By Laura Draucker
In December, the Energy and Climate Action Committee (ECAC, of which I am the chair) submitted a letter to Town Council recommending that, before the Council enacts a solar zoning bylaw, it support the town in conducting a solar assessment and planning process. I summarize our letter in this post.
Burning fossil fuels to power vehicles, create the materials and products we use every day, and heat and power our homes and buildings contributes to nearly 90 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Climate change has already contributed to devastation across the globe and must be curtailed to avoid unimaginable impacts to livelihoods and the environment.
To address this, the Commonwealth has enacted several laws and policies designed to move the state toward net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. Interim goals for 2025 and 2030 should be established by July of this year. In addition, the Town of Amherst has made its own commitments to reducing GHG emissions, also aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050 with interim goals of 25 and 50 percent reductions by 2025 and 2030, respectively. These goals are what is required to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Last year, ECAC supported the town in developing the “Climate Action, Adaptation, and Resiliency Plan” (CAARP), which lays out specific actions we need to implement to meet our goals.
A key component of Massachusetts’s “2050 Roadmap” is expanding wind and solar power to provide the energy previously provided by fossil fuels. Even with the necessary improvements to energy efficiency, electricity demand is expected to more than double due to widespread electrification of buildings and transportation services. That electricity must be from clean, renewable resources to meet our goals, and doubling the clean electricity supply will require solar and wind generation to increase more than ten times from 2025 through 2050. Offshore wind power is slated to provide the majority of new generation capacity, but an estimated 20-23 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity will also be needed. As of the end of 2020, Massachusetts had about 3.4 GW of total solar capacity installed.
Thus, a staggering amount of new solar capacity must be developed. The state estimates that, even with maximal rooftop deployment, ground-mounted solar on approximately 60,000 acres of state land will be needed over the next 30 years. While ECAC believes we need a process where we can come together as a community and determine what the Town of Amherst’s share should be, it is likely to amount to several hundred acres.
Forests in Massachusetts currently sequester the equivalent of about 7 percent of state GHG emissions. The Roadmap concludes that, even with losses of forests to development of housing and clean energy resources, forests will continue to grow and increase GHG sequestration.
Locally, we should ensure that our natural resources are protected while we develop solar capacity, and we feel a solar resource assessment is needed. An assessment would address questions such as:
- How much rooftop, parking lot canopy, brownfield, and ground-mounted solar is available in Amherst to meet the Town’s and Commonwealth’s goals for 2025, 2030, and 2050?
- How much land is available that currently qualifies for Massachusetts SMART program incentives? (That stands for Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target.) What are the current uses of that land, and who are the owners?
- How much Amherst land will be needed for solar facilities to meet 2050 goals beyond the amount allowed under our current land-use policies?
- What may be the impact of the town’s efforts on the state’s climate change goals?
- What may be our goals for solar capacity?
- What are the pros and cons of siting alternatives to create that capacity?
- What are residents’ perspectives and preferences?
- What may be local benefits of solar financing and ownership options?
- How can we engage with developers and the Community Choice Aggregation program?
A toolkit that communities can use to engage in a solar planning process should soon be available from the UMass Clean Energy Extension. The information developed by such a planning process can help the Town develop a solar bylaw that:
- Recognizes the importance and likely need for ground-mounted solar;
- Guides solar development in favorable locations and balances community values with the need for renewable energy;
- Incentivizes suitable solar developments through expedited review and permitting;
- Identifies and requires best practices for natural resource management on parcels hosting solar developments; and
- Is consistent with existing local and state laws and climate action commitments.
ECAC is ready to help.
This post has not been authorized by ECAC.
3 thoughts on “Town-wide solar assessment should precede solar zoning bylaw”
I see that The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources published a Model Zoning for the Regulation of Solar Energy Systems in 2014 (https://www.mass.gov/doc/model-solar-zoning-0/download). I believe a previous entry on The Amherst Current noted that there are several towns/cities in Massachusetts that have adopted solar farm regulations. Therefore, I do not see the need to wait 18 months for the Town of Amherst to basically “re-invent the wheel”, as the saying goes. It is fine and good that we have our own set of solar farm regulations; however, I do not understand why such zoning parameters and requirements could not be developed in 6 months. Haven’t we waited long enough (i.e., several years) for action on this matter?
Hi John – Great question. The good news is that the town council had allocated some sustainability funding for this current fiscal year that can be used for the solar study, and Stephanie Ciccarello (town sustainability coordinator for those who may not know!) is already working with other town staff to get that process started. Longer-term I think there are likely some creative solutions – and state funds – to minimize the cost to the town and residents, so the resources needed will be time for staff and community members to develop these solutions and bring them forward. We may want to consider forming a working group between ECAC, Affordable Housing Trust, Community Choice Aggregation, and others that will focus on clean and equitable energy access and that can bridge some current gaps. Something to think about!
Thanks, Laura. This is a great outline of how need to proceed. What resources should Town Council be allocating to set us on this path?
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