Space Needs to be Made for Renewable Energy in Rhode Island

By SETH HANDY

This responds to Frank Carini’s column on the foolishness of clearing forests for solar projects. First, let me be clear that nobody with an environmental bone in their body wants forests cleared for no good reason. We all prefer siting renewable energy in places where it has the least possible environmental impact. That’s obvious.

The electricity we all consume must come from somewhere. It’s unrealistic to think that our energy supply is not going to have significant impact. The real question is what kind of energy supply is preferable, all impacts considered. If we fail to develop the renewables we need to displace fossil fuel and nuclear power, those sources will continue to have a very bad impact on our environment. The column doesn’t analyze which environmental impact is worse. We ought to understand that trade-off. That’s even before considering the impacts distributed energy resources (DER) have on local job creation and on reducing the cost of our whole energy system, especially by cutting back on fuel costs/impacts — e.g., fracking gas, strip mining coal — and the need for (generally environmentally destructive) transmission and distribution system investments.

Those aware of our (sadly limited and recent) history of local renewable-energy installations, know that developers have aggressively pursued the best siting options they can find. There are no landfills, brownfields and large roofs in this state that have not been targeted and analyzed for renewable-energy developments. That’s not to say that policymakers shouldn’t consider special incentives for our best-sited projects; such incentives could change the economic viability of those projects we’d all like to see developed.

But it’s nonsense to think that we can meet all our needs for solar or any other energy on perfect sites with little environmental damage. We have not come close to tapping into the huge opportunity of residential solar in Rhode Island, and we need to do a much, much better job of that. But still, right now we need every kind of DER project we can get, as quickly as we can get them. We especially need large, local solar and wind projects to offset the impacts of our region’s failing, uneconomic and harmful traditional supply and the costly and environmentally dangerous system we all fund to deliver it. It is not easy to site commercial-scale renewable-energy projects in densely populated, little Rhode Island. Our system for the distribution of electricity has not been properly maintained and enhanced to ease the interconnection of renewable energy, so there are limited places to plug projects into our grid without substantial added investment in system capacity (another challenge that must and will be better addressed as well). Too many people react to renewable-energy project siting proposals in a vacuum, mistakenly thinking that denying those projects can simply resolve the impact of our need for electricity. Environmentalists (who are trained to see past shallow appearances of face value) should understand all complexities of the real give-and-take scenarios we face.

Our need for electricity and its impact will be even greater as we look to the prospect of beneficial electrification of our transportation and thermal energy (heating and cooling) sectors. It’s only a matter of time before more and more of us drive electric cars and change our delivered fuel home heating and cooling systems to electric heat pumps based on simple economics (even if not environmental impact). That transformation will generate great new demands for electricity. That added load will either be serviced with job-creating, local renewables or imported from fracking facilities or utility-scale renewable-energy projects across uneconomic and damaging transmission facilities. Pick your preference. And, be aware that your advocacy for or against the mechanics of delivering renewable-energy projects directly affects the balance.

As a last matter, don’t you think that some deference ought to be paid to the people that own the forested land proposed for solar? There’s always been some tension between environmental regulation and property rights advocates over whether the greater environmental good trumps the right to determine how to use and benefit from one’s own property. I generally side with environmental interests when private property proponents propose public nuisance impacts for their own profit. But this situation is fundamentally different.

First, renewable energy produces strong environmental and important other societal benefits. Beyond that, in my experience, these property owners would strongly prefer to leave their property in an undeveloped state if all else were equal, but that is just no longer an economically viable option for them. The time has come when the expenses they incur to hold the property can no longer be handled without some development to offset that burden. This has been a particularly well-known and longstanding problem for farmers. As a result, Rhode Island has lost far too many farms to housing and other developments. Renewable-energy developers propose projects designed to supplement the farmer’s income from continued active farming of most of the property. That’s a good solution to the real and great financial challenges our farmers face. If such properties are not used for temporary and easily removable renewable-energy installations they are likely to go to other forms of development that are irreversible and put much greater burdens on municipal infrastructure (our local taxes) and our environment.

The time for environmentalists to say “we support local renewable energy, BUT ... ” is past. It is now time for us to say “we support renewable energy, AND ... ”  Make no mistake, our impact on energy prices, our economy, our environment and our climate lies right in the balance.
    
Seth Handy is a lawyer based in Providence.