Solar Siting Sparks Division Among Environmentalists

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The siting of ground-mounted solar facilities continue to exasperate environmentalists, developers, and planners who are trying to protect open space amid a booming renewable-energy sector.

The rift, especially between environmentalists, was evident at a March 14 Statehouse hearing for House bill H5789. A surge in open-space solar development has frustrated many municipalities, most notably rural communities, as pockets of green space have been converted to solar fields in Coventry, Cranston, Exeter, Hopkinton, Charlestown, and South Kingstown.

Conservationists point to a lack of incentives for building on closed landfills, brownfields, parking lots, and gravel pits.

The Green Energy Consumers Alliance said the Rhode Island Energy Resources Act is the best approach to protect the state’s natural resources from ambitious developers while also allowing for the renewable-energy sector to profit and expand.

The alliance, formerly People’s Power & Light, was part of the stakeholders group convened by the Office of Energy Resources (OER) and the Northeast Clean Energy Council to draft proposed siting rules for renewable energy.

Kai Salem, program associate for the Green Energy Consumers Alliance, wrote in a letter to legislators that the bill should discourage renewable-energy development in natural areas.

“H5789 represents a promising compromise between environmental organizations, solar industry representatives, municipalities, farmers, the utility and the many other participants in this process,” Salem wrote.

The bill offers incentives for installers to build in developed areas through an interconnection payback program set by the state Public Utilities Commission. The legislation also aims to protect open space and forestland by capping the size of projects to 4 megawatts of electricity capacity if built within state-designation conservation zones.

The Rhode Island chapter of The Nature Conservancy supports the bill because it closes a loophole that allows developers to circumvent a 10-megawatt cap on solar facilities by building two or three 10-megawatt projects next to each other. The legislation prohibits this practice on land zoned for residential building.

The Nature Conservancy and some other groups would like the legislation to omit a provision that allows municipalities to waive the caps on project size and opt out the contiguous zoning provision.

The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns supports the bill because it gives local planning and zoning boards control over setbacks and lot coverage. The municipal advocacy group also likes that the bill requires OER to offer technical and legal support to communities as they adopt new solar ordinances.

The Rhode Island chapter of the American Planning Association offered serval amendments to the bill, including a need to protect natural habitat that does qualify as state-protected conservation land.

“While municipalities will undoubtedly place additional requirements and restrictions to reduce environmental impacts, the state is forfeiting its environmental stewardship role by not excluding sensitive environmental areas in its renewable-energy program,” said Ashley Sweet and Jane Weidman, co-chairs of the local chapter’s legislative committee.

Grow Smart Rhode Island, an advocate for progressive land-use principals, noted that even with the environmental provisions, the legislation encourages solar facilities in areas of environmental value. 

“Continuing to clear cut thousands of trees in pursuit of renewable energy is unacceptable and unnecessary. We can and must do better,” Scott Millar, manager of community technical assistance for Grow Smart, wrote in a submitted letter.

Solar development should primarily occur in places that have been developed or already disturbed, according to Millar. Grow Smart and others at the hearing stressed the value of local forests to sequester carbon and the need for untouched land in the state for meeting climate-emission reduction goals.

Millar noted that the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has estimated that state forests can absorb 30 percent of Rhode Island’s greenhouse gases.

“Forests are the only proven technique that can absorb and store vast amounts of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere,” Millar said. “Solar panels and wind turbines can’t remove and store vast amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so they need to be sited in a manner that fully protects our forests.”

Solar developer Fred Unger of the Providence-based Heartwood Group Inc. argued that replacing trees with solar panels is better for the climate. Unger, a member of the OER solar stakeholder group, referenced an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) statistic that claims an acre of solar power reduces 200 times the carbon emissions than is sequestered within an acre of forestland.

Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy for Save The Bay, noted that the EPA statistic is misleading because it fails to account for all of the ecological values of forested habitat.

“We need forests to protect Narragansett Bay; to protect our watershed; to protect our marine and recreational industries and our quality of life in the state,” said Hamblett, who also submitted written testimony.

Francis DiGregorio, vice president of the Exeter Town Council, opposed the bill because he said the incentives still encourage solar development in rural areas. He criticized a provision in the bill that allows municipalities to impose a 5-kilowatt-hour tariff, calling it “meager to the point of being insulting.”

“This bill, as written, will leave towns like Exeter stripped of any defense to properly site and regulate these expansive, utility-scale solar facilities,” DiGregorio said.

The Rhode Island Woodland Partnership (RIWP), a forest stewardship and conservation group, opposes the development of renewable-energy facilities in areas of environmental concern as defined in the bill, in particular conservation opportunity areas identified by DEM “that include tracts of woodland 250 acres and larger and comprise our state’s largest remaining undeveloped forests.”

RIWP supports the amendment to remove all state economic incentives for renewable-energy development from areas of environmental concern.

The Burrillville Land Trust and others called for more incentives for solar carports and canopies that serve as alternatives to clearing land.

The Audubon Society of Rhode Island wants a solar-siting bill passed this year. Lawrence Taft, Audubon’s executive director, liked many of the bill’s policies, such as a requirement that OER and DEM identify locations for land-based solar and wind projects.

“We don’t know if any of these strategies will be successful but we certainly need to try,” Taft wrote in submitted testimony.

At the hearing, Taft said, “We feel that this bill is not perfect, but we can live with it. It’s in the right direction; we certainly cannot hold it up and continue business as usual.”

The bill also is supported by the Rhode Island Farm Bureau, the Environment Council of Rhode Island, the Conservation Law Foundation, and DEM. The state housing financing agency, RIHousing, supports the bill because it encourages remote net metering, which allows multiple subscribers to receive credits on their electric bills from an offsite renewable system.

If approved, cities and town must adopt the new siting rules by April 2020. Municipalities that fail to meet the deadline could lose access to state renewable-energy subsidies.

The bill was held for further study pending additional hearings.

In 2018, two bills establishing siting guidelines for renewable energy failed to pass the House and Senate. H7793 passed the House but never had a hearing in the Senate. H8141 died in a House committee.

Correction: The Rhode Island Woodland Partnership’s opposition to bill H5789 had been reported incorrectly. It opposes a section of the bill.