Mass. should accelerate solar development

State is facing a fork in the road on clean energy

MASSACHUSETTS IS IN THE MIDST of a success story when it comes to solar energy. At a time when the effects of climate change are becoming more obvious to us all, our state has made tremendous progress in lowering the cost of solar and expanding access to a broad spectrum of consumers. This week and next, the Baker administration will begin to roll out a review of its cornerstone solar energy policy, the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target program (“SMART”). The question going forward is: will SMART continue our clean energy progress or step back from it?

 The progress itself is undeniable. Over the past five years, the cost of solar energy has plummeted by a third. Today, more than 10 percent of the Commonwealth’s energy comes from solar, powering nearly a half million homes – a significant increase from just a few years ago. As of the first quarter of 2019, there were more than 2.5 gigawatts of solar capacity installed in our state, an investment of more than $6.5 billion in resilient and green electricity infrastructure that benefits us all. 

 The progress Massachusetts has made is far from an accident. It’s because state policymakers recognized the multitude of benefits that solar energy offers and pursued them through programs like SMART. But if we’re going to meet our ambitious climate goals, we have much more to do.

As solar energy has grown, it has become increasingly important to the Massachusetts economy. There are more than 10,000 solar jobs in the Commonwealth, including installers, engineers, electricians, and customer service representatives. Those workers can be found across the state—from hubs in Springfield and Fall River, to Worcester and Boston—and are the reason the Massachusetts solar workforce now ranks as the third largest nationally. All told, there are more than 540 solar companies located in the Commonwealth, many of which use their offices here as a springboard for business in other states and globally. 

 One key to this success has been community solar, a model Massachusetts pioneered to help expand clean energy access for low- and moderate-income residents and to reach customers who use can’t use traditional rooftop solar. Many community solar projects generate cost savings for public housing authorities and help small businesses access solar energy, too. Thus far, we have more than 300 megawatts of operating community solar projects – giving Massachusetts the second-largest community solar market in the country. The potential market is far greater, since three-quarters of our households are unable to install solar panels on their roofs.  

 Solar provides benefits for other stakeholders beyond ratepayers. A community-scale, ground-mounted, five-megawatt solar project typically provides between $4.5 million and $7.5 million in economic benefits to the Commonwealth, from privately funded upgrades to the electric grid, to tax revenue to local municipalities, to landowner payments.

 With increasingly unpredictable weather, we need the resiliency benefits that these projects bring, too. Under the state’s current SMART program, for example, solar projects receive an incentive when paired with energy storage. The larger the solar farm and the larger the energy storage batteries, the greater the benefits to the wider electric grid, since energy storage helps fight summer price spikes and keeps the electric grid stable. 

 As Massachusetts considers making changes to the SMART program, it must strike a balance to protect open space while allowing responsibly developed projects to move forward. Certainly, Massachusetts has strong protections for open space, wetlands, and endangered species and habitats enforced by various federal and state agencies and local conservation commissions. Further, local permitting processes are vigorous, allowing cities and towns to make decisions regarding the development of solar and storage. Most successful solar developers already navigate these processes thoughtfully and with consideration for the surrounding communities and environment. 

 How else can we modernize Massachusetts solar policy? First, we should set ambitious goals for solar. We should push for 3,200 megawatts or more for SMART solar development by 2030 to meet our aggressive climate targets. Second, let’s help more towns adopt thoughtful solar policies rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all approach about what kind of solar should go where. Third, we should address the remaining barriers to low-income and environmental justice participation in community solar, so that everybody will be able to benefit from clean energy, regardless of zip code or economic status. 

Meet the Author

Meet the Author

Jeff Cramer

Executive director, Coalition for Community Solar Access
 Ultimately, Massachusetts faces a fork in the road when it comes to clean energy. Either we can choose the path of working together to increase the amount of solar our homes and businesses use – or we can step back from the commitments we made to our citizens, our neighbors, and our future generations. When all the benefits of these innovations are considered, the importance of making the right choice is clear.

 Peter Rothstein is president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council and Jeff Cramer is the executive director for the Coalition for Community Solar Access.