Tag Archives: solar

SMART-er Solar Regulations

Update 6/1/2020: Today is the last day to submit comments to the state on better solar siting. You can submit yours using our easy new system here!

What’s better for the planet – a field full of solar panels shining in the sun, or that same number of panels placed over a parking lot? If you said parking lot, you’re right – but it’s complicated.

Responding as a global community to the threat of climate change means increasing and improving access to renewable energy sources. And here in Massachusetts, adding more clean energy to our electricity supply will be key to reaching our net-zero emissions goal by 2050. But it’s important to make sure this expanded access doesn’t come at the expense of our natural lands and resources. That’s why Mass Audubon has been participating in the public review process for Massachusetts solar energy regulations.

Installing solar canopies over existing developed areas, like this parking lot at the Cincinnati Zoo, can expand clean energy access without disturbing natural lands. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons user Quaddell (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Last month, the state officially released updates to the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) Program to double statewide solar capacity. The changes also include carving out part of the program to ensure access for low-income projects.

Siting Matters

From 2012-2017, one-quarter of all land development in Massachusetts was the result of ground-mounted solar arrays – covering about 6,000 acres of what used to be forest or farmland. Expanding solar is crucial for climate action by reducing reliance on fossil fuels, but the siting of these projects makes a difference. For instance, it’s counterproductive to clear-cut forests and convert them to industrial scale solar arrays. Forests are vital to our resiliency from the impacts of climate change, and they help absorb carbon emissions. If current trends continue, up to 150,000 acres of forest could be lost in order to meet the green energy targets.

Mass Audubon and our conservation partners urged the state to direct more SMART financial incentives to projects on rooftops, parking lots, and other areas already altered by development.  This also has the benefit of locating the green energy supply closer to electrical demand – learn more about the benefits of “getting solar off the ground” in our new Losing Ground report

Importantly, the new regulations address some of these recommendations by steering new projects away from irreplaceable natural lands. The state will end eligibility for new, large-scale, private solar projects in the most ecologically sensitive areas – habitat for state-listed rare species, core areas with large blocks of forest, and “Critical Natural Landscapes”. This is good news! However, many projects already planned before the update will still proceed in these areas under the old rules, and certain new publicly sponsored projects can still be located in these sensitive areas.

The town of Scituate decided to turn an old landfill into a solar photovoltaic installation – a good example of siting done right. Photo credit: US EPA courtesy of Google Earth

What comes next?

We look forward to seeing how these changes will improve the solar landscape in Massachusetts. We are also pressing for even more progress, like increasing funding for parking lot canopies, which cost more to build than arrays on open land but have far fewer development impacts. Co-location within farms is another potentially promising approach that may support the business’s financial viability and energy efficiency, while maintaining the land’s agricultural productivity. We are also urging the state to provide more planning assistance to small communities to help direct projects to the right locations. 

Mass Audubon will be offering our feedback on the new updates, and you can too. The Department of Energy Resources is holding a virtual public hearing on Friday, May 22, and is also accepting written public comments through June 1. You can sign up to join the hearing online here, or submit written comments to doer.smart@mass.gov.  Please include “SMART Public Comment” in the subject line. 

It’s exciting to see clean energy taking off in Massachusetts and around the world. With careful planning now, we can ensure solar’s expansion is a success for consumers, the climate, and conservation.

The Beacon Hill Weekly Roundup – May 18, 2020

Magnolia warbler photo credit: Joe Howell

Attend a Mass Audubon Program from Home

Did you know Mass Audubon is offering online programs and classes during COVID-19 related closures? From birding resources to nature photography tips, you can pick up a new skill or learn about our natural world from home.

Climate Central

→ Germany is leading the world toward a green recovery
→ A new national campaign on climate politics launched this month, and includes Massachusetts leaders like John Kerry and Gina McCarthy

Waters Under Watch

The latest Op Ed from our advocacy director takes a closer look at what’s at stake in recent Waters of the US protection rollbacks, which threaten half our country’s wetlands and many of our smaller streams. Learn more about our lawsuit to fight the changes here.

Getting SMART About Solar

Responding as a global community to the threat of climate change means expanding access to renewable energy, but this expansion shouldn’t come at the expense of our natural lands and resources. Learn more about recent state solar updates in our blog post.

Addressing Environmental Injustice in Massachusetts

A new brief from Attorney General Healy’s office highlights the longstanding impacts of environmental injustice on families in Massachusetts. Read their ideas to address these impacts — like investing in clean energy jobs and strengthening regulations to protect vulnerable communities — and our statement of support.

The Beacon Hill Weekly Roundup – April 21, 2020

This Earth Day, Let’s Commit to our Planet’s Health

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our concept of business-as-usual upside down. But when it comes to our environmental safeguards, business-as-usual wasn’t good enough to begin with. It’s time to reassess how stronger environmental policies mean stronger public health policies. Learn more >

Climate Central

→ New research: what racial groups care the most about climate change?
→ To cut emissions, a growing movement to electrify everything.

SMARTer Solar Regulations

Massachusetts has updated its solar energy program to expand capacity, direct projects away from important natural lands, and increase access for low-income projects. Smart solar siting is a Mass Audubon priority – stay tuned for more on what these changes mean.

Sign to Support Nonprofits

Our colleagues at the New England Aquarium have created a petition urging Congress to provide emergency relief funding to U.S. aquariums, zoos, and other nonprofit cultural organizations that have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. You can help: sign today!

States Oppose EPA Rollbacks

Adding to the list of state leaders that have spoken out against environmental rollbacks during this pandemic, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and thirteen other state AGs have urged the EPA to rescind the changes.

The Beacon Hill Weekly Roundup – September 30, 2019

Attorneys General Sue Over Endangered Species

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is co-leading a lawsuit over federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) rollbacks. The ESA is needed more than ever in the face of climate change and habitat loss, and as Mass Audubon notes in the press release, reducing its protections now would be a big mistake.

Climate Central

→ New IPCC report: oceans and ice are absorbing the brunt of climate change
→ Most teens are worried about future climate impacts

Speaking up on Solar Siting

The state is reviewing its Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target program, which provides financial incentives for solar energy projects. We submitted comments expressing strong support for solar energy, but recommending it be located away from ecologically- and socially-valuable land.

State Funding Awarded for Land Protection

The state has awarded $12.9 million in grants to protect land and natural resources, create and restore parks, and increase climate resilience. This funding will help communities conserve 1,191 acres of land.

Massachusetts Should Look to California on Rooftop Solar

By Daniel Brown

The California Energy Commission voted unanimously last week to require rooftop solar on new homes and apartments by 2020, with reasonable exceptions. The commission estimates the new rules will lead to a reduction of 493 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per year. That’s approximately equivalent to taking 50,000 cars off the road or the amount of carbon sequestered by 965,000 acres of healthy forestland. That’s an area about 20% larger than Rhode Island.

There is no way to generate electricity in a more environmentally-friendly way than through rooftop solar installations and they provide a number of financial benefits to the property owner over time. Whereas other good options like wind and community solar often require open space, rooftop solar utilizes already-developed space. That leaves more room for parks, conservation areas, and vital green spaces that keep our towns and cities healthy and resilient to a changing climate.

Rooftop solar on a home in Sonoma, CA. Massachusetts should be following California’s lead in championing this kind of renewable energy generation. Photo: Sonoma County

A common concern about rules requiring solar panels is the potential increase in cost of home ownership, but rooftop solar will add $40 on average to a monthly mortgage payment while giving the same household $80 in savings on energy costs.

Massachusetts can and should lead as California has. Bay Staters have repeatedly demonstrated support for renewable energy initiatives that improve the health of the planet for future generations. Massachusetts is often rated among the most attractive states for adding solar panels to rooftops, and is, by some measures, the best. Massachusetts also has a leg up on California in community solar development, a fact experts often attribute to manageable regulations and progressive incentives that make community-scale projects attractive.

Harnessing the sun, shown here setting over Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, is one of our smartest energy opportunities

But our requirements for rooftop solar on new development are lagging behind. In 2014, California required new houses to have roofs and electrical systems that were compatible with solar panel installations. While some communities in Massachusetts have put in place similar rules, many more should follow suit, and a statewide standard like California’s first step would make smart development easier in the coming years.

To meet Massachusetts’ Global Warming Solutions Act mandate of an 80% carbon emissions reduction by 2050, we will need to pursue aggressive, innovative solutions that benefit everyone in the Commonwealth. Rooftop solar is one strategy we will need to employ. It is the future. It’s better, it’s smarter, and it’s coming whether it’s now or later. The sooner we embrace it, the brighter that future will be.

Daniel Brown is Mass Audubon’s Climate Change Program Coordinator

Latest State Energy Updates

Supporting Green Jobs Legislation

Mass Audubon joined with several of our partner groups last week in signing onto a letter urging Senators to co-sponsor An Act Creating 21st Century Clean Energy Jobs (sponsored by Senator Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton). There are over 100,000 people in Massachusetts working in the clean energy industry today. This legislation will help that number continue to grow, build on our position as the strongest state for energy efficiency, and help us reach the requirements of the Global Warming Solutions Act. Read the letter here.

Offshore wind development will be one source of clean energy jobs along Massachusetts’ south coast.

Making Progress on State’s New Solar Incentive Program

The Department of Energy Resources (DOER) is designing a new solar incentive program to promote cost-effective solar development in Massachusetts. Last week, DOER presented the final program design to stakeholders. The goal of the new program, named the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART), will be to procure 1,600 MW of new solar capacity, as well as to provide 10- or 20-year fixed-price compensation for solar projects, depending on their size. You can see the whole presentation here. Dates for public hearings and the deadline for the written comment period are expected to be announced in March.

Learn more about solar incentives and project siting in our previous blog post.

Rooftop installations are a great way to generate solar energy while avoiding the loss of ecologically-important land areas Photo credit: EEA

Congratulations to Massachusetts’ Newest Green Communities!

DOER also recently announced that an additional 30 Massachusetts cities and towns have been designated as Green Communities. Under the Green Communities Act, cities and towns must meet five criteria to be designated a Green Community and receive funding, including reducing municipal energy consumption by 20 percent over five years. Green Communities are eligible for grants to complete renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.

Over half of Massachusetts municipalities have now been designated, and more than 64% percent of residents live in, a Green Community. Among the newly-designated cities and towns are Chelsea, Fitchburg, Marshfield, and North Adams.

More details available here.

Solar Energy: A Site for Sore Eyes

By Karen Heymann

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.

Shirley solar array from above c/o Google Earth

Shirley solar array adjacent to public wells and cold-water trout streams from above c/o Google Earth

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).

The town of Scituate decided to turn an old landfill into a solar photovoltaic installation - a great example of solar siting done right. Photo credit: US EPA courtesy of Google Earth

The town of Scituate decided to turn an old landfill into a solar photovoltaic installation – a great example of solar siting done right. Photo credit: US EPA courtesy of Google Earth

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[1]. 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[2].

Ground-mounted solar arrays. Photo credit: Jon Styer

Ground-mounted solar arrays. Photo credit: Jon Styer

Factors driving the solar market include the dropping cost of solar panels (by more than 50 % since 2010[3]), federal tax discounts[4], 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[5].

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.

Rooftops installations are a great way to generate solar energy while avoiding the loss of ecologically-important land areas Photo credit: EEA

Rooftop installations are a great way to generate solar energy while avoiding the loss of ecologically-important land areas Photo credit: EEA

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

Footnotes:

[1] http://www.seia.org/state-solar-policy/massachusetts

[2] http://www.seia.org/state-solar-policy/massachusetts

[3] https://emp.lbl.gov/sites/all/files/lbnl-1000917_0.pdf

[4] http://www.seia.org/policy/finance-tax/solar-investment-tax-credit

[5] https://emp.lbl.gov/sites/all/files/lbnl-1000917.pdf