Opinion

More Rhode Island Forest Set to be Foolishly Sacrificed for Energy Production

HOPKINTON, R.I. — Rhode Island just doesn’t get it, even when it tries to be 21st century. Cutting down 30,000 trees to make room for a solar farm is only slightly less 1980’s than destroying 200 acres of forest to build a fossil-fuel power plant.

The smallest state has plenty of wasted space, in the form of brownfields, old landfills, rooftops, parking lots and empty big-box retailers, but the Ocean State seems driven to Paul Bunyan its way to the future.

The latest ax-wielding project, being proposed by Southern Sky Renewable Energy LLC for 73 acres off Main Street in Ashaway, is a 13.8-megawatt solar installation, with 43,000 solar panels, that would require the clear-cutting of 60 forest acres.

“I mourn the loss of 30,000 trees, I really do,” Town Council member David Husband is quoted as saying in a recent Westerly Sun story. “But something’s going in there sooner or later.”

Therein lies the problem — one that afflicts municipalities, taxpayers, businesses and state government alike. We’re addicted to building things in places that make no sense — i.e., the natural-gas power plant proposed for Burrillville’s forest, an office park in the Johnston woods, a casino in Tiverton wetlands — in the endless pursuit of more tax dollars and jobs, as if better, or even adequate, land-use management would bankrupt the state and cause unemployment to rise.

At a July 17 meeting, Hopkinton council members noted that the solar farm would benefit the town financially. Sure, if you ignore the impact on ecological diversity and other external costs. Woods matter.

Connecticut’s Council on Environmental Quality is concerned about taking farmland out of production and cutting down forests to power society. 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 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,” the council’s chairwoman has said.

Chopping down forests 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.

Scott Millar, manager of community technical assistance for Grow Smart Rhode Island, told ecoRI News in May that solar panels on rooftops, industrial land, landfills and brownfields would minimize environmental damage.

“We need to take a hard look at what we’re proposing,” he said. “We shouldn’t be sacrificing farms and forests.”

Instead, we should be modernizing the regional power grid; building solar arrays on vacant and underused development, like the city of East Providence did at the Forbes Street Landfill; covering parking lots with solar canopies, like the 3.2-megawatt canopy covering 800 parking spaces across 5 acres at Bristol Community College’s Fall River, Mass., campus; regulating and incentivizing renewable-energy developers to build in appropriate places; supporting local farming so the industry doesn’t have to sell out to energy consumption.

Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.

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  1. This is a disgrace. There is so much underutilized land already stripped of all vegetation in this State. Many landfills, vacant railroad grounds, vacant malls, parking lots, huge vacant industrial buildings, industrial land all over RI sitting collection trash. And we allow clear cutting of 500 year old forests and virgin farmlands. RIDICULOUS ……

  2. Why do we want a solar farm? To help combat global warming? To reduce our carbon footprint? If you’re really concerned about our carbon footprint, you plant trees, not cut them down.

  3. This is counter productive ,senseless and tragic on all levels! Forests are essential life supporting , living eco systems ,which need to be protected and preserved for the health and well being of our state ,and environment, (natural and economic) people, ,and future generations, not clear cut under the guise of progress , rather the desperate means of misguided desperate state and local ‘leaders’ !

  4. Frank, Gary, I share your view that this is bad land use, all too common here as we squander our woods. Its a reason I recoil from "clean energy" sound bites used so often when renewable energy is promoted. I also recoil from the word "farm" in "solar farm" – it is not a farm, it should be called "solar industrial site" or "solar ex-farm." It reminds me of "Lee’s Farm" in North Providence, a housing development where there was once a farm, it too should be called "Lee’s ex-Farm" (similar to how National Grid should be required to be called "Non-National Grid" as it is not a national company but a foreign one!)

  5. Barry, you’re right. I got played by the spin. It’s not a farm. — Frank Carini, ecoRI News editor

  6. Last December, the Governor’s Climate Change Coordinating Council (C4) released the "Rhode Island Greenhouse Emissions Reduction Plan" which, , included the following recommendation:

    "Scenario modeling results indicate that achieving the Resilient Rhode Island GHG targets could likely require no net future loss of forest or cropland. Policymakers could aim to align future local and state conservation policies with this broader goal, and adoption of a “no net-loss of forests” policy which other states in the region have endorsed could be explored."

    A "no-net-loss of forests" policy is based on the idea, also stated in the report, that "Land use conservation strategies preserve natural systems and environments that provide carbon dioxide “sinks,” helping to reduce the state’s net GHG footprint."

    Obviously, this thinking has not filtered down to the local level where the ecological value of forests is easily trumped by the economic value of any development scheme that eliminates forest. In the case of the Tiverton casino, leveling 30+ acres of forest was seen as a better choice for a piece of land that was going to be developed sooner or later, and that was the rationale endorsed by the town’s Conservation Commission in their review of the environmental impact of the proposed casino.

    If the state’s conservation community desires to maintain some relevance in regard to climate change mitigation strategies a good place to begin would be to take the "could be" suggestion in the C4 report and push for a real "no-net-loss of forest" policy with teeth.

  7. I wish you could see what’s happening to Greene (Western Coventry) RI right now. Wind Energy Development run by Mark Depesquale has already been allowed to put up 10 wind turbines which do not provide any power to Coventry, nor tax revenue. The land owners get $$$, WED gets money, the power companies get money …. and the rural residents get noise, headaches, and unsightly views of what used to be beautiful, natural rich forestry. More "green sounding" pop-up LLC’s are lining up (like vultures circling the prey) to buy land cheap to build solar farms on — despite the town’s Comprehensive Plan which does NOT in anyway allow commercial and/or industrial use of rural residential land. Many of the powers that be do not care in the least what happens to District 1 (which by the way is nearly HALF of Coventry) There are places where Solar Farms would be better suited and NOT kill 100’s of acres of forest, but apparently the almighty dollar matters more than trees and wildlife.

  8. What you are failing to mention are the costs associated with using rooftops that exists, that is the one of having to put new roofs on those buildings in order to guaranty no leaks or having to dismantal the panels early. Stop deceiving people.

  9. I hope they will be required to plant native perennials in between and around the collectors to give back some of what is lost in this project.

  10. So, so many parking lots could be covered by solar panels instead of cutting down trees. We could even put them along the I95 corridor in the wide grassed median. This project is not planning. This project is irresponsible. Southern Sky Renewable Energy LLC should reconsider this project.

  11. Southern Sky should open their own timber company. Their 21.56 megawatt project in Cranston will clear cut 60 acres and require building a nearly two mile long gravel road, installing a 1.3 mile long chain link fence, and over 50,000 solar panels. The project will be built along a 1800 foot boundary with the city’s Knight Farm conservation land without any vegetated buffer. The fence will be up against the farm’s stone walls even though planning officials could have required a 25 foot buffer. The final insult is that Providence will benefit from the project’s net metering program. Apparently the idea did not occur to Cranston officials.

    Neighboring states have begun to confront the issue of developing farmland and forests for large ground base solar power projects. The Conn. Council on Environmental Quality issued a report, “Energy Sprawl in Connecticut” 2016 February 3. The report noted the expansion of solar power projects on agricultural land and clean undisturbed forests and describes the negative impacts of these projects. The report recommends that a siting system be created to give additional weight to projects that do not disturb farmland, grasslands, and forests. The system should not provide incentives for development of lands of ecological value.

    Massachusetts reached the same conclusion during the development of its Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) Program. The program rewards the use of landfills, brownfields, rooftops, and parking lots and removes incentives for the use of farmland, forests, and other ecologically sensitive land. In doing so the Mass. Department of Energy Resources accepted the recommendations of Mass Audubon, Mass Land Trust Coalition, the Nature Conservancy, and the Trustees of Reservations.

    The Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions issued a white paper, “Solar Siting and Sustainable Land Use,” in 2012. The state’s 2011 Energy Master Plan states, “Although a number of utility-scale solar installations have been proposed for, and installed on, what were previously working farms, the Christie Administration does not support the use of ratepayer subsidies to turn productive farmland into grid-supply solar facilities.” (NJ 2011 EMP, p.107) The white paper concluded, “New Jersey’s solar energy goals can be accommodated by using rooftops, impervious surfaces, brownfields and abandoned mineral extraction sites. Invading critical areas, prime farmland, preserved lands or parks and open spaces is not needed to achieve these goals.” (p. 12) The 2015 Update reinforces this policy, “…the State strongly discourages the use of ratepayer subsidies to turn productive farmland and open space into grid-supply solar facilities. The policy of encouraging the development of renewable energy resources should not undermine taxpayer programs and policies that emphasize the importance of preserving open space and farmland. (NJ 2015 EMP, Update, p. 29) — Douglas Doe

  12. Excellent analysis, Jo! Can we expect the Environmental Council of Rhode Island & its associates to make a legislative response to this issue one of their top two priorities for next year’s General Assembley?

  13. It seems that the people who cut trees to make energy "can’t see the forest for the trees" – or something like that.

  14. There needs to be some sort of oversight committee that prevents clear-cutting to make way for solar projects. There is no oversight. It’s embarrassing that this state just disregards nature.

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