said Jessica Robertson, the New England director of policy and business development for New Leaf Energy.
But she said that to some extent, she understands that the delays are a natural part of creating something new. “A lot of this stuff that we’re doing, there’s no precedent for it,” she said. “Everyone is collectively making it up as we go along.”