Opinion

Space Needs to be Made for Renewable Energy in Rhode Island

This responds to Frank Carini’s column on the foolishness of clearing forests for solar projects. First, let me be clear that nobody with an environmental bone in their body wants forests cleared for no good reason. We all prefer siting renewable energy in places where it has the least possible environmental impact. That’s obvious.

The electricity we all consume must come from somewhere. It’s unrealistic to think that our energy supply is not going to have significant impact. The real question is what kind of energy supply is preferable, all impacts considered. If we fail to develop the renewables we need to displace fossil fuel and nuclear power, those sources will continue to have a very bad impact on our environment. The column doesn’t analyze which environmental impact is worse. We ought to understand that trade-off. That’s even before considering the impacts distributed energy resources (DER) have on local job creation and on reducing the cost of our whole energy system, especially by cutting back on fuel costs/impacts — e.g., fracking gas, strip mining coal — and the need for (generally environmentally destructive) transmission and distribution system investments.

Those aware of our (sadly limited and recent) history of local renewable-energy installations, know that developers have aggressively pursued the best siting options they can find. There are no landfills, brownfields and large roofs in this state that have not been targeted and analyzed for renewable-energy developments. That’s not to say that policymakers shouldn’t consider special incentives for our best-sited projects; such incentives could change the economic viability of those projects we’d all like to see developed.

But it’s nonsense to think that we can meet all our needs for solar or any other energy on perfect sites with little environmental damage. We have not come close to tapping into the huge opportunity of residential solar in Rhode Island, and we need to do a much, much better job of that. But still, right now we need every kind of DER project we can get, as quickly as we can get them. We especially need large, local solar and wind projects to offset the impacts of our region’s failing, uneconomic and harmful traditional supply and the costly and environmentally dangerous system we all fund to deliver it. It is not easy to site commercial-scale renewable-energy projects in densely populated, little Rhode Island. Our system for the distribution of electricity has not been properly maintained and enhanced to ease the interconnection of renewable energy, so there are limited places to plug projects into our grid without substantial added investment in system capacity (another challenge that must and will be better addressed as well). Too many people react to renewable-energy project siting proposals in a vacuum, mistakenly thinking that denying those projects can simply resolve the impact of our need for electricity. Environmentalists (who are trained to see past shallow appearances of face value) should understand all complexities of the real give-and-take scenarios we face.

Our need for electricity and its impact will be even greater as we look to the prospect of beneficial electrification of our transportation and thermal energy (heating and cooling) sectors. It’s only a matter of time before more and more of us drive electric cars and change our delivered fuel home heating and cooling systems to electric heat pumps based on simple economics (even if not environmental impact). That transformation will generate great new demands for electricity. That added load will either be serviced with job-creating, local renewables or imported from fracking facilities or utility-scale renewable-energy projects across uneconomic and damaging transmission facilities. Pick your preference. And, be aware that your advocacy for or against the mechanics of delivering renewable-energy projects directly affects the balance.

As a last matter, don’t you think that some deference ought to be paid to the people that own the forested land proposed for solar? There’s always been some tension between environmental regulation and property rights advocates over whether the greater environmental good trumps the right to determine how to use and benefit from one’s own property. I generally side with environmental interests when private property proponents propose public nuisance impacts for their own profit. But this situation is fundamentally different.

First, renewable energy produces strong environmental and important other societal benefits. Beyond that, in my experience, these property owners would strongly prefer to leave their property in an undeveloped state if all else were equal, but that is just no longer an economically viable option for them. The time has come when the expenses they incur to hold the property can no longer be handled without some development to offset that burden. This has been a particularly well-known and longstanding problem for farmers. As a result, Rhode Island has lost far too many farms to housing and other developments. Renewable-energy developers propose projects designed to supplement the farmer’s income from continued active farming of most of the property. That’s a good solution to the real and great financial challenges our farmers face. If such properties are not used for temporary and easily removable renewable-energy installations they are likely to go to other forms of development that are irreversible and put much greater burdens on municipal infrastructure (our local taxes) and our environment.

The time for environmentalists to say “we support local renewable energy, BUT … ” is past. It is now time for us to say “we support renewable energy, AND … ”  Make no mistake, our impact on energy prices, our economy, our environment and our climate lies right in the balance.
    
Seth Handy is a lawyer based in Providence.

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  1. It is too bad that we cannot have solar panels in the "medians" or grassy areas between the highway lanes on 295 for example.

  2. Hello,
    Excited to see this newsletter!
    What work is being done to encourage and eventually mandate solar on all business rooftops, many of which are flat.
    This is an unused source of land for solar.
    Thanks for what you are doing,
    Pat Hinkley

  3. Seth is wrong to think there won’t be pushback from the destructive aspects of solar and renewable energy. He seems to emphasize consumption, consumption, use electricity, drive electric… as long as it is renewable. Those who really care about the environment, including our natural areas and all the creatures who live there would do better to emphasize conserve more, walk more, drive less, use less

  4. State agencies and local land trusts work together to conserve Rhode Island’s undeveloped farm land and woodlands. In too many cases, they do not stand a chance against high property values and real estate developers with friendly loan officers. Now large ground based solar power developers have entered the market and are having a devastating impact on farmers who lease land for cultivation and hay fields. A 2016 June 11 article in the Norwich (CT) Bulletin detailed that impact. Landowners that might lease land to farmers for $100 acre now receive offers of up to $1250 per acre from solar developers.

    The solar power industry and their political supporters continue to emphasize the "temporary" nature of the projects, but should anyone believe it given the money involved? Which party is going to pull the plug? The city collecting tax revenues for doing nothing? The city saving money through net metering, ($800,000+ for Providence)? The landowner collecting the lease payments? Or the developer selling power to the grid? Who among them would kill the goose? Yes solar panels are rated for 25 years, but so what? They are replaceable. Why remove the infrastructure? The Hopkinton project will require 200 miles of wire. National Grid has to upgrade the local power lines to handle the load. And they are all just going to walk away in 2045?

    Solar power developers and their political allies claim that they are saving farm land from development, as if sixty-acre solar projects are not development. But what good does that do the farmer no longer able to lease the land and left standing on the wrong side of the chain link fence?

  5. It seems the author is looking at this as an either / or scenario, when it’s not. We have more options beyond: either we clear forests for solar, or we don’t get renewables. If you want solar, put solar on your roof / your land. If you rent, ask your landlord about it.

    What about rooftops as was mentioned in the comments already? What about city-owned green space that is currently covered in grass? I’m sure we can come up with the land elsewhere and not have to clear-cut large tracts of forest…

    Yes, ultimately it does fall to the landowner as to what to do with their land. Environmental groups can use their energy to sway the landowner, and conservation groups can seek to purchase forested land to save it from development.

    As for the economic incentive to not develop land, the city / state needs to offer a tax break on land that isn’t being commercially used. Also I hope the landowners and neighbors are getting more than economic benefit from their forest. How can we quantify that non-tangible benefit when looking at developing or not?

  6. Seth correctly points out that our electricity use is going to increase. We conveniently think that the electricity we use in RI has no impact yet renewable energy projects do. If you lived next to one of the gas-fired power plants we buy electricity from, you’d know well the impact our electricity usage has. If your water source was poisoned from gas fracking to sell to one of those plants, you’d know well the impact our electricity usage has. In other words, yes we want electricity, but we just want it to impact others, not us.

  7. Seth’s opinion piece is badsed on the phony assumption that we shall have economic growth forever on a finite planet. We need forests more than electricity to live on planet Earth and the economy is going to shrink. Get used to it. User less , share more.

  8. I am at a loss to understand the logic here. So, we fix one problem (increased electricity generation) and cause another (destruction of life-sustaining trees/forests). We have enough developed land, scarred landscapes as it were, to attach our renewable energy efforts to. But if we cut down more forests – and then realize the gargantuan mistake we have made- where will we later re-establish new healthy forests and habitats that require enormous tracts of land? Use the developed land we have, do no further harm, focus on education that reduces our consumption needs. This article seems to echo the exact American mentality that is getting us into trouble in the first place.

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