The state of solar: In first of four forums, experts explore role solar will play in state meeting climate goals

Max Childs, a solar installer with Northeast Solar, walks a panel up to Conor Nolan, an electrical apprentice, to be installed on a home in Easthampton.

Max Childs, a solar installer with Northeast Solar, walks a panel up to Conor Nolan, an electrical apprentice, to be installed on a home in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Max Childs, a solar installer with Northeast Solar, walks a panel up to Conor Nolan, an electrical apprentice, to be installed on a home in Easthampton.

Max Childs, a solar installer with Northeast Solar, walks a panel up to Conor Nolan, an electrical apprentice, to be installed on a home in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Conor Nolan, an electrical apprentice with Northeast Solar, installs panels on a home in Easthampton.

Conor Nolan, an electrical apprentice with Northeast Solar, installs panels on a home in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Conor Nolan, an electrical apprentice with Northeast Solar, installs panels on a home in Easthampton.

Conor Nolan, an electrical apprentice with Northeast Solar, installs panels on a home in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By MADDIE FABIAN

Staff Writer

Published: 09-14-2023 3:40 PM

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of four articles from the Western Massachusetts Solar Forum series taking place in September.

AMHERST — Massachusetts has 15 to 18 times the amount of solar potential it needs to support decarbonization requirements, presenting the state with an opportunity to balance solar installation with natural resource and land protection. But that doesn’t mean achieving that goal will come without challenges.

That’s one of the findings to emerge when a panel of experts gathered on Sept. 5 to discuss the state of solar development in Massachusetts and across the country, including opportunities, initiatives, challenges and goals. The discussion, the first of a four-part Western Massachusetts Solar Forum series taking place in September, provided an overview of where the state stands in terms of solar development and set the stage for the rest of the series taking place every Tuesday this month.

The forums are organized by the UMass Clean Energy Extension, Sen. Jo Comerford, Rep. Mindy Domb, and other solar stakeholders and specialists.

“In Massachusetts we have academia, nonprofits, businesses, government all on the same page when it comes to climate change. … It gives us a unique opportunity to work together to make a change,” said Rebecca Tepper, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Panel experts agreed that solar energy is key to reducing fossil fuel emissions and slowing climate change.

Fortunately for solar advocates, “it’s become cool to invest in solar and clean local renewable energy,” according to Kathleen Doyle, founder of FireFlower Alternative Energy. Much of that “cool” factor can be attributed to cost savings associated with solar energy as opposed to fossil fuels.

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In 2010, solar power was 710% more expensive than the cheapest fossil fuel. Today, solar power costs 29% less than the cheapest fossil fuel, according to a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency. And between 2010 and 2022, the global weighted average cost of solar electricity fell by 89%. Moreover, the U.S. think tank Energy Innovation found that it is more expensive for 99% of coal-fired power plants to keep running than it would be to build new solar or wind facilities.

Statewide goals,challenges, initiatives

In 2022, the state released the Massachusetts Clean Energy and Climate Plan, which outlines plans to achieve emissions reductions at least 50% below the 1990 baseline by 2030, and to achieve net-zero statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The plan estimates that more than 10 times the amount of solar currently installed will be required to reach those reductions.

In response to those goals, the Department of Energy Resources set out to quantify solar potential across the state, with findings now included in the Technical Potential for Solar Study and a corresponding map highlighting suitable land parcels for solar installation.

“The study shows exciting potential for solar growth across the commonwealth and drives home that our solar goal is achievable,” said Elizabeth Mahony, state commissioner of Department of Energy Resources.

The study revealed that the state has a solar potential of 506 gigawatts, as opposed to the 27-34 gigawatts required under the climate plan.

“That is really great news because it means that we can be very conscious and considerate in how we build out the rest of our solar production,” Mahony said.

While there are numerous considerations around building solar, panelists pointed out two as being particularly important: land protection and environmental justice.

“On the one hand, we need a lot more energy, particularly solar, sited throughout our state to meet our electric demands in a renewable way,” said Katherine Antos, state undersecretary for decarbonization and resilience. “On the other hand, we need to protect the integrity of our lands, particularly our forests.”

Protecting forests is key to keeping ecosystems healthy and reducing vulnerability to flooding, droughts and heat — all of which are becoming more common with a warming climate. Moreover, forests are essential to storing and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, which in turn reduces climate change.

“At the state level we’re focused on solutions that try to tackle both prioritizing solar installation on developed land where vegetation and soils have been removed or disturbed such as rooftop solar,” Antos said. “And second, improving the design of dual-use solar installations on cropland or pasture.”

As for environmental justice, panelists agreed that all people regardless of race, income or other factors should reap the benefits of solar.

“We need to think carefully about how we’re taking these actions, ensuring that our most disadvantaged communities are not overburdened disproportionately by this energy transition,” said Antos, identifying three main priorities: affordability, reliability and equitable siting practices.

Mahony identified the Environmental Protection Agency’s Solar for All program as one tool to help bring solar access and projects to low-income communities. Solar for All, a $7 billion program, offers grants to states, territories, tribal governments, municipalities and nonprofits to provide affordable and resilient solar energy to low-income and disadvantaged communities.

“We think that we’re really poised quite well to offer a competitive application,” Mahony said. “We’ve struggled to bring the value of solar ownership, the benefits of solar production to these communities, so we think that these monies are going to really unlock a lot of that for us.”

Federal perspectives

Nicole Steele, a representative from the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy, laid out the threefold climate priorities of the Biden-Harris administration: “addressing the climate crisis, ensuring equity and creating high-quality jobs.”

Specific nationwide goals include reaching 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035 and achieving a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.

To do so, according to the Department of Energy’s Solar Futures Study, the U.S. needs to install an average of 30 gigawatts of solar capacity per year between now and 2025, and 60 gigawatts per year from 2025 to 2030.

And about 0.5% of U.S. surface area will be needed for solar development. To put that number into perspective, 43% of surface area is used for agriculture, 5% accounts for urban areas and paved roadways, and Yellowstone National Park covers 0.1% of surface area, according to a graphic presented at the Sept. 5 panel.

“There are many challenges that are going to come with this, whether it’s siting, whether it’s interconnection, whether it’s how we’re going to do this equitably,” said Department of Energy representative Juan Botero.

“Siting is hyperlocal,” he added. “Siting decisions are based on the context of the individual facility, the individual community, the policies in that state or county or municipality. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.”

In an effort to expand expertise and decision-making capabilities of states, the Department of Energy created a program — Renewable Energy Siting Through Technical Engagement and Planning (R-STEP) — that provides funding for statewide solar capacity building.

In addition, the Inflation Reduction Act that went into effect in August 2022 includes clean energy tax incentives, including incentives specifically for solar installation.

Maddie Fabian can be reached at mfabian@gazettenet.com or on Twitter @MaddieFabian.