When the cost of solar is forestland and farms

By SCOTT MERZBACH, Staff Writer, Daily Hampshire Gazette

As the state’s Department of Environmental Resources makes a push to expand the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program and encourage more solar projects to increase the supply of renewable energy, there are questions about whether wooded land, and the carbon sequestration benefits trees offer, will be compromised.

This concern has periodically come up in the region, including in Belchertown and Shutesbury, where large stands of trees have been proposed for clear-cutting to make way for photovoltaic panels.

Sean Garren of Vote Solar Action Fund, which has advocated for greater use of solar, said cutting down trees, or taking over prime agricultural land, is a valid worry, and should be addressed in any comprehensive plan for addressing climate change.

“Balancing the development of the clean energy required to save our people, lands and forests from the extreme effects of climate change with the need to protect our most precious lands as well as maintain growing healthy forests to combat climate change, is challenging,” Garren said.

One solution is to continue putting as much solar as possible on marginal lands, he said, as well as on roofs and over parking lots.

Already-cleared land should be encouraged for use, he said, as there are opportunities for farmland to share crops and solar installations.

“Instead of merely penalizing solar on open lands, we should be encouraging the use of solar projects as pasture land, the planting of pollinator-friendly plants under and around solar projects, and the conservation of other lands simultaneously with solar growth,” Garren said.

Mickey Marcus, a principal and senior scientist at SWCA Environmental Consultants in Amherst, said he has worked with many farmers interested in solar to supplement their crops.

“They have viewed solar as a great way to pay for taxes and to keep them from selling the land,” Marcus said.

He points to Allard Farm in Hadley, which use fields near the Hampshire Mall, alongside corn and hay, for a solar project. That site was once contemplated as the location for a large Walmart.

In Minnesota, Marcus said, he has seen intercropping, in which wildflower seed mixes and pollinator plants that attract bees are planted among solar panels.

Forestland is typically more difficult to develop, Marcus said, noting that a 6-megawatt project, typical in the state, will mean the need to clear about 30 acres of trees. These are also challenging to develop because of runoff issues and other effects of removing timber.

A written report from Brighton solar installer Greg Hering of the Coalition for Community Solar Access argues that in recent years, forest land is far more likely to be turned into housing developments or used for commercial retail than used for solar projects in the state.

Statistics provided by the Solar Renewable Energy Certificates program in Massachusetts, which helped to get the state to 1,600 megawatts capacity, shows that of the 2.7 million acres of forest in 2001, just 2 percent, or 52,352 acres, were developed by 2016. Of that development, 2,163 acres, representing just 4 percent of the land developed, went for solar.

It’s projected that an increase of 800 megawatts of solar capacity through expansion of SMART projects would consume an additional 4,000 acres of wooded land.

Because of that, Hering, director of development for Bright Lite Energy LLC, would like to see restrictions that some communities have imposed lifted on cutting down woodlands for solar installations.

“The interconnection limitations of the grid create a situation where landowners of large acreages can earn long-term revenue from using a portion of their land for solar, decreasing financial pressure to permanently convert the rest of their land to residential and commercial retail,” Hering said.

He pointed out that a retail parking lot or a residential foundation is more permanent than the installation of solar, which can be returned to farming or forestry.

Bill Moomaw of Tufts University, in a presentation to the Climate Action Now organization, observed that cutting trees is not usually the best course of action because people cause the release of 11 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere every year, yet the net amount added to the atmosphere increases by only 5 billion tons because natural systems — namely forests, wetlands, soils and the oceans — take up the balance.

“Often calculations show that solar panels that replace fossil fuel-generated electricity lower carbon dioxide by more than displaced trees will store. But that is not the whole story,” Moomaw told Climate Action Now.

For example, urban trees store carbon and also directly cool by shading and by evaporating water from their leaves, while forests also cool, clean air and water, prevent flooding and soil erosion, and maintain a biological diversity of plants and animals, he said.

Developing more solar is a complicated challenge, Garren said, urging thoughtful and data-driven solutions as natural disasters and increasingly severe weather continue to show the costs of a warming planet.

“With the recent threat of hurricanes, tornadoes and invasive species and diseases, we are reminded that we cannot afford to slow the pursuit of climate solutions,” Garren said.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at