Renewable Energy Could be Cash Cow for R.I. Farms

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Renewable energy and farming has been a successful partnership for years. In the Midwest and other farming regions, wind turbines and solar arrays have been a financial lifeline for struggling farmers.

But building industrial-scale turbines and large solar arrays in the densely built Northeast can create problems for nearby homeowners. In Rhode Island, for instance, towns with remaining pockets of open space and relatively large farms are butting heads with farmers and renewable-energy developers.

Stamp Farm in Exeter has been trying to erect a wind turbine on its farm since 2010. But neighbors have staunchly objected. Neighbors have compared wind turbines to living next to a power plant and have expressed concern about noise, shadow flicker, ice throw, and worry that the size of the project would hurt property values.

The state Office of Energy Resources (OER) offered help for developers and municipalities by issuing siting guidelines in 2012, but the recommendations didn't prompt many communities to establish siting rules. So far, only Portsmouth, North Kingstown and Coventry have adopted siting guidelines, while other communities have moratoriums on wind turbines.

There are several financial incentive for farmers and developers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers grants and loans, as well as subsidized site surveys and technical assistance for building. Federal tax credits, state grants and long-term fixed power-purchase agreements dramatically reduce the payback period on upfront investment.

A bill in the General Assembly attempts to address part of the siting issue by allowing farmers to build renewable energy projects as long as they have 15 contiguous acres of land. The size of the project must cannot exceed 20 percent of the farmland.

Once they are built and delivering electricity, renewable-energy systems help farmers by generating income from leases and other revenues streams. The renewable energy often delivers more cash than actual crops.

Mark DePasquale, owner of Wind Energy Development LLC in North Kingstown, has estimated that solar or wind can generate four times the revenue per acre than growing corn. DePasquale, the main advocate for the legislation, is the leading wind developer of wind turbines in the state, with 15 industrial turbines erected so far.

Solar, he said, is also well suited for dairy farmers, by allowing cows to graze between the rows of panels. A solar array has space for raising goats and sheep and growing mushrooms or small plants, according to DePasquale.

But local opposition is steady.

“The legislation would essentially allow industrial-scale uses — power plants — on properties that are often residentially zoned and may be in close proximity to residential neighborhoods,” Maria Mack, chairwoman of the South Kingstown Planning Board, said during a recent hearing at the Statehouse.

Mack said the bill takes away local siting control while omitting standards for fences, view shed, wildlife and decommissioning of the wind turbine or solar array. There is also no requirement for a public hearing for a proposed project, she added.

“It appears that the primary beneficiaries of the proposal might be the investors of these facilities,” Mack said.

Peder Schaefer of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns said it was telling that OER and the state Department of Environmental Management weren't at the recent hearing. 

“They need to go on the record on this bill and they are not here,” Schaefer said.

Bill Stamp Jr. and his son Bill Stamp III, owners of Stamp Farm, said a farmer’s pay isn't keeping up with costs for seeds and equipment. Incentives, they said, are necessary to attract and retain young farmers.

“We all need to work together to find a solution to this because, if not, I think it would be hard to convince my kids and many of the farmers who have left the state to come back and farm this land,” Stamp III said.

Rep. Teresa Tanzi, D-Narragansett, said the legislation helps the state meet its renewable-energy goals, such as producing 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2020.

“It could actually help farmers stay on the land and keep it productive,” Tanzi said.

The bill is modeled after similar guidelines for farms and renewable-energy development in Massachusetts. The bill was help for further study. A similar bill died in committee in 2014.