Alternative Energy: Solar

Mass Audubon strongly supports solar energy as integral to meeting our state's clean energy goals and addressing global climate change. However, not all solar projects are created equal—the net benefits of an array depend on where it is located (siting).

Careful site selection for renewable facilities of all types is important to minimize the loss and fragmentation of wildlife habitat, as well as forests, farmlands, and wetlands that sequester carbon and provide other functions and values. These lands are an important part of resilience for people and nature.

Site Selection Considerations

There are several placements for solar sites that are preferable to the conversion of pristine natural habitat or farmland.

Rooftop or other built sites (e.g. parking lot canopies)

These types of solar projects minimize damage to natural resources since they are placed within developed sites. Some constraints to this placement are structural capacity and orientation of existing structures to support solar arrays.

Ground-based arrays 

When possible, building arrays on previously developed or altered sites such as brownfields, old industrial sites, or depleted gravel pits are preferable to building on previously undeveloped sites (also known as greenfields).

Improving State Siting Standards

Mass Audubon and other environmental groups have been concerned about the large number of solar projects being proposed and built on forest lands and other undeveloped sites. We've sent comments and letters to Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matt Beaton informing him of concerns about siting of large ground mounted solar arrays in environmentally sensitive locations. Among our recommendations was the implementation of environmental protection siting standards for industrial-scale arrays. 

Recently, the state updated its solar financing incentive program, now called Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART). Developed by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, SMART increases financial incentives for projects proposed for rooftops, parking lots, and brownfields, and reduces incentives for projects on greenfield sites. We continue to monitor the results of this program and are interested to learn whether more solar projects shift to placement within development (e.g. rooftops and parking lots) as a result.

Local Options for Solar Siting

Communities that want to regulate placement of solar arrays need to adopt local bylaws that are consistent with the State Zoning Act solar exemption.

The State Zoning Act states in part that:

No zoning ordinance or by-law shall prohibit or unreasonably regulate the installation of solar energy systems or the building of structures that facilitate the collection of solar energy, except where necessary to protect the public health, safety or welfare.

The Department of Energy Resources has produced a model zoning bylaw to assist communities with zoning on solar arrays. The model bylaw includes the following guidance on siting:

Siting Preferences: Where a solar facility is sited, as well as placement on the site once selected, is an important consideration, particularly in regard to large-scale ground mounted facilities. [The Department of Energy Resources] DOER strongly discourages locations that result in significant loss of land and natural resources, including farm and forest land, and encourages rooftop siting, as well as locations in industrial and commercial districts, or on vacant, disturbed land. Significant tree cutting is problematic because of the important water management, cooling, and climate benefits trees provide.

Mass Audubon agrees with this guidance and encourages communities to adopt zoning that guides placement of solar arrays to appropriate locations—taking into account local natural resources and is consistent with good land-use planning principles. This includes consideration of the value of open lands for grassland and shrubland-dependent wildlife, many of which are in decline in Massachusetts and are of high conservation concern.

Learn More

Want to learn more about community planning and sustainable development techniques? Check out Mass Audubon's Shaping the Future of Your Community program!