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Environmental coalition urges Massachusetts to increase investment in solar power

Two workers install a tilt-up photovoltaic array on a roof.
Lucas Braun
Creative Commons
Two workers install a tilt-up photovoltaic array on a roof.

Massachusetts policymakers are being urged to embrace a goal of more than doubling the state's solar power capacity by the end of the decade, a suite of activists said Thursday.

With an eye on the impending turnover in statewide offices, a coalition led by Environment Massachusetts called on the state to deploy new incentives and eliminate roadblocks to accelerate solar installations.

More than 150 local officials and public health experts signed a letter the coalition sent urging the Legislature and executive branch to set a goal of 10 gigawatts of statewide solar energy capacity by 2030, which would be equivalent to placing panels on 1 million roofs.

Hitting that target would require more than doubling the state's existing solar capacity, which Environment Massachusetts Executive Director Ben Hellerstein said hovers just shy of 4 gigawatts.

Activists launched their campaign two days after the statewide primary election, where voters narrowed the field of candidates in the running this fall.

"This is an opportunity for a reset, an opportunity to reenvision our energy future in Massachusetts," Hellerstein said at an event on the Boston Common. "We believe that solar power should be at the center of that vision for the future of our energy."

A climate roadmap law the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker approved last year sets a target of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts by 2050 with interim targets along the way, and a new clean energy law Baker signed in August seeks to accelerate the state's transition to renewable sources of power.

Environmental groups said the state is already a bastion of solar energy generation — it ranks ninth in the nation for solar installations, according to Vote Solar Regional Director for the Northeast Elena Weissman — but that policymakers should take additional steps to supercharge its growth.

Hellerstein cautioned that "our progress in recent years has lagged behind what it could be," and he warned that residents who want to install panels might still struggle to do so.

"There are a number of arbitrary obstacles and limits that can stand in the way of families and businesses that want to go solar, including delays in the interconnection process and caps or limits on important incentive programs for solar power," he said. "The bottom line is we just need to set our sights a lot higher."

Incentives offered through the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target program, or SMART, "decline over time in a way that can make it challenging for certain types of solar projects to move forward," Hellerstein said. He also recommended regulators including the Department of Public Utilities play a "bigger role" in ensuring that projects get approval to connect to the electric grid in a timely manner.

Cambridge City Councilor Patty Nolan said that despite significant effort in her community to tackle the climate crisis, the city remains "way behind on meeting our own goals."

"We really need state leaders to help us and to push us to meet our goals on addressing the climate crisis," Nolan said. "I signed onto the million roofs letter since we need our leaders at every level to set stronger targets for deployment and back them up with funding and policies that make solar energy resources more affordable and accessible."

While activists didn't focus on consumer costs associated with making the switch to solar, Hellerstein said ramping up solar energy capacity could drive down electricity costs, partly by placing more sources of power closer to where they will be used and cutting down on the need to install transmission infrastructure.

Solar energy is often available during periods of peak demand, like when air conditioners are on full blast during a sweltering summer day, he added.

"Solar, particularly when it's paired with storage able to hold that energy for an hour or two, can play an important role in reducing those periods of peak demand when the cost of energy tends to be highest," Hellerstein said.

While Baker's administration will work with lawmakers over the next few months, most of the work activists sought to expand the state's solar footprint would play out under the next governor.

Attorney General Maura Healey, the Democratic nominee for governor, called in a climate plan posted to her campaign site for 10 gigawatts of deployed solar energy by 2030, similar to the goal environmental groups outlined Thursday.

"(The Healey administration) will deploy rooftop solar installations in the communities where widespread adoption is lacking and encourage smart siting of large solar facilities," Healey's plan says. "Maura will also press utilities to plan for and upgrade the distribution system to integrate this new solar equitably, without the delays customers face today due to utility backlogs. Investing in a smarter grid will help ensure that it will continue to perform as we increase our dependence on electricity for heating and transportation."

Republican gubernatorial candidate Geoff Diehl's campaign did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

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