The advent of community solar in states like Massachusetts is a critical component in the fight against climate change; however, the location and impact of these projects often presents significant challenges for both the developer and the communities in which they are located. Although the smaller size of distributed generation projects allows for them to be sited closer to load and occupy land that would otherwise be undevelopable (e.g. landfills), this inherently can create challenges in integrating with a community.
When it comes to proposing a community solar project, every community is unique, both in the nature of the land itself and the character of the community and surrounding neighborhoods. At BlueWave Solar, when we look to develop a new project, we view the potential project site and development process through a multitude of angles: what are the concerns and preferences of the abutters, what types of developments surround the site, and what do the town or city’s existing bylaws tell us about their priorities and goals in regard to new developments.
Often, we find that answers to these questions are not always clear and require a more direct and conscious effort to listen to public comment, reach out to existing community groups, and understand the history of a particular piece of land. Sometimes the primary concern is how a project would affect the visual makeup of a neighborhood, while other times the priority becomes safety around stormwater runoff and management. It’s crucial for developers to maintain a flexible approach and open mindset when it comes to project design, even if that means additional costs, to fully incorporate and appreciate a community’s thoughts and feedback on a project.
Taking an innovative approach
We also believe that continually innovating our development approach and looking for ways to improve our processes is important when it comes to interacting with local communities. Agrivoltaics, or dual-use solar, is a particular style of development that pushes the boundaries of traditional solar development, and therefore, can be a bit more complicated to introduce to a community. Dual-use projects involve elevating a solar array above its normal height to facilitate livestock grazing or crop growing underneath and between the rows of solar modules. Doing so allows the land to double in productivity, while creating new ways to benefit the landowners and surrounding community.
In many instances, we encounter farmers who are struggling to maintain or continue farming operations due to economic headwinds. This is why, in states that are establishing community solar programs, some farmers are leasing viable farmland to community solar developers because it provides greater financial benefits in comparison to farming. Dual-use projects like agrivoltaics, however, allow the farmer to continue to grow and harvest, and a portion of the revenue that the project generates is used to directly subsidize the farmer, providing financial stability. The community also benefits from local crop production and clean energy generation without the need to develop additional undisturbed space.
Part of respecting a new community also requires developers to acknowledge and consider the history of the land and peoples that have inhabited it before its current use. It‘s especially important for developers to consider the historic ties and claims to land by Native American tribes and nations, and to proactively reach out to those groups for input as to how these lands can be properly respected and how development can minimize impacts to the cultural value of the land and resources.
Better policy is needed
Aside from taking care in addressing community needs or concerns, there are still gaps in policy that inhibit community solar from being adopted at a greater level. As previously mentioned, communities often have specific goals for development within their jurisdictions, so projects face a myriad of factors that affect the feasibility of any particular site.
Most notably, the costs of upgrading electrical distribution infrastructure and the marginal costs associated with building on previously developed or disturbed sites can have a big impact. A municipality may have a number of sites that are ideal for a solar project, but these may be distantly removed from a three-phase electrical line or distribution substation, requiring upgrade costs that a project cannot bear.
Towns are often interested in seeing parking lots and buildings developed into canopy and rooftops solar projects. However, the costs and roadblocks for these types of developments are often significantly underestimated, thereby rendering these desirable opportunities economically unviable.
Preserving farmland is another common goal for both local communities and state-level governments, and agrivoltaics is a proven form of development that presents an exciting and sustainable future for solar development. But these projects also incur additional material costs, and there is still a lack of widespread adoption and funding allocated toward agrivoltaics.
Policies and community solar programs need to be more targeted and ambitious in how they incentivize the types of projects that meet what communities want while still maximizing the value of the underlying land and producing minimal additional impact. For example, a project could be eligible to apply for an incentive to offset additional costs of mitigating electrical infrastructure only if it is being proposed on previously disturbed or developed land that a town is prioritizing for use.
Dual-use projects present a pathway for farmland across the country to continue to yield crops and generate clean energy but they will only proliferate if policies that recognize its value are put in place. These policies should include incentives that help offset the higher construction and operating costs that are needed.
For the more than 40 US states that have not yet adopted community solar as a model, they should consider its flexibility in regard to where projects can be built (e.g. undevelopable land) and its ability to bring clean energy closer to the end user. As renewable energy continues to grow at a rapid pace, community solar will remain an incredibly powerful tool for policymakers to benefit local communities across their states while minimizing the environmental and cultural impacts that are associated with traditional, utility-scale projects.
This article & photograph originally appeared in a Renewable Energy World post on May 3rd, 2021.