Mass Audubon's Position on Solar Siting
Mass Audubon strongly supports solar energy as a key strategy in Massachusetts’ response to the climate crisis. We’re working to support Massachusetts in developing solar energy as quickly as possible while protecting nature and wildlife.
Solar Energy and Climate Change
Historically, Massachusetts has relied on burning fossil fuels like oil, gas, and coal to generate most of its electric power. This process directly contributes to climate change by releasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. To begin to address the climate crisis, Massachusetts must begin transitioning its electricity grid from fossil fuels to carbon-free resources like solar and wind as soon as possible.
The challenges that Massachusetts faces in moving away from fossil fuels are significant. Not only must the state radically increase the percentage of its power that is renewable—currently 29%—but it must increase its total electricity generation. To fully transition from fossil fuels, we’ll have to electrify all the homes, vehicles, and buildings that run on oil and gas now. Current estimates suggest we’ll need about three times as much electricity in 2050 as we use today.
The state projects that solar energy will have to supply almost half of the power we need in 2050. That means we’ll need to radically speed up the rate at which we’re installing solar panels in the years to come—and Mass Audubon is ready to help.
Where to Responsibly Build Solar Energy
While we need to install solar power as quickly as possible, that doesn’t mean every solar energy development is good for biodiversity and the climate. Future solar energy development should target already developed lands like rooftops, parking lots, and former industrial areas, while avoiding natural and working lands like farms, forest, and wetlands.
In recent years, more than 25% of all new solar arrays have been located on former forests or farmlands. If this trend continues, more than 100,000 acres of natural and working lands will be lost to solar in Massachusetts in the years to come.
Beyond their value to the natural beauty of Massachusetts, forests, farmlands, and wetlands clean water, protect settlements from natural disasters, and provide essential wildlife habitat. Most importantly, natural and working lands capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it—the only way that we can capture some of the carbon we emit. Clearing forests and developing farmlands and wetlands to build solar arrays isn’t just bad for biodiversity and ecosystems—it doesn’t make sense as a climate policy.
How We Push for Responsible Solar Development
Mass Audubon is studying the question of whether we can meet our goals for solar energy without developing our most valuable forests, wetlands, and farmlands. So far, the results are promising—we can! We have enough space on existing developed lands to accommodate most of our needed solar development.
We’re pushing the state to incentive solar developers to build on disturbed lands, and to discourage building on natural and working lands. We've already successfully reduced incentives for projects on sensitive lands in the state's solar financing program, now called Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART).
How You Can Encourage Responsible Solar Development in Your Community
You can help encourage responsible solar development by pushing for 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 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 (DOER) has produced a model zoning bylaw to assist communities with zoning solar arrays that includes the following guidance:
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.
Mass Audubon agrees with this guidance and encourages communities to adopt zoning that guides placement of solar arrays to appropriate locations. 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.
If you’re interested in helping to incentivize responsible solar energy in your community, consider joining our Climate Champions program!
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