Upcycled R.I. Waste Sites Now Produce Solar Power

 This solar panel field in West Kingston, R.I., is located on a capped waste disposal site. It was developed and is owned by Kearsarge Energy as part of the South Kingstown Solar Consortium, which includes the towns of Narragansett and South Kingstown and the University of Rhode Island. (Nora Lewis/URI)

This solar panel field in West Kingston, R.I., is located on a capped waste disposal site. It was developed and is owned by Kearsarge Energy as part of the South Kingstown Solar Consortium, which includes the towns of Narragansett and South Kingstown and the University of Rhode Island. (Nora Lewis/URI)

By ecoRI News staff

The University of Rhode Island and the towns of South Kingstown and Narragansett have created the South Kingstown Solar Consortium to develop an ambitious solar-energy project that will boost the amount of renewable energy flowing into the regional power grid.

In the works for more than three years, the project is among the largest solar power initiatives in New England. When complete, it will cover 267 acres in West Kingston, South Kingstown and West Greenwich.

URI and its private, municipal, and state partners unveiled details of the initiative at a Nov. 29 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the West Kingston and South Kingstown sites. A similar celebration is planned for the West Greenwich site when it becomes operational.

The consortium solicited proposals from private developers to build and maintain the solar facilities at no net cost to members. It signed 25-year contracts with Kearsarge Solar to develop the West Kingston and South Kingstown sites, and with Energy Development Partners to develop the West Greenwich site.

The capacity of the installations is 40 megawatts, which is expected to deliver 48,000 megawatt-hours of energy to the grid annually — enough energy to power 750 homes and offset the fossil-fuel consumption of 1,500 cars.

The project is also an excellent example of upcycling — a superior secondary use of a product or material, in this case, the land. Of the 42 acres at the West Kingston and South Kingstown locations, 28 are non-farmable, capped waste disposal sites: the former South Kingstown town dump and URI disposal area on Plains Road in West Kingston; and the onetime South Kingstown/Narragansett dump on Rose Hill Road in South Kingstown.

The initiative is a “virtual net metering project,” in which the solar energy generated flows into the electrical supplier’s grid rather than being directly used by any one of the consortium partners, according to David Lamb, assistant director of facilities services and utilities at URI.

State law requires that developers of such projects must be able to offload net metering credits to a public or quasi-public entity; in this case, the consortium members. The value of credits issued is determined by the number of kilowatt-hours generated by the solar facilities times the Public Utilities Commission set rate applicable to solar-generated electricity.

“We are supporting the development of renewable energy that will be supplied to the grid and, in turn, the consortium members receive credits that will reduce costs on their monthly utility bills,” Lamb said.

URI expects to receive credits worth $1.2 million in savings annually on its electric bill when all the sites are operational, according to J. Vernon Wyman, the university’s assistant vice president of business services.

As a consumer of more than 75 million kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, which translates to an annual electric bill of roughly $9.4 million, the university provides its town partners with the assurance that they can transfer their net metering credits to URI if they one day consume less energy than their share of what is generated, alleviating their long-term financial risk while further reducing URI’s energy costs.

For the first 10 years of operation, the private developers receive renewable-energy certificates for the electricity generated that they can trade or sell to offset their costs. The credits are non-tangible commodities, with each one worth one megawatt-hour of electricity generated from a renewable source. In the 11th year of the contracts, these renewable-energy certificates transfer to the consortium members.

“The value of collaboration through the consortium is the ability to manage our consumption and maximize the benefits for the members,” Wyman said.

The West Kingston site includes 14 acres of adjacent open land owned by URI. The solar panels at this location, as well as at the West Greenwich location, which includes a former sand and gravel operation, will be installed on pile-driven structures. All locations will be surrounded by high fences.