Most Massachusetts residents agree on the urgent need to tackle the climate crisis. But when it comes to the question of solar development, they’re much less aligned. While some believe the state is blazing a trail for renewable energy infrastructure, others worry that the construction of new solar arrays throughout the state is accelerating the destruction of forests and farmland.
Despite its diminutive size and cool climate, Massachusetts ranks eighth in the nation for solar energy capacity. And unlike other leading states like Texas and Arizona, flat, open expanses are hard to come by in New England. As a result, to cash in on the state’s generous renewable energy incentives, some companies clear trees or take over cropland to build massive systems that place panels on the ground in long, compact rows.
In the sixth edition of Mass Audubon’s “Losing Ground” report, published last year, the conservation group estimated that 6,000 acres of solar accounted for about a quarter of the land lost to development in the state between 2012 and 2017. It calculated that if business continued as usual, another 150,000 acres would be developed just to meet the state’s energy goals by 2050. More recently, a team of researchers at Clark University used satellite data and machine learning to map solar development in the state and determined the number of acres cleared is likely already much higher, with about half in places that were formerly forest and about a quarter in former cropland.
Heidi Ricci, Massachusetts Audubon Society’s director of policy and advocacy, says that development peaked in 2016 and has gone down in recent years. However, she adds, “We are still seeing tremendously high rates of conversion on some sensitive lands, including prime farmland in the Connecticut Valley, large blocks of forests in Western Massachusetts, and the globally rare Pine Barrens down in southeastern Massachusetts.”
Ricci’s organization and other conservationists believe the tradeoffs of converting farms and forests—which can also hold carbon and provide various other ecosystem services—to solar are too great and that the state should more clearly incentivize placing solar on already developed sites such as rooftops, parking canopies, and brownfields. Clean-energy proponents say changes that restrict or slow solar development in any way will prolong dependence on fossil fuels, making the climate crisis worse. But a contingent that now has strong state support sees another path as a winning compromise: “dual-use” or “agrivoltaic” systems that allow farmers to continue to use the land beneath raised solar arrays for crops and livestock.
“The big impact that standard solar development is currently having on farmers and farmland is displacement,” said Drew Pierson, head of sustainability at BlueWave Solar, a Boston-based company leading the charge on dual-use development. In contrast, dual-use projects keep the land in farming and provide an additional revenue stream. “We are bringing financing and infrastructure to the table to hopefully decrease the production cost for farmers, so it’s easier for them to farm,” he said, adding that he believes advances in technology and design will make dual-use more efficient for both farmers and energy production in the near future.
NREL researchers Jordan Macknick and Paul Torcelini, and UMass professor Stephen Herbert survey the test plot at the UMass Crop Animal Research and Education Center in South Deerfield MA. (Photo CC-licensed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory)
How all of this shakes out in Massachusetts could set the stage for how other states negotiate conflicts between forest and farmland conservationists and clean-energy proponents that are sure to arise as the climate crisis accelerates and the Biden administration acts to build up renewable infrastructure quickly.
Connecticut, for example, passed a new law in 2017 to make it harder for companies to build utility-scale solar projects on farmland after several controversial developments, while North Carolina, which ranks third nationally in solar production, does not disincentivize solar development on farmland at all.
Panels in the Pine Barrens
Development currently occurring in the Southeast corner of Massachusetts near Cape Cod illustrates why conservations are concerned.
In March, developer Borrego Solar Systems submitted an environmental notification form to the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs detailing a cluster of three solar projects currently in development on sites in Wareham owned by AD Makepeace, the world’s largest cranberry grower and the state’s largest property owner. While AD Makepeace is an agricultural company, these projects are ground-mounted solar, not dual-use systems.
Combined, the projects will clear more than 150 acres of forest in the Coastal Pine Barrens region, in addition to several sites that AD Makepeace has already cleared and developed for solar ground-mount systems in surrounding towns. Meg Sheehan, an environmental lawyer and resident of nearby Plymouth, has been fighting the collection of projects with a coalition of local residents since 2016, some of whom recently filed a lawsuit to stop the Wareham developments.
The groups say that AD Makepeace and Borrego Solar are using the solar development process to remove trees and earth to feed AD Makepeace’s soil business while cashing in on renewable energy credits at the expense of the natural beauty, groundwater holding and filtration, and the biodiversity the forests support. “They’re disrupting the ecosystem in such an extreme way. Maybe we’ll have lots of solar and fewer fossil fuel emissions . . . but we won’t have a livable planet,” Sheehan said. AD Makepeace did not respond to requests for comment.
A spokesperson for Borrego Solar said that while the company does also install solar panels on already developed spaces like rooftops, “large, ground-mounted systems are necessary to scale up to meet climate goals and avert climate change.” The projects in Wareham, they said, will generate 60,315 megawatt-hours of electricity, enough energy to power more than 5,100 homes.
As to whether the company considers the impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems when clearing land for solar, the spokesperson said Borrego performs “considerable real estate, environmental, and historical due diligence on every site” in accordance with the law.
But land use laws often allow for the clearing of forests. And biodiversity loss is a global issue that has accelerated alongside the climate crisis in recent years. A 2019 United Nations report found diversity of native plant and animal life has fallen by an average of 20 percent or more around the world, mostly in the last century. Massachusetts is home to 432 native plant and animal species that are endangered. Government policies—including Massachusetts’ policies—often confront climate change and biodiversity as two separate issues. In early June, researchers on two leading international scientific panels concluded that neither problem can be addressed effectively if they are not tackled in tandem.
Farms: At Risk or Filled With Opportunity?
One alternative to slashing forests, of course, is building on farmland. For years, Massachusetts farmers have been getting “a ridiculous number of calls from solar developers,” said Nick d’Arbeloff, vice president of commercial development at SunBug Solar. But most of those calls were about taking one field (or many) out of production to build ground-mount systems, which are the cheapest option. (Farmers in the state and around the country have also increasingly been putting solar panels on barn roofs and marginal lands they’re not using to grow food.)
And while commercial agrivoltaic systems are already in operation in other countries, the use of the technology is still new in the U.S. In addition to Massachusetts, the Department of Energy is also testing the systems in use in Arizona and Oregon. But, so far, updates made to the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program in 2020 have pushed development toward agrivoltaics in the most significant way. The program only allows solar development on agricultural land if the systems are dual-use, requires panels be raised at least 10 feet above ground, shading to cover no more than 50 percent of the field, and provides additional financial incentives to developers that build the systems.
The incentive is key because ground-mounted systems are both cheaper to build and produce more energy per acre, which the owner of the system is paid for sending to the electric grid. Usually the owner of the system (a developer or outside entity) pays the farmer for the use of the land; d’Arbeloff at SunBug said that rate is typically between $15,000 to $20,000 per megawatt annually. A megawatt might require five acres using ground-mount but eight or nine in a dual-use system. So by paying more for dual-use installations, the state is essentially making up the difference.
Since the changes, eight dual-use projects have applied to participate in the program, with one up and running, six approved for construction, and many others expected. While the projects are commercial, many will also likely serve as study sites for a research project proposed by University of Massachusetts’s Clean Energy Extension, which has been studying dual-use systems at its own facilities for about a decade. Now, the team will be able to track how various types of agriculture fare under solar panels—from grazing animals to cranberry bogs and vegetable crops like squash—and collect real data on whether farmers and the environment benefit. That data could inform future conversations about land-use tradeoffs, said Dwayne Breger, a professor at UMass who is leading the effort.
So far, studies show some crops, like lettuce and blackberries, fare well in the shade and may even benefit, especially in hotter regions; other crops, like broccoli, kale, and peppers, show reduced yields. Grazing sheep or cattle is the most common and well-established practice with dual-use panels. Less energy is also produced per acre versus building ground-mounted panels, but Breger thinks the evidence so far still shows a net win.
“The sum of the benefits to agriculture, even if yields are reduced . . . is still greater than could be achieved if you had all solar or all agriculture on that land,” Breger said. “And there would also be some synergies there.”
SunBug completed the first dual-use project within the SMART program on farmland owned by Nate Tassinari in Monson, Massachusetts. Tassinari is a banker and self-proclaimed “wannabe farmer” who lives on land that was farmed by his family for three generations. He put his solar installation on a one-acre hayfield, where his cousins, who farm right next door, grow feed for their dairy cows.
The dual-use solar array on Nate Tassinari’s farm in Monson, Massachusetts. (Photo courtesy of Nate Tassinari)
Several years ago, Tassinari said, a large ground-mount project was developed in town on “a huge cornfield that had been in corn my entire childhood.” Residents hated the project so much, he said, they passed a local ordinance that limited the size of future systems. In his mind, a dual-use system was “the perfect example of meeting people in the middle,” he said. Tassinari used his resources and financial know-how to finance a cutting-edge system himself. It means he will make what he says is about five times more profit than farmers who are paid by developers who own the systems.
“I have 150 acres, and only one will have solar on it, but the benefits of the economics of that solar farm allow me to preserve all the rest of the land and not have to break it up for house lots and other things,” he said. “It was really about land preservation.”
That’s how American Farmland Trust (AFT), a leading farmland preservation organization with a large presence in New England, sees it. “A lot of organizations took a stance initially where they said solar should stay off of green space. We thought that was going to be potentially counterproductive,” said Emily Cole, AFT’s New England deputy director. Instead, AFT embraced the idea of solar as a means to keep farmers on their land early on. “What we really work hard on is developing smart siting guidelines,” she said.
AFT runs a Smart Solar Siting Partnership Project for New England, which includes guidelines for dual-use projects. “We want to ensure that our best farmland continues to be farmed first and foremost,” she said. “There is the potential for solar siting on farmland to be another source of income for farmers who may be facing a pretty difficult economic time. So, it’s an opportunity to diversify and potentially support other activities on that operation and really increase the tenure of the farmer on that land.”
In the upcoming UMass research project, Breger’s team is planning to study the economic benefits for farmers, especially when they’re essentially renting the land to developers who collect the bulk of the profits.
Meanwhile, some conservationists and farmers are skeptical of dual-use systems and think the state should direct all solar subsidies toward developed land. Mass Audubon’s Ricci said she’s concerned about prime cropland being converted to pasture, since grazing is the most established use for the systems. Fred Beddal, a farmer in Northampton, echoed some of those concerns in a May op-ed, calling claims that the systems would work for farmers “false promises.”
Another concern shared by Meg Sheehan in the Pine Barrens is that in order to access the financial incentive for dual-use installations, solar developers could replace forested land with solar-agriculture systems. While Civil Eats did not find clear evidence of that happening to date, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Energy said that “current regulations and guidelines do not restrict projects that clear forest land from participating in [dual-use] agriculture.”
The spokesperson also pointed out that the SMART program has “a variety of adders to incentivize projects on brownfields, landfills, building mounted and solar canopy.” Dual use is the only “adder”—an increase in the rate at which solar panel owners are repaid for the electricity they send to the electric grid—that has generated controversy, and soon there will be more data to inform its future.
Pierson said BlueWave is building one system that will allow a farmer to grow pumpkins, leafy greens, and strawberries under panels while grazing cattle using regenerative practices on another parcel. On that section, the company is funding a soil carbon study with AFT “that will directly evaluate and measure how the land is responding to this rotational grazing operation.”
And in Northfield, farmer Jesse Robertson-Dubois is “raring to go” when it comes to moving his sheep grazing operation to a BlueWave Solar development at Four Star Farms. Robertson-Dubois has been grazing sheep around traditional ground-mount panels and is looking forward to the ability to drive a tractor on the land, provide shade for his animals, and branch out into crops in the future. After some community objections to the construction of the systems, he is waiting for the project to again move forward.
Robertson-Dubois is “committed to food production that can happen locally in a way that involves humans and the land working in a synergistic relationship.” He will also be leasing the land. Part of his enthusiasm has to do with the sense that the income from solar—and the commitment it requires—will bring a type of security that is rare for a small-scale farmer working on land that’s not in an agricultural easement.
“I’m someone who looks at a solar array [on a farm] and sees a commitment to a 20-year time frame,” he says. “That’s not something most landowners [with] unprotected farmland have.”
This article & photograph originally appeared in a Civil Eats post on June 29th, 2021 by Lisa Held.