Solar-Siting Bill House Hearing Scheduled for March 14

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A House hearing is scheduled for March 14 at the rise, about 4 p.m., for the solar-siting bill the Office of Energy Resources (OER) has been working on since 2017.

The bill seeks to establish comprehensive solar-energy siting ordinances statewide, to achieve greenhouse gas-reduction goals, balance renewable-energy development with housing and conservation interests, and protect natural resources.

The bill refers to brownfield, landfills, gravel pits, parking lots, and other developed lots as “preferred siting areas.”

An OER stakeholders group began meeting in mid-2017 to address the issue, as Rhode Island began paying for the expansion of its renewable-energy portfolio in early 2017 with forests and farmland.

The Rhode Island Energy Resources Act comes out of the work done by the stakeholders group, which included representatives from OER, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the Rhode Island Farm Bureau, the Rhode Island Builders Association, Green Energy Development, the Conservation Law Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, the Acadia Center, and Grow Smart Rhode Island.

Grow Smart, however, opposes the bill, saying that it continues to provide economic incentives that are encouraging the development of the state’s most important natural areas. The Providence-based organization also claimed that adequate time wasn’t provided for a thorough stakeholder review of the bill and, as a result, “there are many issues where there is no consensus.”

“Grow Smart RI supports the State’s ambitious renewable energy goal. We believe reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is critical to enhance the quality of our environment and mitigate the effects of climate change,” according to a five-paragraph statement from the organization. “But how we achieve this goal is as important as reaching the goal itself. Continuing to clear cut thousands of trees and develop our most important natural areas in pursuit of this goal is unacceptable and unnecessary. We can and must do better.”

In addition to working with the stakeholder group, OER held a series of public workshops last year. The 12 workshops were held throughout the state to present general information on solar energy and gather public feedback.

In March 2018, the stakeholder group adopted 13 principles as a “holistic framework to integrate competing interests in drafting policies and practices to facilitate the development of renewable energy.” Among the baker’s dozen of principles were: provide predictability, consistency, and fairness in state and local rules, regulations, zoning, and ordinances to support development of renewable-energy projects; and encourage renewable-energy development on commercial and industrial-zoned land and on already-developed land.

Between 2011 and 2018, Rhode Island lost some 2,000 acres of forest, within forested tracts that are 250 acres or larger, according to an analysis by the University of Rhode Island. Ground-mounted solar-energy arrays were among the development projects that felled their share of trees.

In a three-page analysis of the bill, Grow Smart noted that it’s concerned the legislation could lead to a municipal requirement to adopt a one-size-fits-all solar-sting ordinance. The organization also wrote that, “We strongly support economic incentives to encourage subsequent solar siting in developed and disturbed areas.”

The March 14 hearing will be in front of the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. The hearing is scheduled to be held in the House Lounge.