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Climate change at home: The UMass toolkit helps cities break down barriers to solar energy > Massachusetts

AMHERST — It takes a lot of planning to install a solar panel. Municipalities must find solar resources in their city, create GIS maps to identify optimal solar locations, evaluate solar infrastructure options, and conduct a financial assessment—all before a solar developer comes on board.

With small towns lacking skilled green energy workers to accomplish these tasks, the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Clean Energy Extension has found a solution.

The Clean Energy Extension has been working for the past several years to develop a toolkit that small, underfunded cities and communities can use to support solar energy development.

The extension has partnered with Westhampton, Wendell and Blandford to create a pilot program and roadmap of steps cities across Massachusetts can take to develop a plan for incorporating solar power into their energy portfolio.

Research grantee Zara Dowling explained that the toolkit creates realistic scenarios that cities can work with to develop plans. The toolkits don’t attempt to generate all of a city’s energy from solar power or place solar panels in unlikely locations, but instead help communities develop plans that meet their needs. By following the toolkits, communities can have solar energy plans in months to a year.

River Strong, associate director of UMass’s Clean Energy Extension, explained that conflicts often arise when solar developers come to a community to construct large solar systems, which can result in communities imposing moratoriums on such development. The toolkit offers ways to defuse the conflict, with help for community meetings to explain solar energy and surveys for local residents.

“The toolkit is about planning, not doing,” explained Dowling.

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

Laurie DiDonato, Chair of Wendell’s Selectboard and member of the Energy Committee, said, “You’ve done a really great job. They were able to get a sense of what the city wanted through their polls and forums.”

Wendell has already received an extensive plan for the transition to solar energy.

“Wendell is a bit unique,” DiDonato replied when asked if she thought Wendell would be a good city for the pilot program. She explained that the city’s residents care deeply about conservation, and this can often be at odds with solar projects. Eventually, DiDonato decided the toolkit could help the city advance its planning and help demonstrate steps that other small cities can take.

Many cities already have open space and recovery plans, Strong explained. These plans are often used for housing construction, but can be used for solar energy where local authorities have no pressure on buildings.

“There’s tension,” Dowling said. “It needs clean energy in the East and open spaces in the West. The state must work together to solve this problem.”

Even though the toolkit has a few steps to follow, it can still be difficult for small towns to get the staff to do the work. The Clean Energy Extension has created a class through the iCons program to support cities. ICons is a university certificate program that teaches real-world problem solving with a focus on biomedicine/biosystems and renewable energy.

The program has a year-long graduate class for seniors where students are trained to use the toolkit and then matched with a city to help them create a plan. This is the first year for the class and approximately 13 students are enrolled.

Dowling has increased the number of cities participating in the program, which include Ashfield, Montague and Monterey, among others.

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

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

The Clean Energy Extension was launched in 2015 by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources. Breger explained that UMass has a long history of counseling services as it is a land grant college. Much research has always been done at the university to benefit the local community. Historically, this research has mainly focused on agriculture, which has expanded to include clean energy research, he explained.

The counseling service has a small staff of four, as well as graduate students and undergraduates. It also has associated programs including the Green Energy Corps.

“The fact that the state uses universities to take action against climate change speaks to the state leadership,” said Breger.

Dowling said her research contributes to the government’s goal of reducing carbon emissions by 50% by 2030.

“We’re not the only ones working on it. People are doing great things to get planning done to meet state goals,” Dowling said.

Other solar research the expansion is working on includes placing solar panels on agricultural fields. The service has received a grant from the US Department of Energy for the next three years to conduct this research, which Breger described as a hopeful step forward.

With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, the incentives for solar panels were increased. Extension staff aren’t sure how this will affect the projects specifically, but they said it will likely support the development of solar panels on public buildings.

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

Bella Levavi can be reached at 413-930-4579 or [email protected]