New Housing Issue Complicates R.I.'s Solar-Siting Plans

Developers upset they are losing land to ground-mounted solar projects

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The already-complicated issue of open-space protection and solar sprawl is getting more complex.

On May 29, the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture passed a bill (S0661) to the Senate floor that requires solar-siting standards for every city and town in Rhode Island. The bill, however, has yet to be scheduled for a vote by the full Senate.

Committee chairwoman Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, amended her bill to what she called “a pared-down version” of the original legislation. Gone from the bill is a10-megawatt cap for solar projects on land zoned residential. Also cut was a 4-megawatt limit on projects in areas of environmental concern, which are typically 250 acres or more of forestland. Incentives for building solar in less environmentally sensitive locations such as a commercial properties, landfills, gravel pits, and brownfields were removed.

A controversial requirement, added at the request of home-builders, was also removed. The stipulations required municipalities to replace land converted to ground-mounted solar by setting aside new land zoned for residential development.

All that remains in the Senate bill is a requirement that every city and town establish solar-siting rules by April 30, 2020. Failing to do so would result in the community losing use of two state solar incentives, the Renewable Energy Growth Program and the Renewable Energy Fund. The prohibition would only apply to projects larger the 25 kilowatts, which is the size of a large residential solar installation.

The future of the Senate bill and a House version (H5789), which still contains all of the proposed restrictions and incentives, seems less certain as the General Assembly nears the end of June, the traditional end of the legislative session.

What may pass is a Senate study commission to address the issue of housing lost to solar development. Sosnowski said housing received little attention during the nearly two years an advisory group of 37 stakeholders, led by the Office of Energy Resources (OER), has been debating solar siting. The ongoing effort included a dozen public meetings. Now some municipalities and developers are troubled about losing land that could be used to build new homes, Sosnowski said.

A bill creating the study commission hasn’t been introduced, but Sosnowski said at the May hearing that a Senate panel would be formed to “address how housing in our community is being displaced by renewable-energy projects. … It’s a very important issue on both sides, both sides.”

As of May, at least 20 cities and towns in Rhode Island have set rules for solar installations, while 19 lack solar siting ordinances, according to OER.

Some communities are rewriting ordinances after learning they can’t control solar sprawl. Developers are skirting a rule that limits solar projects to 10 megawatts of electricity capacity by subdividing a single parcel into separate solar projects, each below the 10-megawatt threshold. In North Smithfield, the loophole is being used to split a proposed 43-megawatt solar facility on a 400-acre site into nine contiguous projects.

Hopkinton, a rural community at the epicenter of the solar-siting debate, has a stringent solar-building ordinance, but it’s being circumvented by developers who receive zoning exemptions from the planning board. Other communities such as Cranston and Tiverton are wrestling with temporary moratoriums on solar construction.

Groups like Grow Smart Rhode Island are calling for the state to do the planning for open-space protection. They advocate for so-called “smart growth” municipal planning, such as the provision in the House bill that offers incentives for building in commercial areas and on brownfield sites. Scott Millar, manager of community technical assistance for Grow Smart Rhode Island, favors an approach used by Vermont, where the state designated sites for solar development.

Millar wants a statewide moratorium on all ground-mounted solar projects 1 megawatt or larger in size and zoned for residential sites.

“Those are the projects that are creating the most environmental problems,” Millar said.

The solar-siting bills have created a rift among environmental groups, many of whom serve on the OER’s solar advisory board. They are at odds over the loss of open space and forests and the need for renewable energy to curb climate emissions. The Conservation Law Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, the Northeast Clean Energy Council, and the Acadia Center see the bill as much-needed action this year that will stem the loss of woodlands.

In addition to Grow Smart Rhode Island, the bills are opposed by Save The Bay, the Rhode Island Tree Council, and the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Planning Association. These groups say the bills fail to curb the power-pricing incentives, such as virtual net metering, that result in clearing trees to build solar facilities in natural habitat.

“Instead, meaningful incentives should be provided to encourage subsequent solar in areas that have already been developed or disturbed,” Millar said.

But the Acadia Center say communities are overwhelmed with solar projects and urgently need help to address the deluge of projects.

“We’re still very much urging more comprehensive action on solar siting this year,” said Erika Niedowski, Rhode Island director for the Acadia Center. “The status quo is not serving anyone well.”