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Saturday, December 2, 2023

Massachusetts and Rhode Island Share Solar-Siting Buffoonery

The "either-or" choice is unacceptable

By Frank Carini / ecoRI News columnist

Some good news for the Ocean State, kind of. Rhode Island isn’t the only southern New England state bungling the siting of ground-mounted solar arrays. 

A recent report determined Massachusetts’ existing solar-siting policies are counterproductive, haphazard, and need to be revised.

There’s good news for the Bay State, though. Rhode Island is still doing a lousier job when it comes to managing solar development.

A rapid transition to cleaner electric power is imperative for meeting Massachusetts’ commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, according to the Growing Solar, Protecting Nature report released last month.

But, like in Rhode Island, much of Massachusetts’ renewable energy development has been shortsighted.

“Solar energy in all its forms — rooftops, canopies, and ground-mount systems — must play a major role in this transition,” according to the report co-authored by Mass Audubon and Harvard Forest. “The absolute urgency of the climate crisis, however, does not justify sacrificing our natural and working lands to make way for ground-mount solar. We can have our forests, working lands, and solar, too.”

The lead to the Oct. 2 press release announcing the report’s publication read: “The current siting of large, ground-mount solar development poses a clear threat to vital forests and farmlands in Massachusetts. But developing more solar energy to meet clean energy goals doesn’t have to come at the expense of these critical habitats.”

The comprehensive report noted that by shifting from utility-scale ground-mounted solar arrays on open space to solar panels on rooftops, over parking lots, and on already-developed lands, Massachusetts could meet its goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 while simultaneously protecting forests and farmlands.

Massachusetts has lost more than 5,000 acres of forest and prime farmland to solar projects since 2010, according to the report. During the past 13 years, more than 500 ground-mounted solar projects have been developed, covering some 8,000 acres, of which about 60% had been forested.

In Rhode Island, some 1,100 acres of forest have been cleared during the past six years to make room for ground-mounted solar arrays. That’s when the state, under the leadership of then-Gov. Gina Raimondo, called for more renewable energy. 

The state, however, offered no real plan for how to wisely incorporate solar energy into the landscape. State officials didn’t adequately communicate with municipal officials and municipal officials seldom communicated with each other. The result was a Wild West approach to renewable energy siting.

Some developers bullied their way in, left a trail of open space destruction, and were routinely cited for environmental noncompliance.

A similar scenario is playing out in Massachusetts.

“We need to think not only about how many acres we’re using for solar development, but also which acres are being developed,” said Jonathan Thompson, senior ecologist at Harvard Forest and the report’s co-principal researcher. “Our core forests are incredibly valuable for wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and carbon storage, and we must do everything we can to protect them from further fragmentation.”

The release of the Mass Audubon/Harvard Forest report dovetailed with Gov. Maura Healey’s executive order to create biodiversity goals for Massachusetts.

Among the report’s key points included:

Current solar development trends would cause the loss of 6.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2050 — roughly equivalent to the annual CO₂ emissions of the city of Boston.

By protecting the most valuable natural and working lands from development, Massachusetts could produce enough solar energy to meet our greenhouse gas emission goals, while preserving 76% more forest carbon than our current trajectory would predict and protecting nearly 100% of our remaining essential wildlife habitat and prime farmland.

Massachusetts’ rooftops and parking lots alone could support up to 30 gigawatts of solar, and sites with low impacts to nature and farms could support another 25 gigawatts.

“Before we cut any more trees to build solar, Massachusetts needs to cover every parking lot, rooftop, and capped landfill with solar to protect the precious trees that absorb carbon dioxide and provide habitat to wildlife, as well as desperately needed cooling shade and flood protection,” said Phil Coupe, co-founder of ReVision Energy. 

“Solar canopies on parking lots reduce urban heat, shelter drivers from the elements, and generate zero-emission solar electricity that can power electric vehicles and nearby buildings.”

The report also made several policy recommendations, including:

  • Eliminate state incentives for solar projects on valuable natural and working lands while increasing incentives for solar on rooftops and already-developed lands.
  • Invest in reducing the labor and permitting costs of rooftop and canopy solar projects.
  • Support large-scale landowners in building solar on rooftops and near existing transmission infrastructure.
  • Launch a statewide planning effort to integrate renewable energy and transmission infrastructure into the process of land development.

“One of the goals of this work is to broaden how we think about the costs and benefits of the clean energy transition and what we need to fight climate change,” said Michelle Manion, vice president for policy and advocacy at Mass Audubon and the report’s co-principal researcher. 

“Our results are clear: when we place real value on nature’s contribution to the fight against climate change and protection of biodiversity, the path forward with the lowest costs is the one that solves for both clean energy and nature.”

2020 report found the Ocean State could produce a greater amount of electricity than it consumes by installing solar arrays on more roofs, landfills, brownfields, gravel pits, and parking lots.

When it was released, open space advocates said the report, titled “Solar Siting Opportunities for Rhode Island,” proved that woodlands, meadows, and farmland don’t need to be cleared and covered to meet state renewable energy objectives and climate emission reduction efforts.

Perhaps, before it’s too late, elected officials in both states will stop the unnecessary sacrifice of the natural world to procure more renewable energy. Of course, such a development shift makes too much sense and not enough cents.

Note: To watch a video presentation of the October report, click here.

Frank Carini can be reached at His opinions don’t reflect those of ecoRI News.