AT A TIME when our country is already in the grips of a global pandemic and social unrest, a disagreement over an obscure solar policy may seem unimportant – trivial even. But this summer, Massachusetts is threatening to tie the hands of its farmers by making it much more difficult for them to host solar farms to help stay in business.
With Massachusetts unemployment at a staggering 15.1 percent and the likelihood that up to 70 solar projects currently underway or planned for future investment would be shelved—along with hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars already invested—the regulations underway will have unintentional but long lasting economic and environmental effects on the Commonwealth’s already hard-hit agricultural sector.
First, a little background: last summer, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) began a review of its Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program. Then this April, the Commonwealth issued regulations that would double the size of the program, but at the same time make as much as 90 percent of land in Massachusetts unavailable for community solar projects that have become an economic lifeline for many of our farms.
Ostensibly, these regulations were drafted to protect open space and address concerns in rural communities in the western part of the state that solar projects have not always taken community needs into account. But the reality is, these new rules make both challenges harder.
Farming is an important part of the Massachusetts economy, providing direct employment to nearly 26,000 people and producing $475 million in goods annually. But most of our farms are small operations that are family owned and highly sensitive to the economic disruption brought on by COVID-19. That’s why many Farm Bureau members are interested in hosting solar farms to stay in business.
Whereas farming is typically seasonal, with profits greatly impacted by the weather and markets, income from solar can help stave off financial stress, providing financial viability and additional, year-round, predictable income. Most important of all, solar arrays are temporary – and can be removed when the solar lease expires, and the land readily converted back to agricultural use. The same cannot be said about any other form of development available to farms.
Farmers aren’t the only ones feeling the economic pinch from the state’s new regulations. Also left out will be the people who benefit from community solar – homeowners and renters who can’t mount solar panels on their rooftops, businesses and nonprofits that want to meet sustainability goals, and schools and municipalities that want to use clean energy to save taxpayers money. Indeed, whether it is upgrades to the electric grid, tax revenue to local municipalities, or electricity savings for consumers, each community solar project typically provides between $4.5 million and $7.5 million in economic benefits.
By contrast, making it harder to site solar on farm land will reduce revenue for cities and towns that were already preparing for historic budget shortfalls in the face of COVID-19. It will drive up energy costs for some Massachusetts consumers who pay the highest electricity costs in the continental US – many of whom have lost their jobs. And, it will put an estimated 1,500 more people out of work.
Ironically, even the environment loses out in these new rules. Why? Because while they put more barriers to siting solar on farm and forest land, they don’t do the same for any other form of development. So, if these regulations go into effect as written, it will actually be easier to build a strip mall on farm and forest land than a solar array.
That is why we are hoping the DOER will adjust the emergency regulations to “grandfather” projects that have already spent considerable time and money in good faith to comply with existing rules. We can protect open space without foreclosing on opportunities for responsible solar development. And we can do both in a way that preserves family farmland without harming it.
It’s hard to believe that any of these outcomes were intentional. Renewable energy policy in Massachusetts is increasingly complex – and when you factor in the agricultural and environmental issues at play with solar farms, it becomes an even more difficult balancing act.
But the negative consequences of these new solar rules are real – and will penalize farmers and rural communities, possibly for decades to come. Let’s not take a step back for Massachusetts at a time we can least afford it.
Mark Amato is president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, a nonprofit that advocates for and is run by farmers.