Our Energy Use Needs to Change Before We Put Solar Panels in Forests

By PAUL A. ROSELLI

Attorney Seth Handy’s recent op-ed titled Good Local Planning Needs to Make Siting of Renewable Energy Less Burdensome needs some explanation and requires a study on use of key phrases and specific words.

Rhode Island’s energy needs come from our own use. There is no inherent or natural human need for electricity. We turn on lights, buy three TVs per household, leave the cable box on 24 hours at a time, and we make sure we are cooled in the summer and heated in the winter. We like our clothes dried in a machine and our laundry washed in the machine next to the dryer. Our dishwasher can’t turn itself on last time I checked mine. All of this points to a key element that is missing in Mr. Handy's story: behavior. What we do with energy, the light bulbs, the clothes, and dish washer is dependent on us. No one and no thing else.

Putting more energy into a system that is inefficient and wasteful is a prescription for disaster. And if anyone reads this news source or any other, we all know that climate change is real: our coastlines are shrinking, our forests are dwindling, and our planet is getting warmer. Cutting down more trees, paving over more agricultural soils, and utilizing more in a time that demands less adds to the burden of natural systems that are already straining to cope.

We can’t generate any more plastics. Rhode Island needs a bottle bill. Our electric system needs upgrades. We need more of using less. The forests can’t cope any longer. Drive anywhere in Rhode Island and there are hundreds of trees that are physiologically dead from a combination of gypsy moth caterpillar infestation, drought, and a changing climate.

Living forests need not be cut to make way for solar and wind. Phrases used in my dear friend and colleague’s article such as “vegetative buffers” and “soil conservation standards” might make some happy in the way these words sound, but for the ecology of the land, buffers and standards have no meaning. A buffer is too small. What is needed is long stretches, and contiguous large tracts. And standards change. The soils of today are a far cry of those of the 18th and 19th centuries. A soil biologist from the 1800s wouldn’t recognize the soils of today — laden with heavy metals, an atmosphere containing more carbon dioxide, a decline in species. As a land preservationist, my first responsibility is for the health of the forest and the soil below. Given time, the landscape will heal. But when it is constantly being hit with one toxin after another, it’s hard to believe that any of it will survive.

Sixty percent of Rhode Islanders get their drinking and bathing water from the Scituate Reservoir. The forests and land that surround the water bodies that supply water are the only reason for the purity, color, and taste of that water. Take the long stretches of contiguous forests away, and the water will not be the same.

The answer is renewables. But not on agricultural soils, not by clear-cutting forests, and perhaps not by design either. As good as Statewide Planning is, they still recommend that the fossil-fuel power plant proposed for the woods of Burrillville is a good thing for Rhode Island.

Laws and policy can change direction of our solar and wind regulations overnight. The Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources in a July press release announced that solar car ports will now get funds from the Renewable Energy Growth Program. Retailers who can give up a little of their storefront marketing parking lots can help solve our energy needs. Huge parking areas can quickly reap benefits while helping to solve their own and other energy needs.

Microgrids for small- and medium-sized parking areas can easily be installed. The engineering is quickly matching needs and speed. The 5 megawatts allowed for solar car ports is already taken up by contracts, shovels in hand. Landfills, brownfields, and vacant land can be used long before a tree is cut and long before there is any need to cut another.

Yes, there needs to be regulation, public input, and policymakers who are up to speed. Planning boards who can speak the language of virtual net metering, along with conservation of land — these are the people we need to move us forward.

Energy use needs to be lessened. Behavior changes and those who are willing to talk about changes in our lifestyle are in short supply. Perhaps we need to cultivate more of that type of thinking before putting solar panels on another farm.

Paul A. Roselli is president of the Burrillville Land Trust, holds a bachelor of science degree in agriculture and a master’s in education from URI, a two-year certificate of sustainability from Bryant University, and is a master of science student in global environmental studies at Bryant University.