Opinion

Good Local Planning Needs to Make Siting of Renewable Energy Less Burdensome

The stakeholders in the Office of Energy Resources’ deliberations resolved that the goal of a good siting policy is to achieve Rhode Island’s energy and climate targets with as little negative environmental impact as possible. Finding the right balance raises many important issues for our dialogue.

Good local planning is essential to our communities. Our statewide planning office regularly engages experts and stakeholders to help guide it. Their processes produced data to shape a State Guide Plan that is now expected to be implemented in local comprehensive plans. The land-use element of our State Guide Plan calls for land-use development decisions that support and facilitate renewable energy at economies of scale. The economic development element of our plan directs us to stop exporting billions of dollars to feed our energy needs, and to build our own green economy — one of the fastest growing sectors in our state — by reducing “regulatory barriers.”

The energy element of the plan charges local governments to reduce regulatory hurdles and better enable a massive deployment of renewable energy that will enhance energy security while producing economic and environmental benefit. Local planning interests can be upheld through reasonable regulation of the most sensitive impacts of these projects — e.g., vegetative buffers, soil conservation standards, project decommissioning requirements. However, planning interests must coexist with other imperatives behind renewable energy.

Planning is not the only local voice on development policy. Our towns get dwindling financial support from state and federal government and need new revenue now more than ever. It’s unrealistic to think that open spaces not already dedicated to conservation will remain undeveloped. Planning boards consider renewables in zones planned for other uses. Town administrators and councils can’t afford to leave all land undeveloped — the towns need to decide what kind of development to allow and where. Renewable energy is a new and economical land-use option. It generates significant tax revenue without straining municipal infrastructure — schools, sewers, water, etc. — and budgets. The notion that energy is the only alternative to preserving forests ignores development that would otherwise be allowed to help sustain local budgets.

What about the property rights of those selling or leasing land for renewables? To conclude that they should be obliged to continue paying to maintain open space undermines their autonomy and presumes that the public controls their private property. In most cases, owners can’t afford to maintain open space; they also must decide how to generate revenue to support the economics of their property. Renewable energy provides a temporary solution that can coexist with and sustain existing uses — like farming — while avoiding irreversible development.

Do rural communities owe our cities greater accommodation of our future energy supply burden? City residents have lived next to power plants that have electrified much of our state since the advent of our electrical system in the early 1900s, while belching air and water pollution. They have never been asked whether they want those power plants. Some may be well accustomed to using electricity without looking at its sources. Some of them may also provide important financial support to our newspapers and our environmental nonprofits. That’s one influential outlook; but it’s not the only important one.

What about intergenerational and international equities? Environmentalists are known for weighing the long-term implications of current decisions. Kurt Vonnegut called for a “Ministry of the Future” – shouldn’t our children have a prominent role in governance decisions with long-term implications? Is it up to the likes of us to decide whether land conservation interests outweigh a need for renewable energy? Rhode Island’s youth and their progeny will inherit the impacts of this debate; their voice should be front and center.

International equities also get little attention. Environmentalists think globally. The proliferation of natural disasters spawned by rising temperatures have a disproportionate impact on people far away from these siting decisions. Their interests should matter.

Any policy that discourages renewable energy encourages natural gas-fired electricity, by default. The U.S. Energy Information Agency notes that “Rhode Island generates a larger share of its electricity from natural gas than any other state, more than 90%.” Only 7 percent of our new generation came from renewables in 2017; and that number almost doubled our 2016 output.

Renewables are finally growing, but they we have a long way to go to overcome our over dependence on natural gas. The suggestion that we can accomplish our energy and climate goals through renewables sited on contaminated land, rooftops, and parking canopies greatly underestimates those goals and their urgency. Our state renewable-energy standard requires that we source 38 percent of our electricity from renewables by 2035. Our state plan calls for that transformation because our existing supply of electricity is insecure (centralized power generation raises many security concerns), unreliable (subject to interruption), expensive (local generation from free fuel sources avoids substantial costs), and harmful.

Is Rhode Island serious about supplying our own power? Or, do we prefer to continue importing, despite the costs of fracking, pipelines, generating facilities, and transmission of power long distances across expensive cables? Those who have worked hard over many years to tear down barriers and build mechanics to grow our own renewable-energy supply are encouraged that it’s finally working.

Environmentalists that regret “solar sprawl” ought to actively support wind power — it consumes very little land area and, with proper regulation, has no impact other than its (pleasing, in my opinion) aesthetic.

Providence resident Seth Handy of Handy Law LLC has represented the interests of renewable energy developers.

Editor’s note: This piece was written in response to ecoRI News staffer Frank Carini’s “long line of articles lamenting the loss of open space and forests to solar projects. We had an exchange on this issue when you first raised it in the summer of 2017 — see https://www.ecori.org/green-opinions/2017/8/11/space-needs-to-be-made-for-renewable-energy-in-rhode-island. Since then, your commentary has been relentless. I don’t doubt that we share concern for the future of our environment; we just see this matter from different points of view.”

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  1. A sobering analysis, though not comprehensive. Mr Handy does not offer much on the nub of the two-fold problem facing western Rhode Island: that local governments do not have the resources to plan rural solar development responsibly, nor does the state does have the resources to both meaningfully assist them.

    As we’ve seen clearly in the Burrillville power plant saga, the State Guideplan that Mr. Handy references is so loose and leaky and business development friendly that in its official opinion to the Energy Facilities Siting Board, the Statewide Planning Dept. has testified that siting the billion dollar, 1,000 megawatt plant on the borderline of the George Washington Wildlife Management Area is actually one of the project’s greatest land-use advantages… Because the facility will be hidden from human view! And this in a forested region that has been designated, again and again, in a host of planning documents going back decades as a major target area for future conservation investment—conservation investment that pointedly excludes the forest fragmentation that utility scale solar would bring. And the judgement underlying this view is based on solid ecological science, not aesthetics.

    Yes, one would expect that RI DEM would be the institutional balance to Statewide Planning, but we all know how starved for resources DEM has been for more than a decade now. And RI DEM in 2007—in a decision the "Green" media ought to shine some light on—eliminated the one program within DEM that was its internal advocate for the critical rural habitats and species that define those areas of our western forests that require protection from utility solar sprawl, the Natural Heritage Program. The Burrillville power plant saga has illustrated this particular DEM deficiency in spades.

    So however thematically one can agree with Mr. Handy, experience suggests that what we are witnessing in our great western forest is no planful, rational response to the energy/climate crisis, but something more akin to the Oklahoma Land-rush.

  2. Instead of cutting forests, cover every parking lot in the state with solar panels, then it generates electricity while reducing the heat island effect. The carbon footprint of clearing forests for solar does not work out very well for the planet

    • Right on, Greg. First, shade all of the parking lots in RI that contribute to local warming. Next, cover all schools, airports and industrial buildings that consume electricity with air conditioning that could be offset with the shade cast by solar panels. Once that’s done, if we aren’t a net exporter of electricity, we’ll open this discussion again. I’m not saying a person doesn’t have certain rights with respect to his own property, but bird safe wind generators are a better use of farmland, since they don’t stop the farming. Rhode Island should become a testing ground for these new, bird-safe wind generator technologies while preserving our green space and farmland.

  3. HHO because there’s insufficient space for wildlife, forests, crops, & houses as we trudge into the future.

  4. I wonder why there is always a first instinct to spend a lot of money, clear a new space and sacrifice trees, wetlands, and other natural resources that everyone enjoys while there are already so many open and abandoned areas scattered across the state. Here in North Kingstown alone there are several huge empty parking lots from vacant car dealerships that create eyesores for anybody traveling by. It’s hard to imagine that it might be a bigger zoning problem to use an area that was already approved for a business, has some septic capabilities since there were most likely restrooms and a kitchen inside. and also electricity is already run to the site. Or, does that make too much sense, and we can’t do things that way?

  5. I feel the same way about sacrificing large woodland tracts for solar "farms" as I feel about their sacrifice for the Burrillville natural gas power plant, not worth it. Its a grab of precious resources for developers to make money at the expense of all the benefits of woodlands including natural beauty, the lives of the creatures that live in the woods, and the climate benefit of trees. As others noted, there are plenty of other opportunities for solar development.
    There is also a cost-benefit calculation: the loss of RI forests is entirely born by Rhode Islanders – to its people and its wildlife, while the tiny benefit to the global climate is dispersed all over the world. That is, we get the full cost and very little benefit.
    Again, I think the emphasis needs to be more on reducing demand for energy – through efficiency, conservation (turn off unused lights, TVs, wear sweaters..) and slowing human population growth.

  6. Isn’t it rich that a businessperson ~~ one with direct interest in the rapid, mindless and unquestioned deforestation of the state to increase profit for solar developers ~~ is lecturing the rest of us that we need to step aside and sacrifice our forests so he and his colleagues can continue to extract the maximum profit from their developments?

    Camouflaging themselves in “environmentalism,” those associated with the solar industry are riding the good P.R. associated with renewable energy. But it’s frankly embarrassing to witness these same people claiming they care about the environment, when any true environmentalist would do everything possible to find alternatives to clear-cutting the states’s finite and precious contiguous forests. Instead, we are scolded that our resistance to immediately deforesting our state at the whim of the solar industry is somehow short-sighted in light of the benefits of renewable energy.

    The truth is that other states such as Massachusetts, and even Warwick RI, have been able to collaborate with the solar industry to successfully install developments in brownfields and in parking lots so that their forests are saved:

    http://warwickonline.com/stories/sun-shines-spotlight-on-37-acre-solar-power-array,137529?

    While the solar developers cloak themselves under the Green umbrella, the fact is they simply saw an industry that was gaining momentum, and jumped on the bandwagon to extract as much profit as possible. That’s why they don’t want to consider other areas in the state for solar development, such as parking lots and brownfields, because it will cut a little bit into that profit. That is the simple truth.

    And regarding Mr. Handy’s concern for future generations, and populations on other parts of the country and globe, there are true environmental and atmospheric scientists discovering that forests are not the passive recipients of air and water and sun, but rather they control the amount of rain and drought and other weather across Earth.

    They have also found that deforestation in one part of the country negatively affects forest health on the other side of country, and even the globe:

    https://www.quantamagazine.org/forests-emerge-as-a-major-overlooked-climate-factor-20181009/

    So when Mr. Handy and his colleagues urge us to consider those around the world, as well as future generations, they need to examine the reality of what happens when forests are destroyed so a small group can financially enrich themselves. It affects not just us here in Rhode Island, but is being shown that it also affects forests in other parts of the country. Sounds like the “facts” we are being fed from the solar developers are deficient in many alarming ways.

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