Energy Sprawl Crowds Out Southern N.E.'s Farmland and Forests

Some 13,000 solar panels sit atop a former landfill in East Providence, R.I., but there is growing pressure in southern New England to develop energy infrastructure on farms and in forests. (ecoRI News)

Some 13,000 solar panels sit atop a former landfill in East Providence, R.I., but there is growing pressure in southern New England to develop energy infrastructure on farms and in forests. (ecoRI News)

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

Meeting rising energy demand while minimizing the climate impact is a widely recognized, although often ignored, issue. But there’s an additional challenge that warrants attention: the land-use implications of the world’s energy demands.

This growing pressure is especially acute in southern New England, where land is at a premium.

Worldwide, during the next two-plus decades, some 200,000 square kilometers of additional land area will be directly impacted by energy development, according to a 2016 study. When spacing requirements are included, another 800,000 square kilometers, an area greater than the size of Texas, will also be impacted to quench the world’s thirst for energy.

Development of new land area required for energy production is, and will likely continue to be, the largest driver of land-use change in the United States for the foreseeable future, according to the report.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration has projected energy produced in the United States will increase 27 percent by 2040, to support both domestic and international demand.

Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are all feeling crunched for space, and the preferred energy-development areas seem to be forestland and farmland. Forestland in all three states is already being cleared or is in line to be clear-cut to make room for more natural-gas infrastructure.

Fossil fuels, however, aren’t the only form of energy eating up valuable real estate. There’s growing concern that solar- and wind-energy projects will also leave behind environmental scars.

All three states, especially at the statehouse level, routinely rally around energy projects that promise to deliver electricity at the lowest cost. As a result, energy projects are typically directed away from developed land, because it’s cheaper to build from scratch. These open-space projects then inevitably ignore environmental-siting concerns and long-term external costs.

Connecticut’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), for one, is deeply troubled by the region’s rush to take farmland out of production and cut down forest to power overconsumption.

Earlier this year the nine-member council published a report aimed at stimulating the siting of solar-energy facilities in places other than farms and forests. The report, Energy Sprawl in Connecticut, documents the surge in proposals to use farmland and forestland for the construction of large solar electricity-generating facilities.

“We do not see any need for Connecticut’s land conservation and renewable energy goals to be in conflict,” CEQ chairwoman Susan Merrow said. “We envision a future with ample solar energy, farms, and forests.”

Solar photovoltaic facilities are the largest single type of development consuming agricultural land and forestland in Connecticut. In 2016, the area of farmland and forest selected and/or approved for development of solar facilities nearly equaled the area of such lands preserved by the state in an average year. (CEQ)

Solar photovoltaic facilities are the largest single type of development consuming agricultural land and forestland in Connecticut. In 2016, the area of farmland and forest selected and/or approved for development of solar facilities nearly equaled the area of such lands preserved by the state in an average year. (CEQ)

The CEQ report analyzed recent state decisions affecting utility-scale solar development, and determined that if all of the projects selected by the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) in 2016 to supply renewable energy are built, hundreds of acres of farmland and forest would be converted to electricity generation.

The 16-page report recommended legislation to:

Require DEEP to give “meaningful weight” to environmental-siting criteria when selecting renewable-energy projects that supply electricity to Eversource and United Illuminating. Under current laws and policies, DEEP bases its decisions on the price of electricity supplied, which has led to a surge in projects proposed to be built on farmland and forest.

Require utility-scale solar developments to obtain a certificate of environmental compatibility and public need from the Connecticut Siting Council (CSC). Current statutes require the CSC to approve such projects by declaratory ruling, and severely limit what the CSC may consider before approving a project. The certificate, on the other hand, is the approval tool for most facilities regulated by the CSC, from power plants to cell towers, and provides more detailed oversight of siting. In addition, the report urges the Legislature to amend the statute to allow the CSC to consider impacts to agricultural land in all its decisions.

The CEQ also has urged DEEP and the Legislature to consider incentives to encourage developers to put their projects on landfills and other developed sites. The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources is pushing a similar incentive program.

“The CEQ is focusing on the legal responsibilities of state agencies to select and approve renewable-energy projects,” Merrow said. “We are not recommending anything that would restrict the rights of landowners.”

Scott Millar, manager of community technical assistance for Grow Smart Rhode Island, said solar panels on rooftops, industrial land, landfills and brownfields would minimize environmental damage. He noted that crash-strapped municipalities would be eager to rent vacant and underused development space to renewable-energy developers.

“We need to take a hard look at what we’re proposing,” the former Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management staffer said. “We shouldn’t be sacrificing farms and forests.”

Grow Smart Rhode Island is particularly concerned about two bills filed in the General Assembly this session — similar to other bills filed during the past several years. Both the Senate and House bill would pave the way for energy-project development on farms and both would take away local siting control. Millar said the bills fail to properly value working farmland.

“Renewable-energy proponents are pushing the bills because they’re anxious to get projects built quickly,” he said. “It’s unprecedented that we would amend zoning to make industrial uses in zoned residential allowable and then place restrictions on cities and towns on how they can manage those uses.”

Some Rhode Island farmers have testified that allowing such projects on their land would help make their operations profitable.

Both bills were held for further study.

While Grow Smart has remained quiet regarding the development of what would be Rhode Island’s largest fossil-fuel power plant, the Clear River Energy Center in the woods of Burrillville, the proposed project may well be the best example of how southern New England is grappling with energy demand.

It’s been estimated that at least 200 acres of forestland would be impacted if the natural-gas power plant is built. The area’s forestland is home to some 165 wildlife species, including the hairy woodpecker, the black-throated green warbler, the wood frog, eastern box turtle, big brown bat and the six-spotted tiger beetle.

These woods, one of the largest remaining untouched forest tracts in Rhode Island, also feature an assortment of vegetation, from eastern hemlock, red maple, and various birch and oak trees to maleberry, blueberry, mountain laurel and witch hazel to cinnamon fern, threeleaf goldthread, northern starflower and peat moss.

To combat the increasing demand for energy, the CEQ report noted that energy-efficient appliances and programs would lessen the demand from all sources, including renewable sources.