Greg Hering: Solar naysayers bark up wrong tree
CAMBRIDGE, Ma. — Nearly two decades ago in "The Illusion of Preservation," Harvard forestry researchers Mary Berlik, David Kitteridge and David Foster argued that "local citizens must consider the use of resources in their own backyard while maintaining a keen awareness of the global environment" — in essence, saying that we can't simply ignore how our own behaviors, however well intentioned, might negatively impact other places. To mitigate these effects, they describe the importance of balancing protecting Massachusetts forests by promoting "sound forest management where environmental consequences are mild."
As the debate over where solar farms can and should be built in Massachusetts has gotten increasingly contentious, it's a lesson we should take to heart — finding ways to reduce our use of oil, coal and fracked natural gas to meet our ambitious greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions targets while also promoting sound management of forests and open space.
As a researcher, I've spent years studying the impact of solar farm development on communities, open space and forests in the Commonwealth. Like others, I've seen the damage that careless development can do to wooded land — but also the benefits when, for instance, we work with family farms to ensure land used for solar replaces dangerous fertilizers with seed mixes that provide vegetative habitats for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.
To that end, my colleague, Jeff Lord, and I recently took a closer look at state solar land use trends — utilizing geographic information systems and recent data from the US Geological Survey and Google Earth to manually trace fence lines and locate all of the solar installations in Massachusetts through 2016.
What we discovered was that the risk posed by commercial development — housing, businesses, golf courses — to open space and forests in Massachusetts dwarfs that of solar farms.
Of the 3.1 million acres of open space in Massachusetts, only 4,100 acres —0.13 percent —of all open space has been used for solar development. We also found that commercial development is responsible for nearly all — 96 percent — of forest loss between 2001 and 2016. By contrast, our data shows that only 0.08 percent of total forest area in Massachusetts was converted to solar development during that time.
Going forward, we project that the impact of additional solar on open space would remain minimal. Even if the additional 800 MW of ground-mounted solar currently planned by the state were built entirely in forests, solar would still utilize less than one-quarter of one percent (0.23 percent) of forested land in Massachusetts.
Even though what we found was very consistent with the "mild environmental consequences" the Harvard researchers described, a newly released report raises concerns about solar farm sprawl. Focused on Massachusetts' sparsely developed Pioneer Valley, the piece concludes that a third of forest areas that have been developed in the valley are home to solar with only 2 percent of solar mounted on rooftops. The implication of the new study is that solar development has run amuck in the valley and, by extension, Massachusetts.
But that is hardly the case. With slow economic development in Western Massachusetts' mill towns since the textile exodus of the late '90s, any development occurring in the region will have an outsized effect as a percentage of lost open space as well as fewer commercial and residential rooftops on which to host solar panels.
Statewide, options are extremely limited. Massachusetts is the 8th most densely forested state, with fully 40 percent of its open space protected. The majority of feasible landfills have already been developed. And three-quarters of rooftops are unsuitable for solar panels. These factors make it hard for Massachusetts to deploy the 1 to 2.5 GW of solar energy we need every year — roughly 8 to 10 times the amount of solar production currently planned — according to a recent report from Brattle Group.
Who gets hurt if we fail to make progress? Not simply citizens breathing pollution here at home, but countless more if we remain hopelessly dependent on fracked natural gas that is environmentally upending places like the Marcellus region in Pennsylvania.
Given all this, the question policymakers should be considering isn't "Why are we developing solar on open space?" but rather "How can we best preserve our forests and open space while increasing our supply of solar energy?"
Thoughtful solar developers have proven it can be done. In our report, we recommend a set of "greenfield practices" to be utilized in the construction of solar projects on previously undeveloped land, including minimizing grading, protecting soils, banning herbicides, and seeding with pollinator-friendly plant mixes. We also suggest protecting forest cores and increasing support through the Green Communities program and Regional Planning coordinators to give smaller towns like those in the Pioneer Valley more control over local permitting processes. And we recommend the state collect more data — including around how to increase landfill and rooftop solar — so that policymakers can make the best, most informed decisions about our clean energy future.
In my experience as a researcher, clean energy developer and environmentalist, environmental leadership isn't just about saying "no." Just as often it's about knowing when to say "yes — but only under these conditions." With all that we know about what happens if we fail to develop clean energy, and with all that's at stake for Massachusetts, the country and our planet, we can't let this moment pass us by.
Greg Hering is president and founder of Bright Lite Energy.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.