Solar Energy Siting
We strongly support solar power, and improved access to it, as integral to meeting our state's equitable clean energy goals and addressing climate change. However, not all solar projects are created equal—the net benefits of an array depend on it's location ("siting").
Mass Audubon's Position
Careful site selection for renewable facilities of all types is critical to minimizing the loss and fragmentation of wildlife habitat and existing ecosystems that sequester carbon. Beyond their intrinsic value, lands such as forests, farmlands, and wetlands provide essential ecosystem services, and they play an important part in building resilience for people and nature.
In recent years, more than 25% of all new solar arrays were large-scale ground mounted arrays located on former forests or farmlands. If this trend continues, more than 100,000 acres of land will be converted. The pace of solar development needs to be rapidly increased, while shifting more toward already-developed lands close to energy demand loads.
Site Selection Considerations
There are several placements for solar sites that are preferable to the conversion of natural habitat or farmland.
Rooftops & 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.
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"). There is also a move toward dual solar/agricultural projects, where farming will still occur underneath the arrays – this is still experimental and needs to be piloted before it is scaled up.
Improving State Siting Standards
Mass Audubon and other environmental groups have been advocating to reduce the number of solar projects being built on forest lands and other undeveloped sites, and to reduce costs and administrative barriers to projects within already altered locations.
We've achieved changes in the state's solar financing incentive program, now called Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) under the MA Department of Energy Resources (DOER), reducing eligibility for projects on sensitive lands. We will continue to support further increases in SMART financial incentives for projects on rooftops, parking lots, brownfields, and other already impacted sites.
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.|
DOER 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 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.