We Don't Need to Chop Down Trees to Save the Environment From Climate Change

By FRANK CARINI

We can split the atom, send people to the moon and land rovers on Mars, build weapons of mass destruction, drill for fossil fuels a mile beneath the ocean’s surface, take land via eminent domain to build a fence along the Mexican border, and develop technology that tracks our every move, but we can’t seem to increase solar-energy production without deforesting the landscape.

Modernizing the power grid to handle the 21st-century needs of renewable energy and siting solar energy responsibly are always beyond our capabilities. Forests must be sacrificed to protect the environment from fossil fuels and climate change — except, of course, when forests need to be clear-cut to make room for more fossil fuels and more climate emissions (see, Clear River Energy Center).

This obtuseness is on profound display in Rhode Island, where developers hack their way through green space to build monuments to corporate banking and blackjack. We leave already-developed, infrastructure-ready, paved-over disturbed places alone.

The siting of solar energy is a multilayered issue informed by many factors, the first and foremost of which is profit. After that comes the lure of tax revenue, the protection of property rights, and concerns about the high cost of interconnections and substation upgrades (see, profits). Last on the list of importance is environmental protections.

The future costs that come with degrading the environment by clear-cutting forest, much like filling in wetlands and drowning salt marshes to make way for more development, are largely ignored. The resulting problems caused by erosion, flooding, soil degradation, and various climate-change impacts, such as the deterioration of public health, are paid later by others who had no say in the shortsightedness.

If we truly wanted to, we could overcome the often-cited substation and interconnection excuses that are routinely noted when another tree is felled to make way for another solar panel. It’s really just a matter of whose money will be spent to improve the generation and distribution of renewable energy — an urgently needed must-do during this climate-changing time. Energy developers and utilities don’t want to pay for the needed upgrades. They want ratepayers to fund the work, even if it’s for fossil-fuel expansion.

Thus, forests are clear-cut and woodlands cleared, because it’s more profitable to bulldoze the environment than it is to repurpose already-developed areas, build carports, or transform brownfields and Superfund sites.

As of last month, London-based National Grid was ranked No. 249 on the Forbes list of the world’s largest public companies, with $18.4 billion in sales. The multinational corporation made $10.2 billion in profit in 2017.

National Grid recently filed a proposal with Rhode Island regulators that calls for a 19 percent increase in the bill for the typical residential user. Under the filing submitted to the Public Utilities Commission, starting Oct. 1 and running through March residential customers who use 500 kilowatt-hours a month would experience an increase in their monthly bill of nearly $19.

When it comes to the siren song of tax revenue and the accompanying allure of lower property taxes, which seldom manifest, the priceless value of green space can’t compete. The long-term costs of Rhode Island’s collective solar shortsightedness will be significantly more expensive than properly dealing with the siting issue now. It’s easier, however, to leave the tab for future generations to pick up.

The latest example in this recurring lack of leadership is the Exeter Town Council. Despite objections from both the Planning Board and town planner, and after three nights of public hearings where residents expressed strong opposition to a proposed zoning change, the Town Council recently voted to change the zoning ordinance as requested by a solar-energy developer.

Green Development LLC — the same North Kingstown-based company that tried buying votes in an attempt to get a bill approved that would have listed woody biomass as a renewable energy despite reams of information that say otherwise — won the zoning change that will allow it to build utility-scale solar installations on 15 properties in residential areas without having to seek special-use permits.

Property rights are important, but so too are the comprehensive plans that cities and towns are mandated to develop in order to, among other things, steer development to appropriate locations. However, the growing trend, especially in rural Rhode Island, is approving industrial-scale solar projects in neighborhoods zoned residential. The required comprehensive plans are routinely ignored.

Replace 60,000 solar panels with low-income housing or bike paths from Providence and Central Falls and the property-rights conversation will change.

A Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources (OER) stakeholders group met monthly for about a year. It helped craft a bill, the Rhode Island Energy Resources Act, that created siting standards for wind and solar projects within each municipality. The measure had the support of OER, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the Rhode Island Farm Bureau, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Rhode Island Builders Association, the Northeast Clean Energy Council, the Conservation Law Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

The House passed the bill, but the Senate never bothered to hold a hearing.

Now an advisory group, a subcommittee of the OER stakeholders group, is working to develop a solar-guidance-model ordinance for use by municipalities. Six more meetings are scheduled through mid-October. In the meantime, OER recently adopted a set of initiatives to encourage solar development on brownfields, rooftops, and carports. The initiatives, however, are short on specifics and funding.

These delay tactics need to be reversed. We should be creating task forces, ignoring bills, and holding public hearings that study the impacts of forest clear-cutting. It would be years before another tree was axed.

Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.