The Town of Shirley is a quintessential small New England community whose residents care for and enjoy its scenic rivers, wooded hillsides, boggy meadows and extensive trail network. News of two new commercial solar energy generating facilities, one on Shirley’s water supply lands, and another on 27 acres of town-owned forest adjacent to public wells and two cold-water trout streams resulted in strong opposition from neighbors and other town residents.
Similar to many small towns across the Commonwealth, development pressures are a growing threat to the town’s open space and rural character. Increasingly frequent reports of large commercial solar facilities appearing on former forest or other ecologically-valuable lands statewide are raising alarm bells not only among residents, but also the conservation community. Tensions are rising as conflicts mount over local revenue and balancing municipal budgets, protection of community character, support for renewable energy, and the industrialization of rural, residentially-zoned land.
We recently communicated our concerns to the Baker Administration, and have submitted comments as part of an ongoing process to gather stakeholder input on the Commonwealth’s solar programs. (Update: you can also see our most recent, joint comments with our partner groups The Trustees and The Nature Conservancy).
Solar Market on Fire
Shimmering rows of solar panels lining the heavily-trafficked highways around Greater Boston are strong evidence that the Commonwealth is well on its way to meeting its goal of 1.6 GW of solar energy by 2020.
In 2015, Massachusetts was ranked 4th nationwide for installed solar capacity, with the solar industry employing over 15,000 people statewide. As of last year, Massachusetts had installed a total of approximately 1200 MW of solar energy, enough to power 191,000 homes. Over the next 5 years, we can expect an additional 2,400 MW, more than triple the amount installed since 2010.
Factors driving the solar market include the dropping cost of solar panels (by more than 50 % since 2010), federal tax discounts, solar renewable energy credits (SRECs), and a state solar zoning exemption, which prevents communities from regulating the placement of solar facilities unless a specific zoning bylaw is in place.
SRECs are a market-based incentive to support residential, commercial, public, and non-profit development of solar photovoltaics. The state-funded SREC program currently awards higher credit values for solar projects on rooftops, parking lots and brownfields, and lower credit values for utility-scale commercial projects larger than 650 kW that use less than 2/3 of their electricity on site. According to a recent report, utility-scale is the largest sector of the solar panel market in the United States.
Raise the Rooftops
It is estimated that Massachusetts has the potential to generate nearly one-half of its power using rooftop solar. That is equivalent to an installed capacity potential of 22.5 GW, far greater than the Commonwealth’s goal of 1.6 GW. And despite its higher cost compared with ground-mounted solar arrays used for utility-scale installations, commercial and residential rooftop solar is gaining popularity. National Grid owns a 1 MW rooftop facility (utilities can own up to 50 MW of solar generation under the 2008 Green Communities Act) on the roof of its Whitinsville warehouse, and residents and businesses are taking advantage of incentives like the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative to install rooftop solar in cities and towns across the state.
Over the coming decades we are likely to see advances in solar and other renewable energy technology that increases energy storage and reduces the amount of land needed for energy infrastructure. Encouraging and incentivizing large ground-mounted solar arrays, which result in the clearing of ecologically and socially valuable land, is short-sighted and does not serve the public interest. In order to move forward, we need to look at increasing the capacity of our built environment to produce the energy we need.
An Important Choice
When we develop forested land we make a choice to trade valuable services provided by trees, such as shade, water retention, and carbon dioxide absorption, for other services like shelter, food, fiber or energy. We lose their ability to filter oxygen, reduce runoff, provide habitat and cycle the nutrients and minerals that support not only forest health, but our health as well. Even construction on “open” land such as capped landfills and agricultural fields has trade-offs for grassland habitat and food production.
Massachusetts is the 3rd most densely populated state in the U.S., with around 5 million acres supporting a population of almost 7 million people, nearly 70% of whom live in and around Greater Boston. If current land-use trends continue, we stand to reverse positive trends in land conservation; over the last decade the Commonwealth has gone from losing on average 40 acres a day to development to only around 13 acres a day, largely due to a temporarily depressed housing market in recent years and strong land conservation goals and funding programs.
Mass Audubon has been a longtime champion for increasing our reliance on solar energy, but the benefits of solar must be carefully weighed against the costs of losing the forests and other open space we have worked so hard to protect, particularly when alternatives are available. Taxpayer dollars should not be used to fund incentives for poorly sited large-scale solar stands, particularly when in direct conflict with the Commonwealth’s established goals, policies and direct funding programs for natural and historic resource protection.
Karen Heymann is Legislative Director