With some buzz around the Select Board and Town Meeting on the Police Station Solar Canopy project, this month’s column by Gerry Yurkevicz focuses on the opportunities and challenges with solar power in Lexington and beyond. Please contact him at email@example.com with any comments on this column or other energy, climate and environmental issues of interest.
As I thought about the challenges of local solar energy development, I found myself singing Ringo Starr’s hit song “It Don’t Come Easy.” Even though solar power’s light has shined brightly over the last decade, it still has not achieved universal acceptance. Policy makers and advocates love renewable energy but not everyone is all in, and for a number of legitimate reasons.
Solar Energy Is Critical to Achieving Net Zero Goals
The world’s decarbonization roadmap requires large investment in renewable energy, especially solar power. In its latest outlook, the US Department of Energy (DOE) forecasts that the US needs to double its overall power generating capacity from all sources by 2050 to meet demand from electrification and reduce energy-related CO2 emissions. The DOE forecasts that 90%+ of future generation capacity additions may be solar, wind, or battery storage resources. That’s about 1,200,000 megawatts of additional clean energy.
To create that much new renewable energy will require 1,000 large facilities about the size of the current Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant or over 3.5 million small facilities about the size envisioned for Lexington’s new police station!
Massachusetts’ decarbonization roadmap follows a similar path, relying on solar, offshore wind, imported wind, and hydro-electric power to get to net zero by 2050. The Town of Lexington’s goal is to maximize onsite renewable energy production for town buildings, while minimizing energy use and operational costs. Lexington also wants to get to net zero community-wide.
Lexington Has Done a Lot
The town has already installed about 6 megawatts of solar energy systems at 9 schools, the library, the fire station, and the Hartwell Ave. composting facility. These solar facilities are expected to generate 65% of the electricity used by the town’s municipal and school buildings. These projects have not only eliminated CO2 but also saved about $4 million due to the high fossil fuel prices over the last few years.
Local Renewable Energy Supply Development Still Has Challenges
Decarbonizing energy supply has come a long way, but much more needs to be done. A recent Boston Globe article reported that Massachusetts ranks 29th among states in generating renewable energy. Of course, western and southern states like Texas are much larger and sunnier than Massachusetts, accounting for some of the differences.
The question of where to put solar and wind farms, especially in densely populated states like Massachusetts, is a vexing one. Here are some local examples that reflect issues playing out across the country:
Tracer Lane Solar: This proposed privately-developed 1 megawatt solar project is located in Lexington, but the property is not easy to find. It is bounded to the north by the Cambridge Reservoir, to the east by the Route 2 to Interstate 95 interchange ramp, and to the south by residential properties in Waltham. Take a look next time you are driving south on 128 or on the ramp from Route 2. Abutters in Waltham claim this project has multiple problems. They say that development will require cutting down 800 trees, resulting in significant tree loss and wildlife displacement. In event of a fire at the facility, common fire suppression techniques will not be used to avoid contamination of the reservoir. State courts have denied the City of Waltham’s challenges to the project. The project currently awaits approval from the Planning Board in Lexington. The Sustainable Lexington Committee said that the public would be better served if this property could be acquired and protected for its conservation and water supply values. The project raises important questions about the value of trees and forest relative to other socially valuable land uses like solar energy production and housing development.
Solar Canopy & Systems for the Police Station: You can see our new police station taking shape on Massachusetts Avenue. The design includes solar energy systems and battery storage to make the facility net zero, including about 0.25 megawatts of solar panels atop parking canopies. The project and its $3.4 million cost now sit for approval with the Select Board and Town Meeting. Design efforts for the new police station began way back in 2019 with lots of stops and starts. Since early 2022, there have been over 20 meetings of the Permanent Building Committee, Historic District Commission (HDC) and Select Board on the new police station. In the end, the HDC picked a solar canopy design with aesthetics and height that it believed were appropriate for Lexington. The community engagement process was not the smoothest. Though community meetings were held during the design phase, a meeting with several of the most impacted abutters did not occur until March 14, 2023, just before Town Meeting was to consider the project, though the abutting neighborhood has a history of collaborating with the Town.
The project would be a solid contributor to reducing greenhouse gases, and would make the police station the most resilient building in town. The economics of it are pretty good, even though the upfront costs, especially for the canopies, may be a bit high. The town’s analysis suggests a payback on the net investment within 14 years, positively driven in large part by substantial federal and Commonwealth incentives. Abutters believe that the scale of the proposed canopy is more appropriate for a large shopping mall or corporate campus, not the gateway to historic Lexington. They have asked for a short delay on the article to allow time for a more human scale, market-centric plan to be considered. The height of the canopy as proposed is higher than most overpasses. Delays would push back the construction of the canopies, increase costs, result in rework to the parking lot, and, of course, delay carbon reductions.
Lexington is not the only community facing issues in siting renewable resources. For example BlueWave, a Boston-based renewables company, has proposed the installation of a 5 megawatt stand-alone battery energy storage system at 100 Discovery Way in Acton. The site is just before the split between the road to West Acton and Route 2. The system will be connected to the electric grid to facilitate collecting and storing clean energy when demand is low and sending it back to the grid when demand is higher, such as times of higher heating or cooling demand. These types of storage systems are critical to the future energy transition, especially to maintain reliability for the grid. Residents and abutters in Acton have raised similar to concerns to those in Lexington: zoning, siting near residential neighborhoods, town planning without appropriate community engagement, tree removal, noise, hazardous waste handling, emergency response, etc. After much discussion, the Select Board in Acton approved permits for the facilities in early April.
Future Solar and Renewable Energy Opportunities and Challenges
Moving forward will require lots of thoughtful discussion and balancing of competing interests. Here are a few things I think are important going forward:
Bring on the renewables: My experience has shown that “more is better than less” and “sooner is better than later.” I generally believe that we should be building and installing more renewables as soon as we can. The climate challenge is huge and we are not winning yet.
Engage the community: My energy experience with a range of projects (hydro, solar, distribution, etc.) and regulatory proceedings suggests that both private and government developers need to engage early and often to understand objections and make changes that will help projects succeed. It is best to proactively seek out and communicate with stakeholders that might be impacted, even in small ways. Suggesting that it is the stakeholder’s responsibility to find out and participate misses the point. In Lexington, we have important issues to discuss, including climate change, the value of trees, siting projects, historical considerations, addressing issues raised by abutters, and the cost of the energy transition.
Think renewables at scale: Going rooftop by rooftop or parcel by parcel may not be enough. Development of small-scale resources is important but not as bold as we need. We need large-scale development to move the needle, such as offshore wind and imported hydro-electric power. Large-scale comes with its own set of pitfalls. Offshore wind has only slowly moved forward in waters off of Massachusetts. But yesterday, a jury in Maine decided that a $1 billion electric transmission project to bring clean Canadian hydro power through western Maine to Massachusetts should be revived, after it was put to a halt by voters in 2021 referendum.
Build a renewable energy portfolio: A mix of renewable fuels makes the most sense to achieve our energy transition goals in time. The mix should include as many energy efficiency measures as possible, since these demand-side reductions are typically the most cost effective. This means a lot of solar, wind, and batteries. It may also mean new technologies like networked geothermal that could make sense for some locations in Lexington.
Don’t forget about cost: One worry in the energy transition is insufficient focus on total cost to the consumer. Massachusetts’ roadmap suggests that annual statewide energy system costs will not increase significantly with the transition to net zero. The hope is that more local investment and infrastructure (like in Lexington) dampens cost pressure. However, some energy transition plans in other regions suggest significantly higher future total costs, in part due to investments needed to maintain and enhance resiliency and reliability across electric energy supply, transmission and local distribution systems. How Lexington and the Commonwealth approach local climate, cost, and reliability issues will all impact how we meet our goals.
Gerry Yurkevicz is a long-time Lexington resident. He has spent his entire career in the energy industry as a management consultant as well as a utility executive. He currently volunteers as a HeatSmart Advisor for the Town of Lexington.