Mark Amato: Agriculture, solar power, are a great match for state

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MARLBOROUGH — This week, Gov. Charlie Baker's administration will unveil a new plan for solar energy in the Commonwealth and the details of the Department of Energy Resources' plan — known as the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target, or "SMART" — will be closely watched by many stakeholders, most notably the Commonwealth's farm families.

That's because lease payments received for solar arrays have become an economic lifeline for Massachusetts farmers as they contend with a whole host of economic pressures pushing them closer to the brink. If the Baker administration wants to protect these farms and open space, the importance of allowing large-scale, ground-mounted community solar arrays in the new SMART plan cannot be overstated.

Massachusetts' agricultural industry relies on a partnership with the solar industry and it's easy to understand why. Small farms account for more than 94 percent of farms in Massachusetts and 8-in-10 are owned by individuals who are on average nearly 60 years old. Maintaining the open spaces that we all enjoy is a difficult task and the high value of farm land puts tremendous pressure on farmers to explore development options.

Meanwhile, the solar industry has become vitally important to Massachusetts' economy and needs room to grow. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, solar energy currently generates 10 percent of electricity consumed in the Commonwealth, powering 428,000 homes. Today, Massachusetts has the third-largest solar workforce in the U.S. And in the last five years, the cost of electricity produced by solar energy has come down by a third.

These successes have made Massachusetts a national solar leader — a feat that would not have been possible without the cranberry farmers, dairy farmers and other farm land owners who host the cost-effective community solar projects that help expand solar access to homes and businesses that cannot otherwise access traditional rooftop solar.

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Solar lease payments provide farmers a stable, secondary source of income that allows them to keep the farming operations on their properties financially viable. In fact, some of our members insist on making solar part of their farms because they feel it is the right thing to do as well as because community solar facilities often generate more revenue per acre than many of our traditional crops here in Massachusetts.

Solar farms are good for the broader Massachusetts' economy, as well. Each community 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, of course, electricity savings to participating customers.

And unlike most commercial development, solar does not permanently spoil the land on which projects are sited. Solar arrays, once decommissioned, can be removed and the land converted back to its previous use with minimal effort. This is particularly useful for farmers looking to scale back production while ensuring the land can be farmed again and so preserved for future generations.

This partnership between community solar and farmers has been a tremendous benefit to Massachusetts — and those benefits should not stop now. With so much at stake for the economy, clean air and for our farming future, let's work together to protect community solar and the partnership critical to sustaining our family farms for the 21st century.

Mark Amato is president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau.


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