The state’s solar energy industry faces a new challenge, and this one is coming from an unlikely place: the environmental community.
A battle is brewing over the future of rural Massachusetts, as the Baker administration adjusts a set of state incentives created to spur the growth of solar power. Think: open space vs. clean energy.
The proliferation of solar projects in often-remote areas has sparked a backlash that the administration is trying to address as it retools this set of incentives, nicknamed SMART. The changes have been rumored for months, and the state Department of Energy Resources started formally rolling them out in listening sessions during the last several days.
The new SMART rules include many provisions that aren’t particularly controversial, such as new standards encouraging energy storage to be built alongside bigger arrays.
But the way the rules would treat larger, ground-mounted arrays — as opposed to rooftop solar — has many developers upset. The existing rules, in place for about a year, already offer reduced incentives for most larger standalone solar plants. The new rules, expected to take effect later this fall, would reduce the incentives even further by a factor of five. Another change would impose a new limit on the size of solar projects based on farms that are eligible for the incentives, if the electricity would be sold instead of used on-site. Developers say many projects that once made financial sense would fall by the wayside.
The SMART rules were initially put in place to wean the industry off an earlier set of incentives, known as solar renewable energy certificates, that were considered to be generally more costly for ratepayers.
Now the demand for these incentives has run up against caps the state has set on the various utility service territories — specifically in Eversource’s Western Massachusetts territory, and in all of National Grid’s territory except Nantucket. Developers are clamoring for more.
As a result, state energy officials are ready to adopt a relatively modest increase in the caps. They would much rather see new panels go on roofs and parking canopies, or on old industrial properties, than in open fields or forests where trees would need to be cut down. The hope in the Baker administration is that the new version of SMART strikes a better balance between encouraging solar power and preserving open space.
Another important motivation: ensuring solar power is generated closer to population centers, where most of the demand for electricity exists, in part to lessen the pressure on the power lines in rural areas.
An administration spokesman says these rules are meant to build on the state’s national leadership in solar, with nearly 2,500 megawatts of solar power up and running here already, enough for about 6 percent of the state’s electricity demand. These rules, the spokesman says, would further reduce costs, advance energy storage, and promote solar projects that provide the most environmental benefits.
The new rules aren’t final, and the state is accepting input through Sept. 27. But developers aren’t waiting around to voice their concerns. Jeremy McDiarmid, a vice president with trade group NECEC, says the dramatic reduction in incentives for most ground-mounted projects would make it tough for developers to make the finances work. This, he says, could have a chilling effect on the industry, which is already dealing with delays in getting approvals to connect to the power grid. And the Coalition for Community Solar Access, another critic of the change for rural solar, points out that the area in Massachusetts used for solar totals only 4,100 acres, less than one 10th of one percent of the state’s land mass.
Senator Michael Barrett, cochairman of the Legislature’s energy committee, says he has watched this backlash against solar power with dismay. Rooftop solar is great — he has panels on his house in Lexington. But Barrett says the state can’t wean itself off natural gas- and oil-fired power plants without larger, industrial-scale solar projects getting built. He worries that the anti-solar attitudes are driven by NIMBY attitudes among neighbors who simply don’t want to see panels near them.
Environmental groups are speaking out against certain kinds of solar projects, too. E. Heidi Ricci at the Massachusetts Audubon Society says small towns with volunteer boards are ill-equipped to control projects that big solar companies are bringing their way. And Jane Winn of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team says the state should encourage panels to go up on every appropriate big box store and parking lot, before providing incentives for them to be built on forest land.
Moving to a future that runs on clean energy is a noble aspiration. But the Baker administration is finding out that progress toward that future isn’t easy, even when an entire industry has been built up around making it happen.
Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.