Bill Hinders Building of Solar Facilities in Forests

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Environmental groups are pushing back against a bill that effectively outlaws the building of solar facilities and other renewable-energy projects on forestland.

H8141 was introduced to address spreading resentment about the clear-cutting of trees, in rural areas in particular, to build large solar-energy projects. Cranston, Exeter, Lincoln, North Kingstown and North Smithfield all have had large renewable projects that have caused public outcry.

While the bill doesn't expressly prohibit the construction of renewable-energy projects in forests, it prevents developers from taking advantage of key state incentive programs that are relied to make such projects profitable. According to the bill, the restriction applies to renewable-energy systems in, or connected to, a wooded area 250 acres or larger.

During a May 2 meeting of the state Renewable Energy Siting Stakeholder Committee, environmental groups such as the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and The Nature Conservancy said the bill has several drawbacks, including paving the way for real-estate development and fossil-fuel power plants.

Meg Kerr of the Audubon Society said there are untended consequences of excluding renewable energy from forests, “which has a lot of positive effects, unlike suburban residential development.”

Kerr noted that public opposition to a 567-acre solar facility in her hometown of North Kingstown as reason for comprehensive rules instead of a single bill that targets a segment of the issue.

“It’s really important that we start with reminding ourselves how urgent the climate-change challenge is,” she said.

The Rhode Island Farm Bureau opposes the bill because it restricts the rights of property owners. Farmers and timber businesses have a long history of relying on ancillary operations such as energy development to stay in business, said Henry Wright III, the bureau's president.

“Farmers need energy to survive,” he said.

The bill also gets in the way of the ongoing effort to establish statewide siting rules for wind and solar projects.

“It’s not a good procedure for resolving a contentious and controversial issue,” said Jerry Elmer, senior attorney for CLF.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), Office of Energy Resources (OER) and the Office of Statewide Planning also oppose the bill and plan to testify against it at a May 10 hearing of the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources. A letter opposing the bill was signed by 13 renewable energy developers and environmental groups.

For several years, the state has failed to establish statewide rules for building wind and solar projects. In the past nine months the siting stakeholder board committee made up of renewable-energy developers and environmental groups has made progress with writing rules for building such projects on farmland and forestland. The committee is also writing guidelines for building on landfills, brownfields and industrial zones.

One of the draft rules requires that land be returned to its agricultural use after the renewable-energy project meets its expected operating life. The draft guidelines also forbid the destruction of valuable topsoil and requires a conservation management plan to outline how a property will be returned to farming or forestry.

The siting committee, overseen by OER, DEM and Statewide Planning, has a bill (H7793) of its own that requires cities and towns to adopt solar and wind siting rules by July 1, 2019.

Public hearings for the state guidelines will be held across the state beginning in June. The proposed standards will be vetted through public hearings and are expected to be approved by the end of the year. Cities and towns can adopt all or part of the siting guidelines.

Kenneth Payne, chairman of the state Distributed Generation Contracts Board, said the siting guidelines will move forward even if the committee’s favored bill fails. He advised not to get optimistic about the bill passing because “in the General Assembly, death stalks good causes.”

“I’m very pleased that OER has a good plan so that if we don’t hit the home run with the bill we still have a viable plan to make real progress,” Payne said.

However, the benefit of the bill is that it requires municipalities to establish siting for wind and solar projects. OER must provide municipalities technical support in adopting the rules.

“All municipalities will have a draft solar ordinance that they can choose elements from or not use any of it,” said Christopher Kearns, chief of program development of OER. “It’s ultimately up to the discretion of the local level. But from the state’s level we want to say that we provided a resource for all municipalities.”

Correction: The story was revised to reflect the fact that House bill H8141 doesn't prohibit the construction of renewable-energy projects in woodlands, but prohibits the use of state incentives and subsidies for those projects.