The demand for permits for solar electricity-generating projects is growing so fast the state and the power grid can’t keep up.
That should be the signal the Baker administration needs to find ways to raise the goals for bringing more solar-generated electricity online.
The state launched the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program in November, prompting nearly 15,000 applications for solar projects generating a combined 1,100 MW of electricity, the State House News Service reported. At a recent Senate oversight hearing, administration officials proposed expanding the original 1,600-MW plan by 800 MW, listing some of challenges in the way of a bolder expansion. Solar industry groups are pushing for a 3,200-MW expansion.
The program, administered by the state Department of Energy Resources, requires companies applying for approval of a solar project to be interconnected by one of three investor-owned utility companies in Massachusetts: Eversource, National Grid and Unitil. Approved projects receive an incentive paid by the utility to the system owner, but each utility has established blocks that decline in incentive rates between each block.
In other words, there’s a limit on how many projects and how many megawatts will be approved.
The list of applicants is impressive throughout our region, from proposals for building-mounted solar panels to generate 51 kilowatts at a project in Hamilton, 250 kW in Haverhill, 180 kW on a Lawrence building and almost 100 kW in a proposal by Cummings Properties in Beverly. On the larger end of the scale, projects proposed by BlueWave in Beverly on a landfill would produce 3,500 kW, and by BWC Artichoke Reservoir LLC on the former Newburyport landfill would produce 2,000 kW. The current solar array under construction at a former Amesbury landfill, by Kearsarge Amesbury LLC, is expected to produce 3,000 kW once it goes online.
Advocates for more solar power, including state Sen. Mark Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, are pushing the Baker folks to think bigger. Solar power is viewed as a major piece of the renewable energy production we need to reduce greenhouse gases in Massachusetts. It’s those gases that contribute to climate change and the resulting sea level rise and unpredictable and powerful storms that are expected to batter our coastline more frequently.
Judith Judson, the Department of Energy Resources commissioner, told those at the recent hearing that the grid needs to catch up before so many solar projects can go online.
But Pacheco was blunt. “We need to move much more quickly,” he said in a Statehouse News Service story.
He urged state officials to acknowledge the growing threat of climate change and said the state’s utilities and the Department of Public Utilities are fixated on the reliability of the grid and the price of power.
It’s not just a small group of people behind the push for widespread solar power generation.
The News Service said a report done by the Brattle Group for the Coalition for Community Solar Access concluded New England will need to add 10 times more renewable energy each year than is now planned if we’re going to achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Interestingly, another study released before the Senate hearing found that solar energy development has had minimal impact on land in Massachusetts, with 0.13% of open space used for that purpose and only 0.08% of the total forest area converted for development of solar arrays. The study by Bright Lite Energy also concluded that 95 percent of open space development between 2001 and 2016 went to commercial development unrelated to solar energy.
Solar is just one of the renewables in the mix, of course, but given the success with it so far, and the huge number of applications for projects across the state, it must be a big piece of this equation. The Baker administration must do all it can to encourage solar development – in the right places – and provide incentives that will bring projects online as quickly as possible.