My Turn: Is solar a solution to the climate crisis?

  • NANCY HAZARD  NANCY HAZARD 

Published: 7/30/2021 2:35:02 PM

Is installing solar everywhere the solution to the climate crisis? I’d say “it depends on where it is installed.”

I’m calling for a statewide study to assess where we could install solar in Massachusetts, and a solar siting policy. Here is why.

Every day in the news, we learn about the effects of climate change. The loss of life and land due to fires, floods, and storms — rivers drying up — extinctions — and the cost — is alarming!

The good news is that, Germany, the US, and others, have recently reaffirmed bold commitments to address the climate crisis and become zero-carbon emitting nations by 2050. In Massachusetts Gov. Baker signed into law groundbreaking legislation to take bold action called An Act Creating a Next Generation Roadmap for Massachusetts Climate Policy, in March 2020,

As a consequence of this new law, the state Office of Energy and the Environment (EEA) published the first of several reports. This first report is called: “Energy Pathways to Deep Decarbonization — A Technical Report of the Massachusetts 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap Study,” at the end of last year.

Happily, the report found that “we can achieve the goal of zero-carbon emissions by 2050,” and there are multiple pathways to reach the target. All eight scenarios they looked at had several things in common.

In all cases, as we already know, we need to: increase energy efficiency everywhere; use electricity in our homes, cars, and businesses to replace our use of oil and gas and gasoline; and produce electricity that does not emit carbon dioxide, the major cause of climate change.

For financial reasons, they came to the conclusion that solar photovoltaics should meet 25-30% of our zero-carbon electricity. Of that, they believe that 50% of it can be on buildings, and that the remaining 50% will be ground-mounted. This will take about 66,000 acres if a third of our roofs can accept solar installation. If more roofs can be used, the need for land would go down. But here their analysis stopped.

Alarmingly, last year Mass Audubon’s “Losing Ground” study found that in the five years between 2012-2017, one quarter of the land lost do development was caused by ground-mounted solar panels, much of it forests. If this continues, by 2050, we would lose 150,000 acres to ground mounted solar.

How do we decide which 66,000 acres are dedicated to solar?

How much of that acreage could be parking lots? Brownfields? Abandoned gravel pits? Under existing power-lines or along highways? Could we avoid putting it on agricultural land or forests?

An often cited study by developers who want to install solar in our area, calculates that installing solar on forest land is beneficial because solar panels will displace fossil fuels and avoid more CO2 emissions than the trees that would cut down could sequester.

But is this the whole picture? Nature is acknowledged to be essential in addressing the climate crisis, in all recent climate action plans. In fact, it is the only tool we have to draw excess carbon dioxide out of our atmosphere.

We are already seeing the consequences of cutting forests in the Amazon. Scientists recently discovered that the Amazon forest is no longer a carbon sink, but a greenhouse gas emitter. That is scary.

But forests, are so much more than a system that takes carbon out of the air and stores it! Among other things, forests clean our air and water, drive the water cycle, and are home to pollinators, birds, mammals, plants, fungi, microorganisms and more! In short, nature makes life on our planet possible.

The Community Land & Water Coalition is holding a statewide rally in Greenfield on July 31, calling for no clear-cutting of forests for solar, to bring attention to this issue. I thank them for their effort.

To ensure that solar is installed in appropriate locations, we also need data on what spaces we have, and then develop a policy, on how Massachusetts can achieve our 2050 zero-carbon goals without compromising nature!

Please join me in contacting the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) by emailing them at env.internet@mass.gov, share your concerns, and ask for a study of where PV can be installed in Massachusetts, so that our legislators have the information they need to craft a sane solar siting policy. Please also participate and share your thoughts when your town engages in a discussion about what it wants its solar policy to look like 2050 is on the horizon. Our planet is in crisis. There is no time to lose.

Nancy Hazard is the retired director of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA), and a member of Greening Greenfield. Nancy welcomes comments and questions at Nancy.hazard@worldsustain.net




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