Downtown: 100 percent energy initiative praised; city reworks solar approval process

The Capital City’s goal of total renewable energy may be three decades away, but you wouldn’t know it by the breakneck pace its energy policymakers have set.

The city recently received kudos from the Sierra Club for its June commitment to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 in its “Ready for 100%” report, a campaign the organization has been backing across the country.

The effort got plenty of praise close to home, too – the State Employees Association, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Concord and the Chamber of Commerce all endorsed the program.

“With its clean energy resolution in place and strong community support behind it, Concord must now carefully plan how the city will achieve these goals in a manner that takes into consideration the needs of all community members,” the report reads.

A big piece of the goal is developing a strategic plan a year out from adoption. But a more immediate policy is making its way through the city: a sweeping solar ordinance.

Crafted by the city’s Energy and Environment Advisory Committee, the ordinance is in its early stages and will need to go in front of the planning board and the city council before anything is decided.

Here’s some of what the committee is trying to accomplish:

Spreading solar around

Perhaps the biggest change would be to expand some level of solar to almost everywhere in the city.

The ordinance looks to allow solar as an accessory use in all zoning districts for buildings, carports and small ground-mounted projects, with small being defined as producing less than 100 kilowatts.

It would also define where solar projects of various sizes are allowed by conditional use.

Small-scale projects would be allowed downtown and in densely populated areas of the city, while large-scale projects would be allowed in industrial areas and open spaces.

No ground-mounted projects of any size would be allowed in the residential downtown, central business performance, civic performance and urban commercial districts – basically the densely developed areas of the city.

Pretty much everywhere else would be able to have some solar, depending on the zoning. Large-scale projects, defined as generating more than one megawatt, would be allowed only in the residential open space, office park, opportunity corridor performance, institutional, industrial and gateway performance districts.

The ordinance would also allow solar in the historic district, provided that it received approval from the Heritage Commission, is minimally visible and doesn’t mar the historical aspects of a building.

Clearing up the solar process

Small projects and rooftop solar projects are already allowed by right in most areas, according to Assistant City Planner Beth Fenstermacher. But it’s not explicit in the zoning codes, and the ordinance would clarify where zoning is allowed.

It would also direct the city to create a “one-stop solar permit,” where developers have to work off only a single checklist in order to understand what’s required of them, and coordinate reviews of the application across city departments.

Perhaps one of the most significant changes would be to align Concord’s view of impervious surfaces with Massachusetts’s, whose model solar zoning exempts panels from lot coverage – the defining point in the West Portsmouth Street solar debate.

A proposed large-scale solar farm that would have sat on land rented from Brochu Nursery was rejected by the zoning board after a ruling earlier this year that solar panels count as impervious surfaces, basically the same as a roof over a warehouse, or a paved parking lot.

The project’s developers, NextEra Energy, argued to no avail that the angled panels allow grass to grow underneath them and should not be considered impervious because water can still reach the ground.

Unmoved, the zoning board rejected the project again.

Although it’s been months since the West Portsmouth Street decision, the impact is still felt. Fenstermacher said the city got a lot of feedback from residents on the issue, and said when it comes to larger developments in the city’s rural areas, it’s not just about impervious surfaces – it’s about aesthetics, too.

“The biggest issues are the lot coverage and where it’s going to go,” she said. “We need to reach out to those neighborhoods and see how they feel about it. Maybe some farmers to see if they’re interested in leasing.”

Whether anything like the West Portsmouth Street project will come to Concord again after the sustained veto of the net metering bill is debatable. The bill would have expanded net metering from one megawatt to five megawatts, but was left on the chopping block two weeks ago.

Next steps

The city’s planning board is expected to take up the ordinance in the next month or so, with a public hearing before the city council anticipated for December.

Fenstermacher said residents can look for a public input session sometime in the second or third week of October. If people want to give feedback before then, she encourages them to contact her by phone, at 230-3635, or by email at

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)