Emission-Reduction Goals and Conservation of R.I. Forests Not Mutually Exclusive

Editor’s note: Kate Sayles submitted the following testimony to the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources in opposition to bill H5789. A committee hearing was held March 14.

My name is Kate Sayles, and I am a lifelong Rhode Islander and a resident of South Kingstown. I am a graduate of URI with a degree in wildlife and conservation biology. I am testifying today as a private citizen who has spent the past decade working in R.I.’s natural resources sector. I support the state’s effort to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, but not at the expense of our most important natural resource: our core forest. I do not support bill H5789 or any program or state statute that provides incentives that encourage solar development in areas of environmental concern, as defined in this bill.

Our state’s forests provide a wide breadth of benefits to Rhode Island’s residents. These benefits include, but are not limited to, clean air, clean water, healthy wildlife populations, increased human health, cultural values, and recreation opportunities. Our forests prevent soil erosion, reduce stormwater runoff and flooding, and moderate temperatures. They are scientifically proven to improve physical and mental health and reduce stress. Our forest-based economy contributes more than $700 million annually to the state’s economy.

Healthy forests are necessary to mitigate the effects of climate change through carbon sequestration, and the Department of Environmental Management has estimated that our forests have the potential to absorb as much as 30 percent of R.I.’s greenhouse gas emissions annually.

The Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014 states repeatedly that maintaining forest cover and preventing forest fragmentation is imperative to achieving our greenhouse-gas reduction goals, and recommends a zero-net forest loss strategy. Increased fragmentation in our core forests, or areas of environmental concern greater than 250 acres, reduces the ability for natural systems to function, in turn reducing forest benefits and the ability for carbon sequestration.

In a recent study by URI, we’ve lost nearly 2,000 acres in areas of environmental concern in our core forests since 2011 to permanent development.

I recognize the importance of achieving the state’s renewable energy and greenhouse gas reduction goals, and support this ambitious effort to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. I agree that the installation of ground-mounted solar is one way to achieve these goals, and have witnessed firsthand how careful planning and thoughtful solar siting can be a win-win.

The formation of the South Kingstown Solar Consortium and the installations on capped waste disposal sites in my town at both Rose Hill and West Kingstown should be examples for the state.

I applaud the promotion of development of ground-mounted solar projects on brownfields, landfills, Superfund sites, and other developed and previously disturbed sites as outlined in this bill. I believe that it is necessary to provide meaningful economic incentives to prioritize these disturbed sites for solar development. It is also imperative to create economic disincentives to the development of solar in areas of environmental concern. I support the comments outlined in Scott Millar’s testimony on behalf of Grow Smart Rhode Island, as follows:

39-26.4-3 (a)(1)(viii) Net Metering: This section should be deleted in its entirety and state that: “Effective upon passage, the renewable energy growth program, virtual net metering and renewable energy fund shall not be used to develop any ground mounted solar energy systems in areas of environmental concern. The burden to prove that a proposed ground mounted solar energy system is not within an area of environmental concern shall be on the applicant, who would need to provide clear and convincing evidence to the Department of Environmental Management that a proposed project is not within an area of environmental concern.”

Our greenhouse gas reduction goals and the conservation of our core forests should not be mutually exclusive. Until bill H5789 clearly outlines disincentives to solar development in core forest areas, it will not have my support.