By Elisa Campbell
The climate crisis requires us to work quickly to reduce fossil fuel use. We need to create policies and incentives to encourage rapid development of solar where we most want it. We can’t spend months, let alone years, obtaining the “perfect” versus other possibilities.
Many of us prefer that solar projects be put on already disturbed land and over parking lots. Are we willing to support state subsidies for commercial rooftop and parking lot solar arrays? Are we willing to pay more for electricity to cover the true costs of building the facilities (with subsidies for low-income ratepayers)? We have to take action to make change happen and solve the problems that we who have benefited from industrialization have caused.
Massachusetts has been pursuing putting solar photovoltaics on closed landfills. Amherst is currently doing this on the closed landfill north of Belchertown Road.
According to Stephanie Ciccarello, the Town’s Sustainability Coordinator, town government will be an “off-taker” for the power produced by this project – we will get credit for the power generated there. That’s expected to be 4 megawatts, which covers about two-thirds of the Town’s energy use for buildings, lights, etc. In addition, the company building (and owning) the project will pay the Town $78,000 a year for 20 years as rent for the land (some of that will be in the form of a Payment in Lieu of Taxes or PILOT).
Many of us wish a project like this could have happened earlier. It didn’t for three basic reasons: opposition by neighbors to the previously proposed site, discovery of an endangered species on that site, and the complexity of siting and arranging for permits, etc.
The first proposal, in 2015, included siting collectors on both discontinued landfills (north and south of Belchertown Road). There was strenuous opposition by some of the homeowners abutting the southern landfill, including claims the landfill was not safe for solar arrays (untrue) and court challenges. The argument that held up was the discovery of an endangered bird species – the Grasshopper Sparrow – using the grassland on top of the old landfill as a nesting site. So the proposal was changed to put collectors on the northern landfill, and create a conservation easement for the Sparrow on the southern landfill (a fence will be installed to protect the birds from dogs, etc.).
Any project needs funding and to meet many criteria. The site has to be carefully studied to be sure it is suitable. The Department of Public Utilities and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection have to issue permits, and the local utility company – in this case, Eversource – has to agree to purchase the power. Someone must come up with the large dollar amount to do all this preparatory environmental and legal work, to buy the materials, actually install the panels, and pay all the costs of connecting to the grid. All this before any money comes in.
One selected developer had financial problems during the years of permitting and the Town had to select another. In order to make it work financially, the developer needs to find a customer able and willing to commit to paying for the electricity that will be generated – to be an off-taker. The developer can’t build the project unless all the power is committed (they won’t get a loan without evidence it can be paid back); in our situation, the Town is able to commit for all 4 megawatts the facility will generate.
Everything I said about the permits and costs of siting photovoltaics on a closed landfill applies equally to putting them on canopies over a parking lot. But more so: the steel pillars needed to hold the canopies are a major expense, for example. Also, since an existing parking lot surface will be torn up to install the electrical cables, concrete footings for the pillars, etc. it is best to do it on a parking lot that was due to be resurfaced, not one with a new surface. The overall result is that creating a solar site on a canopy over a parking lot costs twice as much as creating one on open land.
We have several examples of canopies over parking lots in Amherst, courtesy of the University of Massachusetts. According to Ezra Small, Campus Sustainability Manager, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts created grant and incentive programs for state agencies to create solar projects on their properties, and the University has received significant grant funds over the course of the past five years or so of canopy development on campus.
Solar canopies over parking lots were in earlier stages of market development in 2015, so the first project on campus, near the Robsham Memorial Visitors Center on Massachusetts Avenue, was a pilot project. UMass put up its own capital funds, combined with a Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources Leading by Example grant of $268,000 to fund the project, but since then has partnered with commercial developers on much larger canopy projects: the developer comes up with the capital, UMass enters into a Site License Agreement with them for the parking lots, and like the Town with the landfill project, has a 20-year agreement to purchase the power. There are now five parking lots generating over 10 million kilowatt hours per year of renewable electricity, the equivalent of the amount used by 1,430 Massachusetts homes or about 30 percent of homes in Amherst.
The projects have definitely been a success: without taking on the capital expense of installing the solar canopies, UMass has a fixed rate for electricity expenses for 20 years, has less need for snowplowing, and shows its commitment, on campus, to solar power.
You probably have noticed that the two private colleges in Amherst have not done projects over their own parking lots. Hampshire College does supply its own energy from the large ground-mount array along Bay Road.
Nor have commercial properties in Amherst or nearby Hadley installed arrays over parking lots. River Valley Co-op, working with Co-op Power, put collectors on the roof and over the parking lot on their new building in Easthampton.
The state offers significant tax incentives for solar canopies, but not enough to make up for the additional costs. Additional complications include important infrastructure or easements under parking lots (such as for sewage, water, or gas lines) or multiple owners. Similarly, the roofs of large commercial buildings often have utilities (as for air conditioning) on them and were generally not built with adequate support for solar panels.
For more information on green energy projects in Amherst, see our previous post.