New Analysis Shows Biggest Threat to Massachusetts Forest Loss is Commercial Development – Not Solar Farms

October 4th, 2019

Report provides most in-depth look to date at solar impact on Commonwealth land use, open space


Boston, MA – Today, a coalition of community solar advocates together with Bright Lite Energy released an analysis of land use trends in the Commonwealth to bring a data-driven approach to energy policy. The report, “Shining Light on Massachusetts’ Solar Land Use Trends,” arrives as policymakers weigh proposed changes to Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART), the state’s solar program.

Says Gregory Hering, co-author of the report, “As Massachusetts has strengthened its commitment to renewable energy production and to policies reducing greenhouse gas emissions in recent years, there has been increasing discussion regarding the impact of ground-mounted solar farms on land use. However, that discussion has taken place in the absence of detailed, current and accurate data to guide the discussion. By identifying actual land use trends in the Commonwealth, we hope to inform the discussion of best practices and policies for the future.”

“With this report, our hope is that policymakers will have the tools to quantify the impact of ground-mounted solar development on land use, and ensure that detailed, current and accurate data guide this very important debate as Massachusetts considers making changes to the SMART program,” said Jeff Cramer, Executive Director, Coalition for Community Solar Access. “This is about protecting our collective future. In so doing, we must continue to work together to increase the amount of clean energy our homes and businesses use, and to live up to the commitments we have made to citizens, neighbors, and future generations.”

“Solar and agriculture are natural partners – from a both a farm viability and open space preservation perspective. Income from solar generation can help make a farm more financially sustainable without permanently removing the land from agriculture production,” said Mark Amato, President of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau.

Utilizing geographic information systems (GIS) to locate every solar installation in Massachusetts by manually tracing their fence lines in Google Earth and the most up-to-date US Geological Survey (USGS) data, report authors found that between 2001 and 2016:

  • Only 0.13% of all open space in Massachusetts has been used for solar development
  • Nearly 95% of developed open space — 74,000 out of 78,000 acres — was for commercial, non-solar development such as housing and retail shopping centers, and golf courses.
  • Only 0.08% of total forest area in Massachusetts was converted to solar development.

Key findings:

  1. THE IMPACT OF SOLAR DEVELOPMENT ON MASSACHUSETTS’ LAND HAS BEEN MINIMAL. Of the 3.1 million acres of open space in Massachusetts, only 4,100 acres—0.13%—of all open space—has been used for solar development.
  2. COMMERCIAL DEVELOPMENT PRESENTS A FAR GREATER RISK TO OPEN SPACE THAN SOLAR. Of the 78,000 acres of open space developed between 2001 and 2016, nearly 74,000 acres were for commercial, non-solar development – almost 95% of developed open space.
  3. COMMERCIAL DEVELOPMENT IS RESPONSIBLE FOR NEARLY ALL—96 PERCENT—OF FOREST LOSS. By contrast, only 0.08% of total forest area in Massachusetts was converted to solar development between 2001 and 2016.
  4. WITH PROPER PRACTICES, GROUND-MOUNTED SOLAR HAS A NET POSITIVE IMPACT ON FARMLAND PRESERVATION. Some 92.5% of development on fields, presumably farms, has been from non-solar uses – and our analysis shows little correlation between forest loss and solar development on farms. However, there is evidence that ground-mounted solar may have the effect of preserving open space by enabling farms to avoid selling land to a commercial developer. Further, unlike commercial or housing development, a solar installation does not permanently convert land and can provide a vegetative habitat with proper installation practices for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. Once the solar farm is removed, the land can again be used for agriculture or forest.
  5. MEETING CLEAN ENERGY GOALS WILL REQUIRE MORE SOLAR THAN ROOFTOPS AND BROWNFIELDS CAN PROVIDE. While the need for additional rooftop and brownfields solar is clear, both have significant limitations. Three-quarters of all rooftops in Massachusetts are not suitable for solar panels for various reasons, including shade, structural issues, and lease complications. And while the Commonwealth is a national leader, hosting 40% of all brownfields solar in the country, to date this has produced a total of 258 MW of installed capacity. Further, the Department of Energy Resources (DOER) found in 2016 that most large closed landfills suitable for ground-mounted solar had already been developed.
  6. OPEN SPACE CAN BE PROTECTED WITHOUT COMPROMISING CLEAN ENERGY GOALS. Going forward, the impact of additional solar on open space is expected to remain minimal, both in terms of land used, and in comparison to commercial development. According to our analysis, were all of the additional 800 MW of ground-mounted solar (projected to be built under the current phase 1 of SMART) to be built entirely in forests, solar would still utilize less than one-quarter of one percent—0.23%—of forested land in Massachusetts.

To maximize the significant economic, clean air and climate change benefits of additional solar generation in Massachusetts, policymakers should ensure careful land use as the need for clean energy increases in the years and decades ahead. As such, this report recommends policymakers:

  1. Protect important land resources. While most of the state’s important natural resources are already protected and governed by effective regulations and agencies, policymakers should make necessary improvements to eliminate “loopholes” or insufficiencies in any of these resource protections. Protecting “forest cores” is one example.
  2. Enhance the collection and tracking of data and use cases. The state should track specific data regarding the use of different types of forest lands for solar and other purposes. Further, it should engage stakeholders to form an ongoing Working Group administered by the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) that will assess land use issues on an ongoing basis, and make recommendations to DOER that align with observable and documented findings.
  3. Require “greenfield practices.” DOER should adopt a set of “greenfield practices” to be utilized in the construction of solar projects on previously undeveloped land. Such practices include minimizing grading, protecting soils, banning herbicides, and seeding with pollinator-friendly plant mixes.
  4. Restructure DOER’s “greenfield subtractor.” The state should not increase penalties for solar projects on previously undeveloped land at this time, but instead implement the steps listed above. It could consider replacing the subtractor with a new conservation fund that applicable projects would pay into – on a $/acre impacted basis.
  5. Simplify the “agricultural dual-use adder.” Policymakers should make incentives for agricultural dual-use projects more effective and practical for host farmers and ensure that farmers can continue to host large-scale, ground mounted solar projects to help Massachusetts farms remain economically viable.
  6. Better support home rule and municipalities. Participation in the state’s solar programs should be contingent upon compliance with “conditions” imposed upon projects in permits issued by municipalities. Towns should be able to report non-compliance to DOER, and if not cured, the project’s qualification under the state’s solar program should be forfeited. Further, the state should provide resources to assist municipalities – especially smaller towns – in addressing solar in their local bylaws and permitting processes. Involving the Green Communities program and Regional Planning coordinators is also recommended.