Government

Solar Power: ‘Clear and Present Danger’ to R.I.’s Forests

PROVIDENCE — It’s rare that progressive planners and environmentalists disagree on an issue, but a bill that limits the building of wind and solar projects in forestland is one of them.

During a lengthy May 10 Statehouse hearing, Grow Smart Rhode Island, tree advocates and concerned residents said immediate action is needed to curtail the clear-cutting of thousands of trees for the development of solar arrays, some as large as 500 acres.

H8141 discourages siting solar arrays on large wooded areas by prohibiting state financial incentives for the projects, such as grants from the state Renewable Energy Fund.

Rep. Jeremiah O’Grady, D-Lincoln, sponsored the bill, after hearing pleas from residents in communities with big solar projects. Large solar arrays have been approved or proposed for open space across the state, including in Cranston, Lincoln, Exeter, North Kingstown and North Smithfield, and residents are pushing back.

“Not on our dime. The state will not subsidize such a thing. And that’s what this bill says,” O’Grady said during the recent hearing.

Brownfields, rooftops and industrial sites are preferred to farmland and forests for renewable-energy development but financial incentives, O’Grady said, don’t favor those locations. Open space and woodlands are being developed because they are cheaper options.

“We are looking for balance between a desire to reduce our carbon footprint by spurring renewable energy … and protect our natural resources like forests.” O’Grady said. “I think the bill provides a balance between the two.”

Scott Wolf, executive director of Grow Smart Rhode Island, said forests can’t afford to wait more than a year for a state effort to help municipalities adopt statewide standards. At risk, is the state’s “urban-rural balance,” he said.

“Ironically, we think the greatest and most urgent threat to forest loss by far is the existing state renewable energy-incentive policy because … it is blind to different types of sites,” Wolf said.

He estimated that more than 1,000 acres of mostly open space is already lost or proposed to be built on and another 1,000 acres are at risk of development.

However, environmental groups such as The Nature Conservancy and Audubon Society of Rhode Island say O’Grady’s bill undermines the ongoing effort to set comprehensive statewide standards for wind and solar projects. They instead urged the passage of H7793, which requires cities and towns to decide where and how renewable-energy projects can be built. Under guidance from the Office of Energy Resources (OER), each municipality must adopt siting rules by July 1, 2019.

Opponents of O’Grady’s bill say restricting renewable energy will make the land more attractive to homebuilders. They say solar arrays can be removed once they stop working and the land can return to natural habitat or farmland.

But Wolf said few massive housing developments are being built in the state’s rural regions.  Those that are built preserve many trees and manage runoff. He and O’Grady said they would be willing to amend the bill to limit other development.

“So the clear and present danger to Rhode Island forests right now is renewable-energy development,” Wolf said. “It’s not residential subdivisions. It’s not strip malls. It’s not big-box stores. Those are the bogeymen of the past. Unfortunately, renewable energy is becoming the bogeyman of the present.”

Jamie Dickerson of the advocacy group Northeast Clean Energy Council (NECEC), said O’Grady’s bill undermines the work of a state renewable-energy stakeholder group, which is overseen by the OER. Those recommended rules will include incentives for protecting open space and building renewable projects on brownfield and landfills, a concept similar to the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target program.

Dickerson said all renewable projects rely on state incentives. Excluding forestland will have a “chilling effect” on renewable-energy development, he said.

“No project is going to be developed if state incentives are not allowed,” Dickerson said.

Rep. Robert Lancia, R-Cranston, said he didn’t like that the bill sets one statewide rule. He instead preferred to let cities and towns make their own decisions for siting renewable energy.

O’Grady’s bill is opposed by Acadia Center, Green Development LLC, Handy Law, the Heartwood Group, the Division of Statewide Planning, OER, People’s Power & Light, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, the Rhode Island Business Coalition, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, TEC-RI, the Rhode Island Farm Bureau, and the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns.

O’Grady’s bill is supported by the Burrillville Land Trust and the Rhode Island Tree Council. Residents of Cranston, North Kingstown and North Smithfield also testified in favor of the bill.

H8141 was held for further study. H7793 had a hearing March 2. No new hearing has been scheduled.

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  1. There will soon be a better alternative. 24/7 solar powered systems that are inherently compact. See aesopinstitute.org These solid-state laminates and fuel-free engines will generate power from ambient heat, a huge untapped reservoir of solar energy larger than earth’s fossil fuel reserves!

    The hard-to-believe new science is attacked by trolls who are certain it reflects fraud. However it is very real and will change the energy landscape, helping to replace fossil fuels FAST!

  2. It seems that Rhode Island’s "powers that be" are against Rep. O’Grady’s bill. Towns under imminent threat support slowing the process that is destroying so much forest land. Developers, unions, and the solar lobby oppose it. I guess we’ll just have to do at lot more damage, and pose many more local threats, before people wake up.
    "Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone."

  3. I don’t get the ecori headline about "dueling" bills, can’t we support both bills, one to slow the
    imminent threat that some towns are facing to their woodlands, and the other to develop a long term set of guidelines that stakeholders can agree to?
    Its also ironic that ecori has an add for a "clean energy" event as this issue clearly shows that renewable energy can be far from "clean" as in the case of these solar "farms" that destroy the woods and all the critters that live in it.

  4. The Leaves of Trees are nature’s transformers of Solar energy into resource, and no man-made solar panel is able to reproduce this effect so efficiently. To sacrifice trees for this crude imitation is yet another sign of mankind’s foolish belief that we are more clever than Nature.
    "H8141 discourages siting solar arrays on large wooded areas by prohibiting state financial incentives for the projects," yet the Solar Interest are so discouraged, by not being subsidized for clear-cutting forest, that it is not even worth it? Why should a tax dollar support any corporation for destroying a natural environment?
    We are expected to believe this is Green Progress of the Future?
    "Opponents…say solar arrays can be removed once they stop working and the land can return to natural habitat or farmland."
    Is there any conception of the value of an aged forest against a cleared field compacted by machinery? And yet it is "cheaper" to develop these sites?
    – the Lorax

  5. "solar arrays can be removed once they stop working and the land can return to natural habitat or farmland"

    This is a ridiculous a justification for forest fragmentation. All the natural habitat values, resident plant and animal species, and other natural characteristics are lost with this type of disturbance. The threat of "development" should not be tolerated as a justification either. Permanent alteration is the real threat. Quality of life anyone?

  6. Opposing this bill is ludicrous. It’s failure to pass will place forestlands at the mercy of the monied interest. It’s like opening the door to the henhouse to wolves outside. Very naive of environmentalists to believe unfettered use of forests for solar farms will bring no long harm to tree and soil resources. John Campanini, RI Tree Council

  7. Let’s plan a workshop to discuss the alternatives and develop a wise, long-term plan that considers statewide planning for solar power. I strongly support solar power over burning of fossil fuels, but it is absurd to be clear cutting forests that provide carbon sequestering, O2 and incredible wildlife habitat, water quality and aesthetic values. Let’s not be short sighted. We need to talk and balance development, not work in closet conversations.

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