Our opinion: Solar energy regulations need closer review

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Solar energy has become an increasingly significant component of the energy picture in Massachusetts, although not without controversy, as has been seen here in the Berkshires. Many argue that fields of solar panels are a wasteful use of open space or a blight on nearby residential areas.

The Department of Energy Resources (DOER) in April issued a new set of regulations intended to encourage further solar development while discouraging projects in areas inappropriate for solar panels. However, lawmakers and some state farmers argue the unintended consequence will be the stalling of shovel-ready solar projects and the blocking of future projects.

The new regulations are part of the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) incentive program to facilitate solar projects. The new regulations make financing easier, double the program's capacity from 1,600 to 3,200 megawatts and expand eligibility criteria for low-income solar projects. The new rules also expand the areas in which solar projects are prohibited, a well-intended effort that opponents argue went too far.

The new rules prohibit solar power installations on land designated as priority habitat, core habitat or critical natural landscape. The latter category includes areas that are "better able to support ecological projects and disturbance regimes, and a wide array of species and habitats over long time frames." This is not as narrow definition as that of the first two and is so wide open it could be exploited by those who are simply opposed to solar power, such as the fossil fuel industry.

Rep. Tom Golden, the House chairman of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, told the DOER and Environmental Affairs Secretary Katie Theoharides in a letter quoted by the State House News Service, that stakeholders in the solar development community are concerned that this expansion of ineligible land "will effectively cancel several shovel-reader projects [and] slow the growth of new projects." This argument has been made by the Coalition for Community Solar Access. While the shovel-ready projects appear to be concentrated in the eastern end of the state, future projects in the Berkshires could be impacted. Rep. Golden proposes that the critical natural landscape provision be dropped from the areas in which solar installations are prohibited.

The Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, according to the State House News Service, expressed concern that the new regulations will restrict solar developments on farmlands. Massachusetts farmers, many of them struggling financially, want the option of selling part of their land to solar developers to provide needed revenue. The DOER, for its part, said the regulations came about because it had received a "disproportionate" number of applications for solar projects on open land and wants to maintain a balance between residential and commercial projects. The agency also said the new regulations won't go into effect until October, allowing projects that are far along to be completed.

The updated regulations were filed on an emergency basis in mid-April. It is not clear what the emergency was or why the DOER acted when the state was focused almost exclusively on the COVID-19 pandemic, which was at or near its peak. While most of the new regulations are admirable and will help the industry, overly broad or too general land restrictions could severely harm an industry that, when located properly, contributes to a cleaner environment and provides jobs for state residents. We urge the DOER to take state Sen. Mark Montigny's advice to delay the new rules until they can be fully vetted.

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