Rhode Island is currently paying for the expansion of its renewable-energy portfolio with trees and farms. Does that really mean the state is going green?
By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
Scott Millar has shared the numbers over and over again. Rhode Island’s forests absorb, on average, 88 tons of carbon dioxide per acre. With about 400,000 acres of forest in the state, that’s 35 million tons of carbon sequestered annually for free — the emissions equivalent of 6 million cars.
The state’s forests, however, are being felled indiscriminately to build, for example, an office park in Johnston, a casino in Tiverton, a possible fossil-fuel power plant in Burrillville and, in an ironic twist, solar arrays in rural locations.
Rhode Island’s expanding renewable-energy sprawl has Millar, manger of community technical assistance for Grow Smart Rhode Island, some municipal planners, such as Exeter’s Ashley Sweet, and others concerned.
“Renewable energy is a great thing, but we’re cutting down trees and eating up farmland for green energy that ends up being not that green,” Sweet said. “We shouldn’t be relaxing restrictions. Renewable energy makes everyone feel good and that we should be supporting this. But developers want to blow open ordinances to do it.”
Renewable energy does need southern New England’s support, but people like Millar and Sweet and organizations such as Grow Smart believe where these projects are sited needs to be a big part of the equation.
“We’re such a small state we need to use our land area more effectively,” Millar said. “Our rural-urban edge is vital and we need to protect that. We need to protect our natural resources. We need large blocks of forest, but we are slowly losing these spots.”
Cranston resident Douglas Doe has documented the destruction of forestland in his neighborhood, to make room for 60,000 solar panels. He said site preparation work, including the clear-cutting of some 60 acres, for the Gold Meadow Farms solar array off Lippitt Avenue, which abuts permanently protected open space, began last September. The work has left the site’s soil heavily compacted.
“A massive front loader grabbed the trees and a saw cut through it,” the Cranston Conservation Commission member said. “Then logging trucks spent the next two months coming and going.”
After the trees were cleared, Doe said site preparation turned into a gravel operation for about three months, complete with gravel crushers and conveyor belts. The blasts, seven in all, started in December. More trucks, this time filled with crushed stone, started entering and exiting.
“It was a big, old forest with boulders and ledge,” Doe said. “Once they removed the trees, they exposed a huge vein of rock and ledge, and then the blasting began. They blasted right up to the edge of the wetlands.”
Earlier this year, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) cited the owner of the property, DSM Realty Corp., for significant noncompliance for allowing the unauthorized alteration of freshwater wetlands.
Other utility-scale solar projects are in the works in Cranston, such as some 50 acres of panels on a 75-acre agricultural tract on Hope Road.
Mayor Allan Fung told the Cranston Herald last year that he wants “Cranston to be the lead in the state in solar power.”
Doe said the city’s rush to be a solar leader has changed neighborhoods and ruined landscapes.
“The mayor can’t wait to get out there with his golden scissors,” Doe said.
On the chopping block
The siting of renewable energy is a complex issue that dances around property rights, tax revenues, the carrying capacity of energy infrastructure, smart grids, energy storage, incentives, and environmental protections.
Rhode Island cities and towns and local renewable-energy developers are siting some projects on vacant or underused developed space. For instance, East Providence, North Providence and South Kingstown are all using closed landfills to generate solar power. Cost, though, is often noted as a deterring factor when it comes to reusing these spaces.
Al Bucknam, CEO of North Kingstown-based Green Energy Development, said erecting wind turbines and solar arrays on brownfields and landfills is the “most expensive option known to man. It's a great idea, but it's a cost issue. You can't penetrate the surface and landfills keep settling. The many issues with those kinds of sites drive costs way up.“
To build renewable-energy projects on landfills, brownfields and other developed areas requires state and/or federal incentives, such as higher rates for power, grants and low-interest loans, to make those sites financially viable, according to Bucknam.
In the meantime, while developers wait for Rhode Island to adopt such incentives, the state is facing a renewable stampede into rural communities with less developed open space and regulations not yet updated to deal with utility-scale energy projects.
Exeter’s renewable-energy ordinance was adopted in late 2015, after applications were filed for two small solar projects. Since then, Green Energy Development has proposed erecting four solar-energy systems — three along Route 102 and one on Exeter Road totaling nearly 37 megawatts of energy.
Town planner Sweet said Exeter needs to “beef up” its ordinance to deal with utility-scale energy projects. She said the town should place a moratorium on such projects until Exeter adopts an ordinance that adequately addresses renewable-energy development.
“The current ordinance doesn’t adequately protect the town or meet the comprehensive plan,” she said. “We have a private solar developer who has targeted Exeter and is trying to annihilate zoning ordinances for utility development.”
The siting of renewable-energy projects is an issue being debated statewide. On March 8, the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the Rhode Island Energy Resources Act, to establish statewide renewable-energy siting ordinances. Grow Smart's Millar was among those who testified in support of the bill. (Click here for a link to the hearing; the discussion begins at the 8:35 mark.)
Few oppose Rhode Island’s need for more wind and solar energy, but where many of these projects are being built or proposed is a growing concern. During the past few years Rhode Island has witnessed a “mad rush” to build renewable energy in areas with capacity, most of it solar and much of it on farmland and forestland. In fact, the state’s energy programs and incentives inadvertently push such development to green space.
The state's green-space energy rush began in earnest last March, when Gov. Gina Raimondo signed an unenforceable executive order that encourages the state to attain 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2020. The action increased the number of renewable-energy applications being filed in cities and towns that haven’t yet adopted regulations that adequately address the impacts of this fast-growing industry.
Sweet called the governor’s renewable-energy goal “irresponsible,” because the executive order makes no mention of where to site these projects.
“Communities are being flooded with applications; there’s 12 applications in Richmond,” said Sweet, legislative liaison for the Rhode Island chapter of the American Planning Association. “We’re pushing renewable energy forward without any substantial thought.”
Millar noted that Rhode Island — currently with about 230 megawatts of renewable energy — will need between 3,000 and 4,600 acres of space to host the remaining 770 or so megawatts of energy the governor desires. One megawatt of solar development requires 4-6 acres, according to Millar’s calculations.
If 75 percent of those 770 megawatts are sited on greenfields, 2,300 to 3,400 acres of farmland and/or forest could be lost, according to Millar’s math. At 50 percent, between 1,500 and 2,300 acres of greenfields could be lost.
In the southwest corner of Coventry, residents in the village of Greene believe the “town’s push to become the renewable-energy capital of Rhode Island” will dramatically change long-established characteristics. They're worried that the town is paving the way for green-energy developers to build on valuable open space. They claim town officials are willing to do anything to create revenue and are ignoring Coventry’s comprehensive plan, which states:
“Our vision for land use recognizes that Coventry is composed of three communities — eastern, central, and western Coventry — whose diverse nature is Coventry’s defining characteristic. Each area contains important resources that contribute significantly to Coventry as a whole. Whether it is open space, scenic roads, historic mill villages, farms, access to Route 95, close-knit residential neighborhoods, commercial or industrial business locales, proximity to recreation areas or town facilities, each feature is essential to Coventry’s character and sense of community. As such, the diverse character of Coventry should be preserved.”
The Hopkinton Town Council approved changes to the town’s zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan to allow the construction of a 13.8-megawatt, 43,000-panel photovoltaic solar-energy system off Main Street in the village of Ashaway. Southern Sky Renewable Energy plans to clear-cut 60 of the site’s 73 acres. Some 30,000 trees will be lost.
ecoRI News reached out to Southern Sky Renewable Energy for comment, but never heard back from the Boston-based company.
About 10 miles away in Richmond, a 16,000-panel solar array recently began operating on 23 acres of Harvest Acre Farm on Kingstown Road. The installation is split into two arrays totaling 4.5 megawatts and was built by WED Kingstown Solar 1 LLC, an arm of Green Energy Development, which used to be Wind Energy Development LLC. The project received Planning Board approval last April.
In its submission to the Planning Board for that April 2017 hearing, the Richmond Conservation Commission questioned the speed with which the project had been approved and argued that its construction would come with a cost: 20 acres of forest lost to accommodate the system, according to a May 2017 story in The Westerly Sun.
Both solar development and open space are important to attenuating climate-change impacts, said Millar, a former DEM staffer. But it’s clearly beneficial to preserve forests and site solar in a way that can avoid or minimize forest loss, he added.
The Ocean State, however, seems determined to bulldoze its way through the woods, even when it comes to building the energy needed to power society past the environmentally destructive fossil-fuel era.
“The unintended consequences of renewable energy has been the loss of farmland and forests,” Millar said. “Forests are being clear-cut at a pretty alarming rate to make room for renewables. We should be siting these projects on developed and disturbed areas.”
Mark DePasquale, founder and chairman of Green Energy Development, recently told ecoRI News that environmentalists are exaggerating their forestland concerns.
“Our forests aren't as healthy as environmentalists think," he said. “Clearing a 60-year-old forest doesn't have as much of an impact as some people think.”
Renewable-energy developers such as Bucknam and DePasquale say it’s more expensive to build solar canopies over parking lots. Developers claim, and many top state officials seem to agree, that there’s too much red tape to cut to build on brownfields. In the end, it’s deemed less expensive to down trees and build over farmland-quality soil.
“Energy production comes with trade-offs,” Bucknam said. “I doesn't take a ton of land to get to our goals.”
Some Rhode Island farmers have testified that allowing renewable-energy projects on their land would help make their operations profitable. Municipal officials often tout the financial benefits of renewable-energy projects, no matter where they are sited.
DePasquale said if renewable-energy projects weren't being built the trees would still be cut to make room for homes.
“Big developers are land banking to build homes later,” he said. “Wind and solar create jobs and economic stability for individual towns. They help landowners pay taxes. It's a way for families to hold on to farmland.”
However, chopping down forests, whether they are old growth or not, to build houses, solar panels, wind turbines or a casino further fragments forestland, which negatively impacts natural resources such as drinking water and habitat and weakens environmental health by diminishing biodiversity. Taking agricultural land out of production reduces the amount of local food that can be grown and harvested. These high costs, though, are routinely ignored when the numbers are crunched.
A 2017 study by The Nature Conservancy found that better land stewardship could have a bigger role in fighting climate change than previously thought. The report used the most comprehensive assessment to date of how greenhouse-gas emissions can be reduced and stored in forests, farmland, grasslands and wetlands.
Rhode Island, as well as the rest of southern New England, has history of unplanned development that has led to the loss of working farms and pristine forest, impaired water quality, and destroyed habitat. For instance, according to Millar, between 1982 and 2007 Rhode Island developed 22 percent of its farmland. In fact, land development in Rhode Island is increasing at a pace that is some nine times faster than population growth.
Daniel Patterson, vice president of the Exeter Town Council, noted, however, that Green Energy Development’s four proposed solar projects would increase the town’s tax base without stressing municipal services. He claimed that the property that would host the largest of the proposed solar arrays — 22.5 megawatts on 68.3 acres — has been approved for a 28-lot subdivision.
“No sucking of water out of the aquifer, no students to educate, no flushing of toilets,” said Patterson, claiming few trees are being cut to make way for 36.66 megawatts on 112.45 acres. “The town planner and two Planning Board members want to save the forests and save the hamlets of Exeter. We have no hamlets. All of our forests have been cut. We don’t have anymore old-growth forests left.”
He told ecoRI News during a recent interview that the residents of Exeter want these type of projects. He said 30 percent of the town’s land is state-owned forest and that The Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society own other protected areas.
Patterson, a contractor who has worked installing solar systems in Rhode Island, and Green Energy Development favor a proposed zoning change that would grant properties with 27 or more acres and within 6 miles of National Grid’s Lafayette substation permission to install solar systems.
The proposed zoning change being pushed by Green Energy Development would affect 129 parcels totaling 11,203 acres, according to Sweet. She noted that such a change would make that land available by right for utility-scale solar with no requirement for a special-use permit. A significant portion of those 11,203 acres, about 90 percent, is zoned residential, she said.
“I’m dumbfounded that this has become a property rights problem,” Sweet said. “Nobody bought residential land to put up a utility. Houses, yes, but people who bought in a residential zone didn’t expect a utility to go up next door.”
Neighbors have concerns
Rhode Island isn’t the only state in southern New England grappling with where to site renewable-energy projects. In both Connecticut and Massachusetts the preferred energy-development areas seemed to be forestland and farmland. Those two states, however, have adopted programs that provide economic incentives that encourage siting in preferred locations, in an attempt to use land more efficiently.
Connecticut’s Council on Environmental Quality became concerned about the loss of farmland and forests to renewable-energy projects a few years ago. The nine-member council even published a report last year aimed at stimulating the siting of solar-energy facilities in places other than farms and forests.
The report documented a surge in proposals to use farmland and forestland for the construction of large solar-electricity-generating facilities. The report also analyzed state decisions affecting utility-scale solar development, and determined that if all of the projects selected by the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection in 2016 to supply renewable energy were built, hundreds of acres of farmland and forest would be converted to electricity generation.
The council’s chairwoman said when the report was published that, “We do not see any need for Connecticut’s land conservation and renewable energy goals to be in conflict. We envision a future with ample solar energy, farms, and forests.”
Connecticut is now actively working to site such projects on developed and disturbed areas. The Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program also has incentivized preferred locations. The program, for example, adds financial incentives to build mounted solar arrays (0.02 cents per kilowatt-hour), on brownfields (0.03 cents), on landfills (0.04 cents) and solar canopies (0.06 cents).
“Rhode Island needs economic incentives to redirect renewable-energy projects to already-developed locations,” said Millar, an Exeter resident. “Right now we have a mad rush, a land grab, to get there first. It’s not enough to just encourage developers to build on brownfields.”
Chris Kearns, chief of program development, renewables and policy for the Office of Energy Resources (OER), said Rhode Island is working on the siting issue.
An OER stakeholders group has been meeting monthly since last summer to discuss the issue. The Rhode Island Energy Resources Act has the support of OER, DEM, 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.
“It’s a contentious issue with different views,” Kearns said. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”
He said a priority objective is to provide predictability for siting renewable-energy projects.
Green Energy Development hopes to be generating 300 megawatts of renewable energy in Rhode Island by 2021. The company is building seven wind turbines on industrial land near the Central Landfill in Johnston. The German-made wind turbines that will have a total capacity of 21 megawatts, and each will stand 519 feet high.
DePasquale said a diversified mix of wind and energy would be the best approach. He noted that wind turbines produce the same amount of energy in a fraction of the space required for solar panels. But people, for the most part, want solar energy because it's less obtrusive, he said.
“We really need to unite together and come up with a solution and work together," DePasquale said. “Decisions need to be based on facts, not emotions.”