The Recorder – Climate Change at Home: Towns making use of solar toolkit from UMass Clean Energy Extension

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AMHERST — It takes a lot of planning to get a solar panel installed. Municipalities must find solar resources in their town, create GIS maps to identify optimal solar locations, assess options for solar infrastructure and conduct a financial assessment — all before a solar developer comes in.

As small towns lacking skilled green energy employees struggle to perform these tasks, the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Clean Energy Extension has come up with a solution.

The Clean Energy Extension has worked over the past several years to develop a toolkit that small, under-resourced municipalities can use to help develop solar energy. The extension partnered with Westhampton, Wendell and Blandford to create a pilot program and a roadmap of steps that towns across Massachusetts can take to develop a plan for adding solar power to their energy portfolios.

Research fellow Zara Dowling explained the toolkit creates realistic scenarios that towns can work with to develop plans. The toolkits do not try to generate all of a town’s energy from solar or place solar panels in improbable places, but instead help communities develop plans that work for their needs. By following the toolkits, municipalities can have plans for solar energy in months to a year.

River Strong, associate director of UMass’ Clean Energy Extension, explained there is often conflict when solar developers come into a community looking to create large-scale solar installations, which can lead to communities enacting moratoriums to prevent such development. The toolkit provides ways to alleviate the conflict with tips for meetings at which to explain solar energy, along with surveys about it for residents.

“The toolkit is about planning, not doing it,” explained Dowling, who also serves on the New Salem Selectboard, Conservation Commission and Energy Committee.

“The next step after using the toolkit is getting a solar developer involved,” said Dwayne Breger, director of the Clean Energy Extension.

Of working with the Clean Energy Extension, Wendell Energy Committee member and Selectboard Chair Laurie DiDonato said, “They did a really great job. They were able to get a feel of what the town wanted through their surveys and forums.”

Wendell has already received an extensive plan on how to move to solar.

“Wendell is a bit unique,” DiDonato said when asked if she thinks Wendell was a good town to use for the pilot program. She explained residents care deeply about forest conservation, and that can often be at odds with solar projects. DiDonato ultimately decided the toolkit helped the town advance its planning, and can help demonstrate steps other small towns can take.

Many towns already have Open Space and Recreation Plans, Strong explained. These plans can be used to guide solar energy when municipalities are not pressed for new buildings.

“There is a tension that is created,” Dowling said. “There is a need for clean energy in the east and open space in the west. The state will need to work together to solve this problem.”

Even though the toolkit has steps to follow, it can still be hard for small towns to have the staffing to do the work. The Clean Energy Extension has created a class through the iCons program to assist towns. ICons is a certificate program through the university that teaches real-world problem-solving focused in biomedicine/biosystems and renewable energy.

The program has a yearlong senior capstone class where students are trained to use the toolkit, and then get paired with a town to help create a plan. This is the first year for the class, and about 13 students are enrolled.

Dowling has been increasing the number of towns participating in the program, which now include Ashfield, Montague and Monterey, among others.

“This class is a three-way partnership between Clean Energy Extension, the students and the towns,” Strong said.

The project is 50% funded by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources and 50% funded by external funding with competitive applications.

The Clean Energy Extension was created in 2015 by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources. Breger explained that UMass has a long history of extension services, being a land grant college. Much research at the university has been done to benefit the local community. Historically, that research has been largely focused on agriculture, which has been expanded to research in clean energy.

The extension service has a small four-person staff, as well as graduate and undergraduate students. It also has associated programs, including the Green Energy Corps.

“The state using universities to work against climate change speaks to the leadership of the state,” Breger said.

Dowling explained their research is contributing to the state goal of reducing carbon emissions by 50% by 2030.

“We are not the only ones working on this. People are doing great things to get the planning in place to get up to state targets,” Dowling said.

Other solar research the extension is working on includes siting solar panels on farm fields. The service has received a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for this research for the next three years, which Breger called a hopeful step forward.

With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, solar panel incentives have been increased. The employees at the extension are unsure how this will affect the projects specifically, but they said it will likely help the development of solar panels on public buildings.

“This work will not solve climate change,” Breger said, “but we are working with students who are well equipped and enthusiastic to get into the clean energy workforce.”

Bella Levavi can be reached at 413-930-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com.

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