State’s green energy bill doesn’t address siting worries

This August 2021 aerial photo shows a 30-acre solar array on land owned by W.D. Cowls off Pratt Corner Road in Shutesbury.

This August 2021 aerial photo shows a 30-acre solar array on land owned by W.D. Cowls off Pratt Corner Road in Shutesbury. CONTRIBUTED

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 07-05-2024 4:42 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A Senate-passed bill featuring a streamlined approach to permitting and siting solar and energy storage projects in Massachusetts, featuring a consolidated permit for approving clean energy infrastructure instead of multiple local, regional and state permits, could speed up reaching the state’s renewable energy goals.

The legislation, developed by Gov. Maura Healey’s administration with input from lawmakers, doesn’t adjust the state’s zoning law that keeps renewable energy projects exempt from regulation by cities and towns, other than to protect the “public health, welfare and safety.” Maintaining that so-called Dover Amendment exception is worrying, says Shutesbury Planning Board member Michael DeChiara.

“It’s problematic because we’re being heard, but the core issues on how to regulate are not being addressed,” DeChiara said, pointing out that Shutesbury, Pelham and Wendell have each found it difficult to adopt bylaws to limit solar and energy storage systems.

“Municipalities are already very constrained in what they can regulate,” DeChiara said.

“An Act upgrading the grid and protecting ratepayers,” as the comprehensive clean energy legislation bill is dubbed, outlines ways to maximize electrification of buildings and transportation, cleared the state Senate in late June. With the House of Representatives set to take action on the bill, it could be ready to be signed into law by Healey by the end of July.

Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, said she fully supports the legislation after pushing for amendments that will require the state to incentivize solar canopies on buildings or pavement when siting ground-mounted solar.

“The state will have to work on a full range of ways to prioritize solar on built and disturbed land, whether it is a parking lot or a brownfield,” Comerford said. “I’m very pleased about that.”

The Senate adopted a Comerford amendment to require the Department of Energy Resources to initiate a process to make recommendations for how Massachusetts can get more canopies built across the state.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Two killed in Royalston collision
Storms leave hundreds without power in Athol, Greenfield
Homeless living in Athol garage say cost of housing is biggest obstacle
Athol committee considers ways to deter trespassers at parking garage
Upgrades planned for Athol’s retail shopping area
Senate charts course to soothe ‘struggling’ health sector

Comerford said the Senate listened attentively, especially to the small communities in western Massachusetts that need protection from large projects, including Wendell, where an industrial-size energy storage system is proposed for an 11-acre parcel.

“Western Massachusetts wants a green revolution,” Comerford said. “We just want to make sure it’s equitable and honors the natural and working lands.”

Still, the Senate bill reflects the divide when it comes to permitting and siting big green energy projects and meeting the state’s commitment of getting to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

DeChiara said both supporters of the bill and those who are wary of its provisions are supportive of green energy. However, proponents see the climate emergency as so imminent that it is critical to get as much solar, offshore wind and other green energy projects done as quickly as possible, even at the cost of forests, fields and farms. Meanwhile, doubters who support decarbonization efforts to confront the climate emergency insist that decisions should consider potential impacts to natural resources, and that priority should be given to siting projects on land that’s already developed.

In Shutesbury, where a 30-acre site has already become a solar field, five additional arrays on 190 acres are being proposed by PureSky Energy solar company, making it potentially the largest project in the state.

According to DeChiara, one shortfall in the legislation is that it relies solely on the private sector to meet the state’s ambitious goals, rather than providing financial incentives and actual money for people to put solar at their homes. “So much of what is being discussed is private sector deployment,” DeChiara said.

Another concern is that project reviews would be limited to one year for smaller projects, with the consolidated permit to be issued, or denied, by the municipality. But for larger projects, 24 megawatt and over for solar and wind and 100 megawatt and over for batteries, a consolidated permit decision would be made within 15 months by the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Board.

“Having the threshold would invite bigger-than-reasonable projects,” DeChiara said. “Developers would rather deal with the state than regular people, who can be pesky.”

But the House version, developed under Rep. Jeffrey Roy of Franklin, doesn’t have any thresholds on size, which DeChiara characterizes as “ridiculous and really scary.”

Rep. Aaron Saunders of Ludlow, whose district includes Shutesbury, Pelham and Wendell, said he is prepared to advocate for local interests when clean energy legislation is discussed.

“Once this bill is in front of the House, I will be able to provide further insight into the concerns surrounding local control and conservation in the context of what is included in the Senate’s final draft of the legislation,” Saunders said.

Judith Eiseman, who chairs the Pelham Planning Board, has similar concerns to DeChiara about the legislation.

“Protecting natural resources with high biodiversity valuable to the region and the state should be a primary goal, not doing this as fast and cheaply as possible,” Eieseman wrote in a an email.

Eiseman pointed to the Department of Energy Resources’s Technical Potential of Solar report and said that to meet climate goals, the state should begin by using only sites deemed “highly suitable” for clean-energy projects.

“There is no benefit to be gained in the long term by damaging forests that our rural communities have been protecting for years to maintain wildlife corridors, surface and ground water supply and other ecosystem benefits like carbon sequestration and habitat,” Eiseman said. “Recognition of the efforts of smaller communities to limit ecological damage in order to protect health and public welfare is overdue. ”

DeChiara, too, would like to see the solar siting map from 2023 used.

“If there is a gap and no site suitability guidance, the status quo will continue whereby developers choose where they want to place large scale solar and energy storage rather than the communities or the state,” DeChiara said.

Though western Massachusetts communities are concerned about siting, a leader of the Senate bill was Sen. Michael Barrett, D-Lexington, told Statehouse News Service that decarbonization of buildings and vehicles is what gets his constituents excited.

“The energy grid is like that. It absolutely needs updating, absolutely needs renewing every 30 years. But it’s pretty boring stuff,” Barrett said.

But as much as 150,000 acres of undeveloped land could be lost to meet state renewable energy goals, according to projections from MassAudubon, which states forested land is about 3 million acres, or 60% of the state’s land mass. On average, one acre of forested land stores 85 tons of carbon, while Massachusetts forests in total sequester around 15% of the state’s annual emissions.

“The thing encouraging about the Senate bill is the state is finally acknowledged the sequestration benefits,” DeChiara said.

Before the clean energy legislation that emerged, the Senate Committee on Ways and Means already included many of the provisions Comerford advocated for, including requiring the development of a methodology to evaluate whether a site is well suited for hosting clean energy infrastructure, and requiring developers to avoid, minimize or mitigate siting impact and environmental and land use concerns.

Comerford then filed a series of amendments that she said will also benefit constituents, such as creating an Embodied Carbon Coordinating Council within the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance; having a municipal permit timing safety valve so that communities extension in cases where 12 months just isn’t enough time; and requiring utilities to consider grid-enhancing technology, such as upgrading cables, to achieve their transmission goals.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.