Massachusetts SMART Program Expands Eligibility for Solar Units on Agricultural Land

On April 12, 2022, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) finalized changes to the Guideline Regarding the Definition of Agricultural Solar Tariff Generation Units for the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) Program. These recent changes clarify and alter certain requirements related to solar development on agricultural land in Massachusetts.

As we reported in 2020, the SMART program remains a work in progress, aimed at encouraging solar development while managing land use in Massachusetts. One area of focus is solar development on agricultural land. The SMART program regulates solar on farmland as an “Agricultural Solar Tariff Generation Unit.” An “Agricultural Solar Tariff Generation Unit” is defined as “a Solar Tariff Generation Unit located on Land in Agricultural Use or Important Agricultural Farmland that allows the continued use of the land for agriculture.” The new guidance continues to allow commercial solar on agricultural land and discusses what may qualify as an Agriculture Solar Tariff Generation Unit (ASTGU). The key changes include setting a program capacity goal for ASTGUs of 80 MW AC, clarifying the requirements for compatible sunlight, and establishing requirements on newly created farmland. Specifically, newly created farmland must be in agricultural production before applying to the program, and the clearing or conversion of forest land is prohibited. The conversion of fallow farmland for ASTGU is allowed under the new guidance. The guidance also established requirements for agricultural plans, including production requirements for hay and grazing of animals, enabling the transition to new commodities, and establishing a waiver process if anticipated yields are decreased.  The updated regulations also cap ASTGU projects at 7.5MW (DC). 

This new guidance significantly expands units that may qualify as an ASTGU under the SMART program, and builds on prior Massachusetts regulations to manage land-use changes associated with solar development. In particular, the Commonwealth has long been concerned about losing “prime” agricultural land (and forests) to solar and other development. The SMART program seeks to address that concern, at least in part.

Landowners and solar developers also should be aware that land enrolled in the Massachusetts Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program may be subject to further restrictions on solar development. Under guidance issued by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) in 2018, solar installations on APR land are limited in size to double the documented historic energy use of the farm, which can cut off some commercial solar opportunities. While Massachusetts is at the forefront of pioneering “dual-use” solar installations—for example, solar canopies under which crops can grow or livestock can graze—some tension still remains in the law governing certain solar development on agricultural land in Massachusetts.

Beveridge & Diamond's Renewable Energy industry group supports and enables successful and sustainable renewable energy projects, helping clients overcome a number of environmental regulatory and transactional hurdles, including land use and local permitting issues in Massachusetts. We also help landowners, developers, energy companies, manufacturers, and other participants with issues such as permitting, construction and land use impacts, endangered species, stormwater management, hazardous materials, and waste. For more information, please contact the authors.