By FRANK CARINI
HOPKINTON, R.I. — Rhode Island just doesn’t get it, even when it tries to be 21st century. Cutting down 30,000 trees to make room for a solar farm is only slightly less 1980's than destroying 200 acres of forest to build a fossil-fuel power plant.
The smallest state has plenty of wasted space, in the form of brownfields, old landfills, rooftops, parking lots and empty big-box retailers, but the Ocean State seems driven to Paul Bunyan its way to the future.
The latest ax-wielding project, being proposed by Southern Sky Renewable Energy LLC for 73 acres off Main Street in Ashaway, is a 13.8-megawatt solar installation, with 43,000 solar panels, that would require the clear-cutting of 60 forest acres.
“I mourn the loss of 30,000 trees, I really do,” Town Council member David Husband is quoted as saying in a recent Westerly Sun story. “But something’s going in there sooner or later.”
Therein lies the problem — one that afflicts municipalities, taxpayers, businesses and state government alike. We’re addicted to building things in places that make no sense — i.e., the natural-gas power plant proposed for Burrillville’s forest, an office park in the Johnston woods, a casino in Tiverton wetlands — in the endless pursuit of more tax dollars and jobs, as if better, or even adequate, land-use management would bankrupt the state and cause unemployment to rise.
At a July 17 meeting, Hopkinton council members noted that the solar farm would benefit the town financially. Sure, if you ignore the impact on ecological diversity and other external costs. Woods matter.
Connecticut’s Council on Environmental Quality is concerned about taking farmland out of production and cutting down forests to power society. Earlier this year the nine-member council published a report aimed at stimulating the siting of solar-energy facilities in places other than farms and forests. The report documents the surge in proposals to use farmland and forestland for the construction of large solar electricity-generating facilities.
“We do not see any need for Connecticut’s land conservation and renewable energy goals to be in conflict,” the council’s chairwoman has said.
Chopping down forests further fragments forestland, which negatively impacts natural resources such as drinking water and habitat, and weakens environmental health by diminishing biodiversity. Taking agricultural land out of production reduces the amount of local food that can be grown and harvested.
Scott Millar, manager of community technical assistance for Grow Smart Rhode Island, told ecoRI News in May that solar panels on rooftops, industrial land, landfills and brownfields would minimize environmental damage.
“We need to take a hard look at what we’re proposing,” he said. “We shouldn’t be sacrificing farms and forests.”
Instead, we should be modernizing the regional power grid; building solar arrays on vacant and underused development, like the city of East Providence did at the Forbes Street Landfill; covering parking lots with solar canopies, like the 3.2-megawatt canopy covering 800 parking spaces across 5 acres at Bristol Community College’s Fall River, Mass., campus; regulating and incentivizing renewable-energy developers to build in appropriate places; supporting local farming so the industry doesn’t have to sell out to energy consumption.
Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.