Good Local Planning Needs to Make Siting of Renewable Energy Less Burdensome

Editor’s note: This piece was written in response to ecoRI News staffer Frank Carini’s “long line of articles lamenting the loss of open space and forests to solar projects. We had an exchange on this issue when you first raised it in the summer of 2017 — see https://www.ecori.org/green-opinions/2017/8/11/space-needs-to-be-made-for-renewable-energy-in-rhode-island. Since then, your commentary has been relentless. I don’t doubt that we share concern for the future of our environment; we just see this matter from different points of view.”

By SETH HANDY

The stakeholders in the Office of Energy Resources’ deliberations resolved that the goal of a good siting policy is to achieve Rhode Island’s energy and climate targets with as little negative environmental impact as possible. Finding the right balance raises many important issues for our dialogue.

Good local planning is essential to our communities. Our statewide planning office regularly engages experts and stakeholders to help guide it. Their processes produced data to shape a State Guide Plan that is now expected to be implemented in local comprehensive plans. The land-use element of our State Guide Plan calls for land-use development decisions that support and facilitate renewable energy at economies of scale. The economic development element of our plan directs us to stop exporting billions of dollars to feed our energy needs, and to build our own green economy — one of the fastest growing sectors in our state — by reducing “regulatory barriers.”

The energy element of the plan charges local governments to reduce regulatory hurdles and better enable a massive deployment of renewable energy that will enhance energy security while producing economic and environmental benefit. Local planning interests can be upheld through reasonable regulation of the most sensitive impacts of these projects — e.g., vegetative buffers, soil conservation standards, project decommissioning requirements. However, planning interests must coexist with other imperatives behind renewable energy.

Planning is not the only local voice on development policy. Our towns get dwindling financial support from state and federal government and need new revenue now more than ever. It’s unrealistic to think that open spaces not already dedicated to conservation will remain undeveloped. Planning boards consider renewables in zones planned for other uses. Town administrators and councils can’t afford to leave all land undeveloped — the towns need to decide what kind of development to allow and where. Renewable energy is a new and economical land-use option. It generates significant tax revenue without straining municipal infrastructure — schools, sewers, water, etc. — and budgets. The notion that energy is the only alternative to preserving forests ignores development that would otherwise be allowed to help sustain local budgets.

What about the property rights of those selling or leasing land for renewables? To conclude that they should be obliged to continue paying to maintain open space undermines their autonomy and presumes that the public controls their private property. In most cases, owners can’t afford to maintain open space; they also must decide how to generate revenue to support the economics of their property. Renewable energy provides a temporary solution that can coexist with and sustain existing uses — like farming — while avoiding irreversible development.

Do rural communities owe our cities greater accommodation of our future energy supply burden? City residents have lived next to power plants that have electrified much of our state since the advent of our electrical system in the early 1900s, while belching air and water pollution. They have never been asked whether they want those power plants. Some may be well accustomed to using electricity without looking at its sources. Some of them may also provide important financial support to our newspapers and our environmental nonprofits. That’s one influential outlook; but it’s not the only important one.

What about intergenerational and international equities? Environmentalists are known for weighing the long-term implications of current decisions. Kurt Vonnegut called for a “Ministry of the Future” – shouldn’t our children have a prominent role in governance decisions with long-term implications? Is it up to the likes of us to decide whether land conservation interests outweigh a need for renewable energy? Rhode Island’s youth and their progeny will inherit the impacts of this debate; their voice should be front and center.

International equities also get little attention. Environmentalists think globally. The proliferation of natural disasters spawned by rising temperatures have a disproportionate impact on people far away from these siting decisions. Their interests should matter.

Any policy that discourages renewable energy encourages natural gas-fired electricity, by default. The U.S. Energy Information Agency notes that “Rhode Island generates a larger share of its electricity from natural gas than any other state, more than 90%.” Only 7 percent of our new generation came from renewables in 2017; and that number almost doubled our 2016 output.

Renewables are finally growing, but they we have a long way to go to overcome our over dependence on natural gas. The suggestion that we can accomplish our energy and climate goals through renewables sited on contaminated land, rooftops, and parking canopies greatly underestimates those goals and their urgency. Our state renewable-energy standard requires that we source 38 percent of our electricity from renewables by 2035. Our state plan calls for that transformation because our existing supply of electricity is insecure (centralized power generation raises many security concerns), unreliable (subject to interruption), expensive (local generation from free fuel sources avoids substantial costs), and harmful.

Is Rhode Island serious about supplying our own power? Or, do we prefer to continue importing, despite the costs of fracking, pipelines, generating facilities, and transmission of power long distances across expensive cables? Those who have worked hard over many years to tear down barriers and build mechanics to grow our own renewable-energy supply are encouraged that it’s finally working.

Environmentalists that regret “solar sprawl” ought to actively support wind power — it consumes very little land area and, with proper regulation, has no impact other than its (pleasing, in my opinion) aesthetic.

Providence resident Seth Handy of Handy Law LLC has represented the interests of renewable-energy developers.