By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — It’s rare that progressive planners and environmentalists disagree on an issue, but a bill that limits the building of wind and solar projects in forestland is one of them.
During a lengthy May 10 Statehouse hearing, Grow Smart Rhode Island, tree advocates and concerned residents said immediate action is needed to curtail the clear-cutting of thousands of trees for the development of solar arrays, some as large as 500 acres.
H8141 discourages siting solar arrays on large wooded areas by prohibiting state financial incentives for the projects, such as grants from the state Renewable Energy Fund.
Rep. Jeremiah O’Grady, D-Lincoln, sponsored the bill, after hearing pleas from residents in communities with big solar projects. Large solar arrays have been approved or proposed for open space across the state, including in Cranston, Lincoln, Exeter, North Kingstown and North Smithfield, and residents are pushing back.
“Not on our dime. The state will not subsidize such a thing. And that’s what this bill says,” O’Grady said during the recent hearing.
Brownfields, rooftops and industrial sites are preferred to farmland and forests for renewable-energy development but financial incentives, O’Grady said, don’t favor those locations. Open space and woodlands are being developed because they are cheaper options.
“We are looking for balance between a desire to reduce our carbon footprint by spurring renewable energy ... and protect our natural resources like forests.” O'Grady said. “I think the bill provides a balance between the two.”
Scott Wolf, executive director of Grow Smart Rhode Island, said forests can't afford to wait more than a year for a state effort to help municipalities adopt statewide standards. At risk, is the state's “urban-rural balance,” he said.
“Ironically, we think the greatest and most urgent threat to forest loss by far is the existing state renewable energy-incentive policy because ... it is blind to different types of sites,” Wolf said.
He estimated that more than 1,000 acres of mostly open space is already lost or proposed to be built on and another 1,000 acres are at risk of development.
However, environmental groups such as The Nature Conservancy and Audubon Society of Rhode Island say O’Grady’s bill undermines the ongoing effort to set comprehensive statewide standards for wind and solar projects. They instead urged the passage of H7793, which requires cities and towns to decide where and how renewable-energy projects can be built. Under guidance from the Office of Energy Resources (OER), each municipality must adopt siting rules by July 1, 2019.
Opponents of O’Grady’s bill say restricting renewable energy will make the land more attractive to homebuilders. They say solar arrays can be removed once they stop working and the land can return to natural habitat or farmland.
But Wolf said few massive housing developments are being built in the state’s rural regions. Those that are built preserve many trees and manage runoff. He and O’Grady said they would be willing to amend the bill to limit other development.
“So the clear and present danger to Rhode Island forests right now is renewable-energy development,” Wolf said. “It’s not residential subdivisions. It’s not strip malls. It’s not big-box stores. Those are the bogeymen of the past. Unfortunately, renewable energy is becoming the bogeyman of the present.”
Jamie Dickerson of the advocacy group Northeast Clean Energy Council (NECEC), said O’Grady’s bill undermines the work of a state renewable-energy stakeholder group, which is overseen by the OER. Those recommended rules will include incentives for protecting open space and building renewable projects on brownfield and landfills, a concept similar to the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target program.
Dickerson said all renewable projects rely on state incentives. Excluding forestland will have a “chilling effect” on renewable-energy development, he said.
“No project is going to be developed if state incentives are not allowed,” Dickerson said.
Rep. Robert Lancia, R-Cranston, said he didn’t like that the bill sets one statewide rule. He instead preferred to let cities and towns make their own decisions for siting renewable energy.
O'Grady's bill is opposed by Acadia Center, Green Development LLC, Handy Law, the Heartwood Group, the Division of Statewide Planning, OER, People’s Power & Light, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, the Rhode Island Business Coalition, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, TEC-RI, the Rhode Island Farm Bureau, and the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns.
O’Grady’s bill is supported by the Burrillville Land Trust and the Rhode Island Tree Council. Residents of Cranston, North Kingstown and North Smithfield also testified in favor of the bill.
H8141 was held for further study. H7793 had a hearing March 2. No new hearing has been scheduled.