Saturday, March 8, 2014

The solar orchard

Some orchards grow more than apples.

In the past few years I've noticed banks of high-tech photovoltaic arrays at many orchards in Massachusetts. This technology converts sunlight to electricity.

Solar barn at Red Apple Farm in Massachusetts
Apple farms are turning to the sun to power their chilling and other operations, selling any excess to the power grid.

But when I travel to the orchards of New Hampshire, there is not a solar cell to be seen.

Massachusetts has created a market for solar power by requiring in-state utilities to add new renewable generating capacity every year. There is a special "carve-out" or minimum requirement for photovoltaic solar, up to 400 thousand watts statewide.

This requirement, and state tax credits, makes solar power an attractive investment for farms, homeowners, and businesses.

Ironically New Hampshire, which in the 1970s and 80s funneled massive subsidies to the Seabrook nuclear project, has no such support for renewables. Consequently such projects are not economically feasible for Granite State apple farmers.

A solar array graces the hill at Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury, Mass. Were the hill just one mile north in New Hampshire, it would be bare of power cells.
Photovoltaic cells are expensive, and this program has slightly increased electric rates in Massachusetts.

But with this investment Massachusetts is giving itself a more diverse and stable mix of energy resources and is growing a renewable-energy industry in the state.

Meanwhile the cost per watt of photovoltaic generation is dropping each year as programs like those in Massachusetts spur competition to develop the technology. If the trend continues, solar will become competitive with fossil-fuled generation with no subsidies at all.

Finally, the program is creating 16,000 jobs and economic activity with benefits that exceed the costs, according to a study by Analysis Group.

According to a March 4 story in the Boston Globe by Jay Fitzgerald,

The study found that the programs put in place by the law, and financed with $2.7 billion in higher electric and natural gas rates, would create enough economic activity to cover those costs and yield a net benefit of $1.2 billion over about 15 years.

That's not even counting the environmental benefits of these resources versus the fossil generation they displace.

It's hard not to suppose that New Hampshire, by failing to enact such programs, is leaving money on the table.

Farms and orchards run on thin margins. Farmers can't afford to build renewable resources as a kind of green philanthropy.

Kudos to Massachusetts for aligning the interests of its small businesses with the broader interests of its people.
The solar array at Carleson Orchard provides 220,000 watts of generating capacity.
Study: Hibbard, Paul, Susan Tierney, and Pavel Darling. 2014. "The Impacts of the Green Communities Act on the Massachusetts Economy: A Review of the First Six Years of the Act’s Implementation." Boston: Analysis Group.


  1. Hi Adam! I wondered what you would be writing about, with apple season behind us, and here is a great post. It is terrific that this is being done in Massachusetts, and one can only hope, for a variety of reasons, that others will see that this increasingly makes economic sense, even if one chooses to ignore the other benefits. I also have long wondered about the claims about lost jobs. Yes, jobs would be lost, but new ones are created. Thanks again for a wonderful post. Jean B., who sees no good profile choice and thus must go with anonymous

    1. Jean, thanks! I hope I have not strayed too far from the focus of this blog, but it is the off season and the mind is entitled to wander a bit.

      I have never heard anyone claim that renewable energy costs jobs. Compared to the alternatives, renewables and energy conservation entail more jobs per kilowatt installed (or saved).

      Anonymous is fine, of course, but if you'd like your name to show at the top of the comment you should be able to do so without having to sign on to anything. Just use the "Name/URL" option.

      I want it to be as easy as possible to leave a comment here, however readers want to do it.


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