Massachusetts has consistently been a leader in the solar industry and has continued to be aggressive with its policy on renewable energy. However, they still have an overwhelming need to increase solar capacity and have been working hard to develop a policy that will support the state’s need for more solar projects while keeping industry and environmental groups happy. While policymakers have been working out a way to desperately increase capacity and expand their solar initiatives, there are still concerns about slow development, land use, and interconnection issues around the state. Land use is the most recent debate after limitations were criticized when the state announced them as part of the emergency revision to the SMART program in April. DOER announced the final rules Tuesday that would govern Massachusetts solar program, maintaining the increase in size but leaving in place some guidelines on land use that leave the industry wondering how it will affect development. 

The SMART program emergency revision increased capacity from 1.6 gigawatts to 3.2 gigawatts; however, there were also some changes that included restrictions on three categories of land-critical natural landscape, core habitat, and priority habitat.The final regulations decided on Tuesday that the state will relax some of the land use categories that some say were overly restrictive. Industry leaders say these portions of land cover a significant portion of the state, and would make many projects ineligible for program benefits under the state’s recent expansion. This week’s final ruling lifted the restrictions on critical natural landscape for solar projects that are already underway as part of the newly expanded 1.6 gigawatt program. The industry is happy with the results that strike  “a balance between protecting key endangered species habitats and continuing clean energy development”. 

Many developers are interested in spurring growth through solar farms, or ground mount solar projects. It’s an excellent investment for the landowner, allowing the landowner to use previously underutilized land to produce energy for the utility while collecting a new revenue stream. Studies also show that it benefits the land to lie fallow and regenerate, and more developers are implementing pollinator friendly solar projects with the goal of protecting the agriculture around the solar project. The utility, the industry, and the landowner benefit from this type of development. It is also less expensive to develop solar projects on greenfields, making them preferable for most developers.

So what is the cost of protecting our renewable energy goals versus protecting our land? Some say that DOER’s previous new SMART rules would keep the status quo, harm prospects for quick renewable development, fail to help farmers, and risk throwing away 475 megawatts of projects, jobs, and tax revenue. In public comments submitted on the changes, farmers, developers, and some state lawmakers asked DOER to approach land use guidance with a lighter hand. Environmentalists are asking the state to go further to conserve vulnerable land, while solar companies and industry leaders are asking for Massachusetts to protect its national leadership role in the solar industry. 

Final guidelines struck a balance by keeping most land use restrictions in place but will also allow developers with projects underway to follow previous regulations if they had submitted an interconnection agreement within six months of the emergency regulations.  Developers and industry leaders both agree it’s time to protect our farmers and continue the development of ground mounted photovoltaic farms that can easily get to 100 percent renewables quickly and effectively to also meet state goals. 

If you have questions on the recent updates to Massachusetts SMART program contact Louth Callan Renewables at 860-814-4379 and we can walk you through the latest developments and how they will affect your decision to go solar. 

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