A Frank Take

Massachusetts and Rhode Island Share Solar-Siting Buffoonery


Both the Bay State and Ocean State need to do a better job protecting open space when it comes to siting solar projects. (Growing Solar, Protecting Nature)

Some good news for the Ocean State, kind of. Rhode Island isn’t the only southern New England state bungling the siting of ground-mounted solar arrays. A recent report determined Massachusetts’ existing solar-siting policies are counterproductive, haphazard, and need to be revised.

There’s good news for the Bay State, though. Rhode Island is still doing a lousier job when it comes to managing solar development.

A rapid transition to cleaner electric power is imperative for meeting Massachusetts’ commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, according to the Growing Solar, Protecting Nature report released last month.

But, like in Rhode Island, much of Massachusetts’ renewable energy development has been shortsighted.

“Solar energy in all its forms — rooftops, canopies, and ground-mount systems — must play a major role in this transition,” according to the report co-authored by Mass Audubon and Harvard Forest. “The absolute urgency of the climate crisis, however, does not justify sacrificing our natural and working lands to make way for ground-mount solar. We can have our forests, working lands, and solar, too.”

The lead to the Oct. 2 press release announcing the report’s publication read: “The current siting of large, ground-mount solar development poses a clear threat to vital forests and farmlands in Massachusetts. But developing more solar energy to meet clean energy goals doesn’t have to come at the expense of these critical habitats.”

The comprehensive report noted that by shifting from utility-scale ground-mounted solar arrays on open space to solar panels on rooftops, over parking lots, and on already-developed lands, Massachusetts could meet its goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 while simultaneously protecting forests and farmlands.

Massachusetts has lost more than 5,000 acres of forest and prime farmland to solar projects since 2010, according to the report. During the past 13 years, more than 500 ground-mounted solar projects have been developed, covering some 8,000 acres, of which about 60% had been forested.

In Rhode Island, some 1,100 acres of forest have been cleared during the past six years to make room for ground-mounted solar arrays. That’s when the state, under the leadership of then-Gov. Gina Raimondo, called for more renewable energy. The state, however, offered no real plan for how to wisely incorporate solar energy into the landscape. State officials didn’t adequately communicate with municipal officials and municipal officials seldom communicated with each other. The result was a Wild West approach to renewable energy siting.

Some developers bullied their way in, left a trail of open space destruction, and were routinely cited for environmental noncompliance.

A similar scenario is playing out in Massachusetts.

“We need to think not only about how many acres we’re using for solar development, but also which acres are being developed,” said Jonathan Thompson, senior ecologist at Harvard Forest and the report’s co-principal researcher. “Our core forests are incredibly valuable for wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and carbon storage, and we must do everything we can to protect them from further fragmentation.”

The release of the Mass Audubon/Harvard Forest report dovetailed with Gov. Maura Healey’s executive order to create biodiversity goals for Massachusetts.

Among the report’s key points included:

Current solar development trends would cause the loss of 6.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2050 — roughly equivalent to the annual CO₂ emissions of the city of Boston.

By protecting the most valuable natural and working lands from development, Massachusetts could produce enough solar energy to meet our greenhouse gas emission goals, while preserving 76% more forest carbon than our current trajectory would predict and protecting nearly 100% of our remaining essential wildlife habitat and prime farmland.

Massachusetts’ rooftops and parking lots alone could support up to 30 gigawatts of solar, and sites with low impacts to nature and farms could support another 25 gigawatts.

“Before we cut any more trees to build solar, Massachusetts needs to cover every parking lot, rooftop, and capped landfill with solar to protect the precious trees that absorb carbon dioxide and provide habitat to wildlife, as well as desperately needed cooling shade and flood protection,” said Phil Coupe, co-founder of ReVision Energy. “Solar canopies on parking lots reduce urban heat, shelter drivers from the elements, and generate zero-emission solar electricity that can power electric vehicles and nearby buildings.”

The report also made several policy recommendations, including:

Eliminate state incentives for solar projects on valuable natural and working lands while increasing incentives for solar on rooftops and already-developed lands.

Invest in reducing the labor and permitting costs of rooftop and canopy solar projects.

Support large-scale landowners in building solar on rooftops and near existing transmission infrastructure.

Launch a statewide planning effort to integrate renewable energy and transmission infrastructure into the process of land development.

“One of the goals of this work is to broaden how we think about the costs and benefits of the clean energy transition and what we need to fight climate change,” said Michelle Manion, vice president for policy and advocacy at Mass Audubon and the report’s co-principal researcher. “Our results are clear: when we place real value on nature’s contribution to the fight against climate change and protection of biodiversity, the path forward with the lowest costs is the one that solves for both clean energy and nature.”

A 2020 report found the Ocean State could produce a greater amount of electricity than it consumes by installing solar arrays on more roofs, landfills, brownfields, gravel pits, and parking lots.

When it was released, open space advocates said the report, titled “Solar Siting Opportunities for Rhode Island,” proved that woodlands, meadows, and farmland don’t need to be cleared and covered to meet state renewable energy objectives and climate emission reduction efforts.

Perhaps, before it’s too late, elected officials in both states will stop the unnecessary sacrifice of the natural world to procure more renewable energy. Of course, such a development shift makes too much sense and not enough cents.

Note: To watch a video presentation of the October report, click here.

Frank Carini can be reached at [email protected]. His opinions don’t reflect those of ecoRI News.


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  1. Frank, you seem to have a double standard when it comes to the environmental damage caused by solar versus the environmental damage caused by offshore wind. Can I presume that it’s just because you can see the damage caused by solar but the damage to our oceans will be below the surface (if you don’t count turbine sprawl as environmental damage)? Your articles has the following quote:
    Jonathan Thompson, senior ecologist at Harvard Forest and the report’s co-principal researcher. “Our core forests are incredibly valuable for wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and carbon storage, and we must do everything we can to protect them from further fragmentation.”
    You could substitute ‘ocean is’ here for ‘core forests are’ and it would serve just as well, would it not?

  2. Representative Megan Cotter submitted a solar siting reform bill last session that would have only provided state incentives to fund solar on already developed and disturbed sites such as rooftops, landfills and brownfields.
    Her bill would have avoided subsequent solar development from RI’s farms, forests and important habitat. This would have implemented the key recommendations from the MA Audubon report in RI
    Unfortunately, the bill didn’t make it out of committee.

  3. Good read . When better solar technology advances it will be interesting to see what the future plan is for every large site . I’ve never been involved with solar , however it seems there’s going to be alot of left over concrete footings and obsolete panels that need to be demolished .

  4. Ed, I have never said or written offshore wind should be sited willy-nilly. Like all energy sources it comes with concerns/impacts that need to be studied and addressed. Just like ground-mounted solar it must be sited responsibly. But offshore wind, like other sources of renewable energy, has to be part of our energy future if we want to power society and kick our addiction to fossil fuels. The biggest threat to the marine environment is the continued burning/our reliance on fossil fuels. Just last week some 1.1 million gallons of crude oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico from a pipeline off the coast of Louisiana. — Frank Carini, ecoRI News

  5. Thanks Frank for again reporting accurately the mess we are in with solar siting in forests and woodlands. The lack of laws and regulations to prevent such forest destruction rests completely on state legislatures and municipalities. Cutting down trees/forests to sit solar panels? This is idiotic and reprehensible. There a many hundreds of existing cites in RI to sit solar that don’t involve forest and farm lands. Sitting solar close to existing transmission lines/infrastructure is the way to go as you mentioned.

  6. Glad you mentioned that 2020 report. Frankly, that should have been all that was needed to stop cutting of trees or use of green space for solar projects in Rhode Island. We fought hard in Warwick to be sure that forests and green spaces here are protected under the new Solar Ordinance that was passed in 2022. https://ecori.org/warwick-restricts-solar-development-to-commercial-industrial-parcels/ Other cities and towns should follow suit! Once I saw the push this year for statewide solar siting laws, I’ve been concerned that it might undermine the good we’ve done here; time will tell. Don’t be fooled by the ever-greedy solar companies, who seem to have no care for anything except for profit, and who use scare tactics and payoffs to get the land that they want. They don’t have to live with the consequences, so it’s no skin off their backs, just $ in their pockets! Solar panels aren’t end-game solutions either… technology advances more and more each year, so having a longview of problems/solutions instead of doing the most convenient thing at the time, would be the wiser option. Big solar projects are problematic on many fronts. Just look to California, who implemented them early-on and is now facing a huge issue with disposing of the toxic-materials of the many panels that now need replacing. https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2022-07-14/california-rooftop-solar-pv-panels-recycling-danger I’m not even going to get into the environmental and ecological production and transportation costs of solar, or how the big solar projects have yet to really equal out in energy their worth vs what they’ve sacrificed… The risk of heavy metal contamination of soil and water alone is no joke. The fact that siting as suggested in the 2020 report you linked to would provide all the energy RI needed, and doesn’t involve green spaces or cutting trees, is enough reason to regulate solar siting in the same manner as we’ve done in the Warwick Solar Ordinance… anything else seems to be nothing more than nefarious greasing of palms.

  7. First, let me say I love forests and spend as much time in them as I can, but I think this issue isn’t as black and white as this makes it out to be. First, the reports talk about the CO2 that forest sequester, but it seems clear that solar panels lead to much higher reductions in CO2 than forests do. A recent newsletter from Bill McKibben cited research suggesting that an acre of solar panels reduces CO2 by 144 to 166 times the CO2 sequestered in an average acre of forest! I thought it wasn’t nearly this high, but even if it is only 10 times as much that is still something. Also, the amounts of forest being cleared sound like a lot. 1100 acres in RI over 6 years! But there are about 380,000 acres of forest in RI, so this represents about 0.05% of the total per year. Of course, there are better places to put solar panels than most forests, but often these other places, like roofs and parking lots, are much more expensive to build solar panels. It isn’t always a choice between a panel in a forest and a panel on a roof, but a panel in a forest or no panel at all. Then what is the better choice? Also, it is not necessarily an ecological disaster for some forests to be cut down, especially less central or diverse forests. It provides other habitats for wildlife, and we have eliminated other ways that pockets of forest have naturally been removed such as beaver ponds and forest fires. And certainly, farmland is not always such a boon to nature, as they are often a source of chemical ladened runoff. I am conflicted about this issue, but just wanted to suggest that it isn’t as easy an issue as it seems to be for those of us who really care about preserving the natural world.

  8. Of course when there is “free” federal subsidy money falling down from above, crony developers are going to whip out the chainsaws and level CO2-absorbing forests. It’s the path of least resistance for a fast buck — and more expensive electricity for consumers. It makes a ton more sense to have small-footprint natural gas power generation together with lots of trees doing their wondrous thing.

  9. The stupidity, greed, and short sightedness of the human race never cease to amaze me. We are the most invasive species on earth and seem to think our immediate needs are more important than the very earth itself (and all its plant life and creatures) or even its future for our own descendants. Even when we try to do something right, we F it up. Makes me sad and sick.

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