April 23, 2020
New solar siting regulations support the Massachusetts Local Food Action Plan’s recommendations to protect farmland from conversion to solar use, but threaten to reduce sustainability for farms by limiting the amount of land that farmers may use to generate revenue from solar projects.
The updates to the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) Program (225 CMR 20.00) were filed on April 14 and went into effect the next day. Changes include expanding the definition of agricultural land to include “Important Agricultural Farmlands,” defined as soils found to be Important Farmlands as defined in Federal regulation 7 C.F.R. § 657.5 in its entirety.
The key change is that now all land used, or that could be used, for the production of high value food and fiber crops, are included in the agricultural land classification, essentially, regardless of location or actual use. The net effect is restrictions on a much larger percentage of Massachusetts’ agricultural lands, requiring them to conform to the lower energy generation limits and maximum shading restrictions imposed by agricultural solar regulations.
Drafts of three regulatory guidelines were posted at the same time, addressing what types of lands are eligible for solar installations, how much generation can take place on each type of land, the process for receiving approval to produce solar power, and setting tiered caps on generation for each utility in the state along with the value of solar energy credits for each tier.
An important element of the new regulation and proposed guidance is the required paperwork, in the form of planning and annual reports, required to show agricultural production meets approved standards on land in the agricultural class. While the basic tenets of reporting have not changed, the guidance is more prescriptive on methodology, and as stated, now encompasses more farmland, which places more burden on farmers.
A potentially significant proposed change is a reduction in the maximum shading allowed from 50% to 40%, further lowering a farm’s sustaniability by limiting the amount of solar energy a farm can produce and generate revenue from. It is not clear what science, if any, is behind this proposal, nor if it provides the balanced approach of keeping more land in agricultural production while providing sustainability for farms called for in the Plan.
Comments on the SMART regulation and guidance are being accepted here (see bottom of page) until 5 PM on May 22, 2020.
On a positive note, the new regulations allow farmers to take advantage of Floating Solar Tariff Generation Units and Canopy Solar Tariff Generation Units. These allow for solar installations on certain water bodies and above parking lots and roadways, land that is part of a farm but not used for growing crops directly. This likely provides farmers opportunities for solar and opportunities for greater sustainability without impacting agricultural production. Removing these installations from the production caps set forth in the agricultural lands classification seems to be an action that would be in accordance with the Plan as well as the state’s goals for renewable energy production and greenhouse gas emission reductions.