R.I. Plays Catch-Up When it Comes to Solar Siting

 This 20-acre solar facility, built on the former Rose Hill landfill in South Kingstown, R.I., has a capacity of 4.7 megawatts. (Kearsarge Energy)

This 20-acre solar facility, built on the former Rose Hill landfill in South Kingstown, R.I., has a capacity of 4.7 megawatts. (Kearsarge Energy)

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

Paul Raducha began the 2,200-mile hike as a certified public accountant. He left the Appalachian Trail inspired to do more to protect the environment.

The Bristol, R.I., resident’s career change would lead to wind and solar. For the past 13 years, Raducha has been developing renewable energy. Today, he’s a senior developer for Boston-based Kearsarge Energy LP.

Two of the more recent Kearsarge Energy projects were on Superfund sites in Washington County.

“A compromised site is what we look for,” Raducha said. “Compromised sites are also less of a hassle.”

Raducha would know, since his job is to see projects through. “I find a site and talk to all parties involved to see if it’s viable,” he said.

Raducha currently is engaged in some 95 megawatts of renewable-energy development, with much of this power being installed on landfills and brownfields, and he is involved in the drafting of renewable-energy legislation in several states, including Rhode Island.

He said Kearsarge Energy currently has seven projects in Rhode Island in development, and more in Massachusetts and New York.

ecoRI News recently spoke with Raducha at a Bristol coffee shop about Rhode Island’s growing demand for renewable energy and the siting issues that accompany it.

 This former Superfund site off Plains Road in South Kingstown is now home to 4.6 megawatts of solar energy. (Kearsarge Energy)

This former Superfund site off Plains Road in South Kingstown is now home to 4.6 megawatts of solar energy. (Kearsarge Energy)

The siting of renewable energy is a complex issue of property rights, tax revenues, the carrying capacity of energy infrastructure, smart grids, substations, energy storage, incentives, and environmental protections. The process involves conversations, paperwork and meetings with municipal boards, neighbors, the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission, ISO New England and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“It’s a very complex issue,” Raducha said. “There’s no simple answers, as they tend to be wrong.”

The biggest concern about Rhode Island’s much-needed embrace of renewable energy is the cost, most notably the environmental cost, as trees have been bulldozed, open space covered and farmland marginalized to make room for solar arrays.

Raducha acknowledged that these facts are a real concern, but noted there are myriad reasons why these sacrifices are made and sometimes warranted.

“I understand the need to protect woods and farms, but land rights are a big part of this issue,” he said. “We need to work through this to protect municipal and individual rights.”

He said, for instance, that a 20-acre, ground-mounted solar array on a 100-acre farm is a good way for a farmer to support her operation. For others, the money they get for siting a solar or wind project allows them to keep their land, he added.

Raducha also noted that substation locations and their capacity play a huge role in where solar systems can be sited. Substantial upgrades for substations, which developers must pay, play a limiting factor, he said.

“It can make or break a project, as the cost to upgrade is significant,” Raducha said.

He blames some municipalities for not being prepared to deal with renewable-energy siting.

“They knew this was coming, but they had nothing in place to deal with it,” Raducha said. “Now it’s up to overworked planners, some of whom work part time. Instead of having proper ordinances in place, we’re all left scrambling. It was a perfect storm of towns not being prepared and developers not having a clear path of where to go, leaving it open to interpretations.”

He mentioned Tiverton as having a good solar ordinance.

Raducha is a member of the Office of Energy Resources (OER) stakeholders group that has been meeting monthly since last summer to discuss the siting of renewable energy. The group also includes members such as Meg Kerr, senior director of policy for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, Erika Niedowski, policy advocate for the Acadia Center, and Scott Millar of Grow Smart Rhode Island.

Legislation also has bee filed at the Statehouse to address the issue. The Rhode Island Energy Resources Act has 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.

Another bill was recently introduced that would severely hinder the construction of solar facilities and other renewable-energy projects on forestland. Environmental groups, such as the Audubon Society and the Conservation Law Foundation, have pushed back against this bill, saying it has several drawbacks, including paving the way for real-estate development and fossil-fuel power plants.

 This vacant car dealership on Route 2 in Warwick has space for a solar carport, but such projects are expensive to build, and property owners have to be sold on the idea. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

This vacant car dealership on Route 2 in Warwick has space for a solar carport, but such projects are expensive to build, and property owners have to be sold on the idea. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

The Ocean State has a sea of unused or underused asphalt and plenty of compromised places, but erecting solar arrays in many of those locations is expensive and requires the participation of at least two or three other willing participants, according to Raducha.

Covering parking lots with solar panels sounds like an excellent way to make better use of already-developed space — for example, a solar carport installation at Rutgers University is 28 acres and produces 8 megawatts of energy.

Raducha noted, however, that it’s an expensive option. He said the amount of steel needed to build the infrastructure is a significant cost. He also said property owners are often hesitant to have such a project built, fearing it will scare away big-box-store interest or worried that motorists will run into it.

“It’s a 20- to 25-year lease, it’s just supplemental money, and it limits what you can do,” Raducha said. “It’s not a game-changer for many landlords and property owners.”

He said the same applies to roofs, both residential and commercial. Raducha noted that only about 30 percent of homes can support rooftop solar because of shading and structural issues.

“Victorian homes aren’t a viable option, and to install solar on a roof you would have needed to have replaced it in the last five years for it to make financial sense,” Raducha said. “For commercial rooftops, you need to see the mechanicals up there. If they’re on the ground, then the roof likely can’t support solar.”

If a commercial roof is structurally sound, however, that doesn’t mean the owner wants to commit to a 20-plus-year lease. They worry about leaks angering valuable tenants, or having to back out of a contract and then owing a considerable amount of money, Raducha said.

There’s also the fact that energy produced in downtown Providence sells for the same price as that produced in Exeter.

“Developers are going to build where land is cheaper,” Raducha said.

To deal with this controversial issue, he said, “We need to look at the big picture. Solar projects will go away and leave the site with little problems. It can be returned to farm or forestland.”

Raducha also noted that renewable-energy technology and battery storage are improving rapidly. He said seven years ago a single solar panel was producing 145 watts of energy. Today, a single panel is generating 400 watts.