In dealing with climate change, don’t forget solar, storage

60,000 acres of ground-mounted solar seen needed

LAST MONTH, Gov. Charlie Baker signed landmark climate change legislation. Press coverage that focused on the sparring between the governor and the Legislature over the details obscured the bigger story, which is that both the Legislature and the Baker administration are aligned on the need for Massachusetts to set – and meet – a goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

In December, the Baker administration released its 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap. The plan is a rigorous analysis of how to reach net zero across all sectors of the Massachusetts economy. Its sister report, the Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2030, goes into further detail on the actions the Commonwealth needs to take over the next decade to stay on track.

The good news is that Massachusetts is already off to a good start: overall, even as the state’s population and teconomy have grown significantly, emissions have declined more than 20 percent below 1990 levels, driven by a 50 percent reduction in emissions from the electricity sector. But with lots of electricity sector emissions left to tackle, and little decarbonization progress so far in the transportation and building sectors, net zero remains a long way off.

That’s why we’re concerned that the 2030 Climate Plan charts a course that is harder and more uncertain than it needs to be. And, most importantly, given the urgency of the climate crisis, a course that is longer than it needs to be.

As a package, the legislation, the 2050 roadmap, and the 2030 plan signal a significant new phase in this administration’s battle against the climate crisis, and a very welcome one. Paired with the Biden administration’s aggressive leadership on climate, we now have powerful, aligned signals at the federal and state level. What’s odd, however, about this recent burst of state policy-making, is that it describes a slowing pace on the renewable resources that have been the most successful so far—proven technologies with mature markets that are viable today and ready to scale: solar generation and energy storage.

The 2050 roadmap shows an annual build rate of solar so small it’s barely visible on the chart between now and 2035, before ramping up to 1,300 megawatts per year from 2040 onward. Massachusetts added 571 megawatts of solar in 2017, our peak year, before retreating to 237 megawatts in 2019. Solar is already cheap and readily available; what are we waiting for?

Our best guess is that there are two main issues at play.

The first reason the administration’s plan may have put off solar deployment is the difficult question of where to put it. Even with the 2050 roadmap’s heavy reliance on offshore wind and imported hydropower from Canada, the plan estimates that we’ll need at least 60,000 acres of additional ground-mounted solar in Massachusetts, about 1 percent of the Commonwealth’s land.

As the 2050 roadmap also acknowledges, all forms of renewable generation and transmission face siting challenges (let’s not forget what happened recently to Eversource’s Northern Pass transmission project in New Hampshire or the Cape Wind project off of Cape Cod), but solar has run into more siting roadblocks because solar has been more broadly adopted so far in Massachusetts.

Second, the distributed solar projects that have made up the bulk of the solar buildout in Massachusetts so far have been facing increasingly difficult—and costly—challenges to interconnection with the distribution grid. As more and more distributed generation has been built, a system that was built to deliver power in one direction from a few large power plants to customers is being asked to accommodate an increasing number of small generators sending power in many directions—something the grid was never designed to handle. Here again, all forms of renewable energy, and all pathways to net zero, will change the way we use the grid, and it will take planning and investment in transmission and distribution infrastructure to make that transition go smoothly. The Department of Public Utilities  is actively pursuing changes to the way the power grid is planned and the way upgrade costs are shared, but in the short term grid interconnection is a major drag on decarbonization.

 These are real challenges and understandable reasons why Massachusetts might look to new ideas and new technologies. But new ideas and new technologies won’t solve these problems, just put them off. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, delaying dealing with roadblocks to decarbonization isn’t something we can afford to do. On the contrary, we need to figure out how to frontload decarbonization as much as possible, because the extent of the disastrous consequences we face from climate change are determined by the cumulative amount of excess greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, not the amount we are emitting at any point in time. It matters very little whether we emit new carbon dioxide on Jan. 1, 2050; what matters is the total amount we add to the already warming atmosphere between now and 2050.

Yet the climate plan still projects 4 million megatons of emissions from the electricity sector in 2030 because it relies on strategies that are still commercializing and under-invests in strategies that are already working. The plan assumes an enormous role for offshore wind and Canadian hydroelectric generation, which are surely essential to a decarbonized future. But because of long timelines and serious challenges on the horizon for those resources, we should not have all our eggs in those baskets.

We can and should confront the challenges of siting and interconnecting solar and energy storage head on. The 60,000-acre benchmark for ground-mounted solar provides a useful foundation for the constructive conversation that is needed. We can shift the conversation from where solar shouldn’t go to where it should, and then figure out how to fine-tune incentive programs or direct additional investment in the grid in order to facilitate solar development in the “right” locations. A bill introduced this session by Rep. Carolyn Dykema of Holliston would seek to do just that by establishing “solar opportunity zones” to minimize land use conflict and coordinate utility upgrades.

Interconnection issues must also be tackled head-on, even more urgently than land use. Better system planning is urgent because many of the grid investments—new substations, upgraded transmission lines—that are necessary for a decarbonized grid, no matter what mix of renewables is powering it, will take years to complete.

The Department of Public Utilities is developing a new protocol for grid planning and cost sharing, and if an interim update is implemented this year, we can avoid losing years of effort and millions of dollars of investment that have gone into the projects currently applying for interconnection. The Legislature also has a role to play, and took an important step in the climate bill by requiring that the DPU take climate change into account in its decision-making.

A bill filed by Rep. Thomas Golden of Lowell would build on that progress and overhaul the interconnection process by capping interconnection costs, setting incentives and penalties to ensure that utilities adhere to reasonable timelines for interconnection, and requiring utilities to proactively upgrade the grid to facilitate decarbonization. These are all necessary measures if we are to achieve our climate goals.

The Legislature and the Baker administration have set the Commonwealth’s sights high with the climate bill and the 2050 roadmap. We can’t afford to waste any time in getting down to business on decarbonization, which is why we shouldn’t slow our pace on solar and energy storage, two resources that are cost-effective and available now. Siting and interconnection aren’t trivial challenges, but they aren’t unique to solar, and they can and should be solved.

Jessica Robertson is director of policy and business development for New England and Dan Berwick is general manager of development at Borrego Solar in Lowell.