Although solar energy is a necessary component of our renewable energy future, improperly sited ground-mounted solar arrays are causing irreparable environmental impacts in our area. Southeastern Massachusetts is being targeted by solar developers because of our vast tracts of undeveloped land, and we have lost hundreds of acres of forests, wetlands, and open spaces to solar development in the last ten years, a trend that should be immediately reversed in order to achieve our climate goals.
Financial subsidies paid under the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) Program are incentivising large landowners to convert forests and open space to solar arrays. Although there are “subtractors” in the incentive rate table for building solar arrays in previously undeveloped land, it is still more economically profitable to build subsidized arrays in pristine woods and open space than it is to put solar arrays on a developed site or on a previously contaminated site. Wareham alone has lost approximately 400 acres of forest to ground-mounted solar arrays, at a time when we need to conserve our forests to combat climate change.
According to MassAudubon, roof-top solar can provide 80% of US energy needs. However, corporations make more profit from solar development by building large ground-mounted systems than rooftop solar. Massachusetts’ energy subsidies are misdirected to large privately owned corporations building ground mounted systems. This consumes our forests and farmland unnecessarily. Over 4,000 acres of forests in Massachusetts have been consumed by solar and another 100,000 acres are targeted
Ground-mounted solar arrays take up large areas of land, which fragments and degrade natural habitats. This can decimate our wildlife populations, especially if the developers build on land categorized as open space, interior forest, prime forest land, or priority habitat.
The installation of ground-mounted solar arrays can involve significant soil disturbance, which can lead to erosion, soil compaction, and changes in soil chemistry. This can have negative impacts on soil health and productivity, and lead to potential environmental disasters such as sediment runoff from a newly-cleared site into a local stream.
Some types of ground-mounted solar arrays require significant amounts of water for cleaning and maintenance, which can be a concern in areas where water resources are scarce. Additionally, the meadow cover planted underneath the panels, in place of the former forest, often requires irrigation in the summer and fall months to remain viable and perform the required stormwater retention capacities.
Like any large-scale infrastructure project, ground-mounted solar arrays eventually reach the end of their useful life and need to be decommissioned. Proper decommissioning and disposal of solar panels and other components is important to minimize negative environmental impacts. The United States currently does not have a plan for the millions of tons of solid waste that will be generated when current solar arrays reach their end of life. Recycling of solar arrays will only rescue a small percentage of the existing panels from landfills. Municipalities are taking steps to ensure they are not liable for the solid waste generated at the end of a solar array’s lifespan.
Improperly sited solar arrays also destroy Indigenous heritage. Since 2016, Borrego Solar desecrated the historic King Philip’s Cave site in Freetown MA and is responsible for other sites. The BlueWave solar project in Northfield MA will desecrate an area with 5 known Indigenous sites.
Community Land and Water Coalition wants the public to be aware that any energy transition must be carefully planned out in order to be done right; unfortunately, the United States waited too long to make its renewable energy transition, and the environment is paying the price. It’s worth noting that many of these potential negative impacts can be mitigated through careful site selection, design, and management of ground-mounted solar arrays. For example, locating solar arrays on degraded or marginal land, landfills, Brownfields sites, rooftops, highway medians and parking lots can minimize or eliminate the negative environmental impacts from solar. A successful, sustainable solar array located on a previously developed or contaminated property often involves buy-in and commitment from the landowners, developers, and the town residents to make it work, as it often takes longer to plan out and build than an array placed on a forested site. Our current system of solar developers suing municipal boards for not permitting their arrays, and forcing solar sites where local residents don’t want them, is a hazard to our health and our environment and must be stopped immediately.