Solar Farms and Seeing the Forest for the Trees

The idea of using clean power is widely accepted. Solar farms are an increasingly popular solution to help combat climate change. Compared to other power generation methods they make good neighbors – emitting no emissions or noise. They can be unobtrusive and very flexible in their install sites. This all makes them a more attractive option to communities than just about any other power generation option.

Massachusetts gets most of its energy from natural gas, which means energy prices here are tied to the volatile price of petroleum. Residents here pay a higher percentage of their income for energy than most other states. Solar farms are cost effective because they enjoy greater economies of scale than roof-mounted arrays on buildings.

In terms of siting, most people can agree that putting solar panels on a capped landfill or a parking lot is a no brainer – and there are even state programs in place in Massachusetts to encourage that. Many arrays have already been built on such sites. Landfills host solar farms in Chicopee, Hudson, Amesbury and there’s an array going up on the decommissioned Mt. Tom Coal Plant in Holyoke, to name just a few projects.  There aren’t many of these so-called brownfield sites left, but we still have a long way to go on Massachusetts’ greenhouse gas reduction targets, so it’s important to evaluate sites that involve tree clearing for solar farm installations.

Massachusetts is both densely populated and heavily forested. It’s the fourth most densely populated state in the US, and has 62% forest cover. According to the Boston Globe, “…nearly 50,000 acres of forest — at a pace of 13 acres a day — between 2005 and 2013…” was used for new housing developments. Any trees cleared for solar projects would not be on conservation land. Solar farms would be hosted on private land designated for agricultural or commercial purposes. If it’s not used for solar, it will probably be used for something else.

The good news is all solar farms, even those that involve cutting down trees, help fight climate change. In fact, solar farms are a more powerful way to fight climate change than trees are. If you compare carbon offset per acre, solar wins out. One acre of solar in Massachusetts offsets about 134 tons of CO2 per year per acre, nearly ten times as much as temperate forest lands, which removes 15 tons of CO2 per year per acre.

In addition to climate change, we need to consider the impact land use has on the people living there. Forests provide recreational space for residents, maintain healthy ecosystems and habitat for wildlife, filter air and water, protect against land erosion, and provide a buffer against floods.  For those of us that want to protect forests, it’s important to look at the big picture – we’ve already seen changes in our temperate forests due to climate change. This will only get worse in the future – we can expect changes in weather patterns that native species will have trouble adjusting to. If sacrificing a few acres of trees will help preserve all of our forests, it seems like a worthwhile trade.

Then there’s the fact that we can recover the land used for solar arrays after their useful life has ended. The panels can be replaced or arrays removed and forests allowed to return.  Massachusetts has not always been as heavily forested as it is now – historically the state has had heavy industrial use. Most of the state’s forests are only 80 years old. In the 1800s, Massachusetts had used most of its timber and was down to only 28% forest coverage. We’ve bounced back since then, regenerating the state’s forest.  Finally, if we only built solar farms in wooded areas, just 6,000 acres of solar out of the state’s 3 million acres of trees – that’s only 0.2% – could supply all of Massachusetts’ power needs.

We’re in a position where we need drastic changes and actionable solutions now if we want to avoid serious climate change.  Community solar farms boost the local economy, reduce pollution, help regulate energy prices and bring cost savings to residents. Most sites for community solar are not on forested land, and proposed arrays would only require a small amount of acreage. That land would offset more carbon with a solar farm than it can now and it’s better put to use for solar than for other development. Maybe most importantly, moving to clean energy will help preserve our forests in the long term.  


Community Solar Makes Solar Available to All


Ready to go Community Solar?

See if Community Solar is available in your area and schedule an appointment.



Energy Awareness Month 2018 – Take Action for a Sustainable Future

October is National Energy Awareness Month! In 1991, President Bush proclaimed the month of October a time to raise awareness and take action to manage America’s energy resources sustainably. It’s an important topic, but often energy efficiency and sustainable energy get forgotten in the background of people’s busy lives. Electricity is everywhere, but we sometimes take for granted all of the things it allows us to use.  We usually don’t stop to think about electricity unless prices go up or a power plant or a new pipeline is installed nearby. How we use energy and where it comes from has a big impact on our wallets, security, economy, and the communities we live in, not to mention what future generations will have to face, so it’s crucial to pay attention and make a concerted effort towards sustainable energy.

There are some energy savings tips that get a lot of buzz – things like upgrading to LED bulbs, replacing old appliances, or washing with cold water. Efficiency is a big part of sustainability, and for most people making these kinds of changes is not too difficult. There are also programs such as Mass Save which will do free home energy audits and install free or discounted energy saving measures such as light bulbs and insulation, as well as make recommendations and educate homeowners on the energy systems in their house.

It’s important to focus on this not just at home, but also at work. As of 2012, commercial use accounted for  “…nearly 20% of US energy consumption and 12% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.” Public and commercial buildings are often fully powered even when occupancy rates are low. Measures such as motion sensors, more efficient appliances, and encouraging participation and action by the building’s occupants can help with commercial efficiency.

Bringing usage down is a good first step towards a stable, sustainable energy future, but we still get most of our power in the US from non-renewable sources. Just shy of 63% of our energy came from fossil fuels in 2017. Another 20% came from nuclear power. Even the most efficient building can’t run forever on a finite fuel source. This is where renewable energy sources come in. Once power is generated and in our homes and businesses, it’s all the same, but where it first came from makes a big difference in the price we pay, the pollution we see, and the reliability of our grid.

In 2017, 17.1% of our energy came from “renewables” – that’s anything that can naturally replenish itself after we use it to generate power. This includes things such as wood, landfill gas, solar, geothermal, wind and hydropower. Some of these issue more pollution when they’re used than others, and it will take a mix of them to meet our power needs.

Solar Farms one of Top 10 Ways to Combat Climate Change

In light of the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change earlier this week, which gives us until 2030 to cut carbon emissions to half of their 2010 level and until 2050 to be “net zero” or on balance removing as much carbon as is emitted, it’s clear we need to act quickly.

With such a tight deadline and so much at stake, it can be tempting to give up. But now is the time to double down, we still have time to take action and more and more resources to do it with. Even though at the national level the US has pulled back from efforts to address climate change, there’s a lot that can still be done and there have been some positive developments already.

Combating climate change in a timely way requires creative and accessible applications of the technology we have. According one recent article, “Solar photovoltaics are only two percent of the global electricity mix at present.” This number will have to go up to hit the 2030 deadline. Unfortunately, solar can have a lot of barriers to entry, including high installation costs and difficulty finding suitable candidates who also have the right site for an install. Community solar farms are a solution to this, and made this list of top 10 solutions to climate change. Solar farms are installed at utility scale, and offer benefits including clean energy and cost savings to the communities they’re in. They are a good solution because they have lower installation costs than fossil fuel plants or smaller scale solar installations. They also offer better efficiency, more flexible installs, and they’re accessible to more energy users than a traditional on-site installation.

Solar farms are a great solution, and they come with cost savings in addition to reduced greenhouse gas emissions. So what’s holding us back? What stands in the way are mostly outdated laws regulating the electricity grid. Most of these laws are at the state level, where residents have the ability to influence policy makers with grassroots action and their votes. Another obstacle is increasing awareness and adoption of these types of projects. Several states, including Massachusetts, have laws and programs in place that support community solar installations. Massachusetts’ program is well established, and recent legislation is adding capacity in the state. Check below to see if there are any farms available where you live.

As the second biggest contributor to carbon emissions and one of the highest per capita polluters, action in the US is vital. 28% of our country’s emissions comes from energy production, and 68% of our energy comes from fossil fuels. Clean power generation has been increasing recently, and some of the states that have the most capacity installed are conservative, such as Texas and Alabama. We have the technology and the opportunity in the US to go from leading the world in carbon emissions to leading it in clean energy production and innovation.


Community Solar Makes Solar Available to All


Ready to go Community Solar?

See if Community Solar is available in your area and schedule an appointment.


Customer Success Stories

Eric signed up for a community solar consultation today because he, like Margaret Meade, believes “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” According to Eric, “Community solar is a ‘no brainer’ because it saves you money on your electricity and helps the planet by using clean renewable solar energy!”


Solar Power from Landfills and Old Coal Plants


Community solar developments have many benefits, but one that is often overlooked is the fact they provide a use for otherwise polluted or unusable spaces. Solar panel installations can be much more flexible and unobtrusive than other types of power generating plants, and existing pollution where they’re built isn’t an issue. This means that they can go on old landfills, highway medians, parking garages, and even decommissioned coal plants, to name a few of the sites that are now powering thousands of households around Massachusetts.

There are many installations already in place on landfills. For example, there’s an 18 acre landfill in Berkley, MA which is now home to an array of more than 11,200 solar panels. Chicopee, MA has 8,000 panels on 6 acres of landfill. There’s a farm on a landfill in Hudson, MA with capacity to power about 1,000 homes, and another in Amesbury with 4.5 megawatts installed. Once a landfill is full, it doesn’t have to be a waste of acreage – instead it can host clean energy to power the towns near it.

While covered landfills are a great choice for an install site, they’re not the only option. The coal plant on Mount Tom in Holyoke was decommissioned four years ago, and is now the site of 17,000 panels plus battery storage. They’re hoping to have the batteries charged by mid-October, which is a huge step forward for clean energy since one of the greatest challenges to date has been storing what’s produced and then distributing that at the times it’s most needed.

Although it’s logical to repurpose hard to use spaces like this, especially with the price of land in Massachusetts, companies are further incentivized to do so with the state’s new solar program. This week, the MA Department of Public Utilities (DPU) issued an order to move forward with compensating new solar projects under the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program. The SMART program incentivizes projects that make use of “rooftops, parking lots, and landfills…” as well as those that combine storage with a solar installation, which is a first.

Massachusetts’ clean energy transition is happening on sites that were previously putting out pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a win on all sides – siting solar arrays this way saves valuable land. It also turns what would have been an eyesore or a waste of land into something that benefits the residents near it with savings and clean energy, provides a revenue stream to that area, and improves the local environment by offsetting the pollution that comes from fossil fuel power production.