Opinion

We Don’t Need to Chop Down Trees to Save the Environment From Climate Change

We can split the atom, send people to the moon and land rovers on Mars, build weapons of mass destruction, drill for fossil fuels a mile beneath the ocean’s surface, take land via eminent domain to build a fence along the Mexican border, and develop technology that tracks our every move, but we can’t seem to increase solar-energy production without deforesting the landscape.

Modernizing the power grid to handle the 21st-century needs of renewable energy and siting solar energy responsibly are always beyond our capabilities. Forests must be sacrificed to protect the environment from fossil fuels and climate change — except, of course, when forests need to be clear-cut to make room for more fossil fuels and more climate emissions (see, Clear River Energy Center).

This obtuseness is on profound display in Rhode Island, where developers hack their way through green space to build monuments to corporate banking and blackjack. We leave already-developed, infrastructure-ready, paved-over disturbed places alone.

The siting of solar energy is a multilayered issue informed by many factors, the first and foremost of which is profit. After that comes the lure of tax revenue, the protection of property rights, and concerns about the high cost of interconnections and substation upgrades (see, profits). Last on the list of importance is environmental protections.

The future costs that come with degrading the environment by clear-cutting forest, much like filling in wetlands and drowning salt marshes to make way for more development, are largely ignored. The resulting problems caused by erosion, flooding, soil degradation, and various climate-change impacts, such as the deterioration of public health, are paid later by others who had no say in the shortsightedness.

If we truly wanted to, we could overcome the often-cited substation and interconnection excuses that are routinely noted when another tree is felled to make way for another solar panel. It’s really just a matter of whose money will be spent to improve the generation and distribution of renewable energy — an urgently needed must-do during this climate-changing time. Energy developers and utilities don’t want to pay for the needed upgrades. They want ratepayers to fund the work, even if it’s for fossil-fuel expansion.

Thus, forests are clear-cut and woodlands cleared, because it’s more profitable to bulldoze the environment than it is to repurpose already-developed areas, build carports, or transform brownfields and Superfund sites.

As of last month, London-based National Grid was ranked No. 249 on the Forbes list of the world’s largest public companies, with $18.4 billion in sales. The multinational corporation made $10.2 billion in profit in 2017.

National Grid recently filed a proposal with Rhode Island regulators that calls for a 19 percent increase in the bill for the typical residential user. Under the filing submitted to the Public Utilities Commission, starting Oct. 1 and running through March residential customers who use 500 kilowatt-hours a month would experience an increase in their monthly bill of nearly $19.

When it comes to the siren song of tax revenue and the accompanying allure of lower property taxes, which seldom manifest, the priceless value of green space can’t compete. The long-term costs of Rhode Island’s collective solar shortsightedness will be significantly more expensive than properly dealing with the siting issue now. It’s easier, however, to leave the tab for future generations to pick up.

The latest example in this recurring lack of leadership is the Exeter Town Council. Despite objections from both the Planning Board and town planner, and after three nights of public hearings where residents expressed strong opposition to a proposed zoning change, the Town Council recently voted to change the zoning ordinance as requested by a solar-energy developer.

Green Development LLC — the same North Kingstown-based company that tried buying votes in an attempt to get a bill approved that would have listed woody biomass as a renewable energy despite reams of information that say otherwise — won the zoning change that will allow it to build utility-scale solar installations on 15 properties in residential areas without having to seek special-use permits.

Property rights are important, but so too are the comprehensive plans that cities and towns are mandated to develop in order to, among other things, steer development to appropriate locations. However, the growing trend, especially in rural Rhode Island, is approving industrial-scale solar projects in neighborhoods zoned residential. The required comprehensive plans are routinely ignored.

Replace 60,000 solar panels with low-income housing or bike paths from Providence and Central Falls and the property-rights conversation will change.

A Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources (OER) stakeholders group met monthly for about a year. It helped craft a bill, the Rhode Island Energy Resources Act, that created siting standards for wind and solar projects within each municipality. The measure had the support of OER, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, 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.

The House passed the bill, but the Senate never bothered to hold a hearing.

Now an advisory group, a subcommittee of the OER stakeholders group, is working to develop a solar-guidance-model ordinance for use by municipalities. Six more meetings are scheduled through mid-October. In the meantime, OER recently adopted a set of initiatives to encourage solar development on brownfields, rooftops, and carports. The initiatives, however, are short on specifics and funding.

These delay tactics need to be reversed. We should be creating task forces, ignoring bills, and holding public hearings that study the impacts of forest clear-cutting. It would be years before another tree was axed.

Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.

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  1. Wholeheartedly disagree, Frank. Let’s put our alternative energy on top of tall buildings. It’s really windy & sunny up there. The power would be right there in the city where most of it will be used. Those roofs are easy to access for building & maintenance (unlike the turbines off Block Island). Modern turbines present no danger to birds. The new, most efficient ones aren’t pinwheels so there would be no flicker-shadow. They’d look just like other pipes that sit on top of tall buildings so the skyline wouldn’t change. They’d be far away from damaging the oceans and forests we need to fiercely protect. We do really need to protect our forests too – they’re shrinking rapidly as urban sprawl keeps growing at horribly exponential rates. We need every last bit of our forests for oxygen, erosion control, animal habitat and a long list of other reasons. Have you noticed how much cooler the forest is compared to the city – we need that too. Plus having (semi-)wild places preserved for the future is imperative, and we need more than just the ones owned by non-profits. And then, when all the oil has been sucked dry, we’ll be using space now occupied by gas stations for wind & solar anyway. There’s no reason to sacrifice one tree – solar and wind on top of tall buildings is a win-win-win.

  2. Well, well, well. Guess you gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet…

    I find great humor in op-eds such as yours, Frank. You are presumably of the same type who marched/protested in college for renewable energy in your yester-years and now as it approaches a sizable portion of the U.S. generation mix and comes with it’s associated downfalls when it impacts your home turf – you realize the local impact. Woah! Much foresight.

    Here’s the ugly truth: the Cadmium-Telluride in PV cells is monumentally environmentally destructive all the way from mining to refining to finished product (bonus segment; check out how many "eco-friendly" solar developers plan on recycling said heavy-metal laced panels :D). You think wind-turbines are any different? So – yeah – maybe the religious zealotry of environmental advocates was an advantageous tool to push a narrative that laced the pockets of F500’s? Woah! Much analysis.

    There is, presently, no way to generate electricity to afford your post-modern 21st century standard of living without creating negative environmental externalities. Let’s assume you live your entire life with a net-positive impact on the environment. How many years for the LEDC’s of the world to adopt Western standards of environmental protection? The best policy for a state as small as RI with the obvious land-restrictions to fulfill a larger portion of whatever RPS is in place would be via wheeling power from offshore wind or large-hydro in neighboring states. That or allow the PV facilities to develop so long as they make good use of the land, i.e. apiaries, grazing, etc. Even crazier idea would be to stick to a CCGT facility with a DAC system attached and provide 100% uninterrupted power with a net-neutral localized environmental impact. Crazy, am I right? Hey, you’ve already more or less said you’re all for the environment so long as it’s NIMBY.

    I think that you are suffering from severe cognitive dissidence and it’s on full display here. You can’t ask for 100% renewable energy and not expect it to have an impact on your way of life. Some might call that a fairy-tale. I would have to agree with them. Welcome to reality, pal.

    The larger question behind all of your environmental imperatives should be "how do we stem the current unfettered growth of mankind" with specific attention paid to South America, Asia and Africa. You can’t have 9 billion people living like the average middle-class American with the current amount of available space offered to us on this planet. There are only a handful of Western countries with a replacement rate above replenishment; meanwhile the rest of the world is growing at an average 3x multiple. These are all things previous generations of Western men have foreseen and had attempted to illustrate to raving lunatics such as yourself.

    Can’t have your cake and eat it.

    Cheers.

    • Mr./Ms. Pants, your cliche-filled, name-calling rant is a truly impressive take on what I wrote or might think, except it doesn’t represent anything I wrote or might think. While I agree there is no such thing as clean energy, that doesn’t mean we can’t site renewable energy responsibly. Powering society does come with substantial costs, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make every attempt to lessen those impacts, like first repurposing already-developed and disturbed space (i.e., brownfields, Superfund sites, vacant big-box stores and their seas of asphalt) instead of cutting down trees. That isn’t an unreasonable take. Overpopulation is a big part of the climate problem, but so too is rampant consumption in the Western world. The United States is the world’s largest contributor to climate-changing pollution.

      Also, next time you want to have an adult conversation, use your real name.

      — Frank Carini/ecoRI News editor

  3. I think Mr. Carini stated the problem of irresponsible solar siting in RI very clearly and factually:

    "A Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources (OER) stakeholders group met monthly for about a year. It helped craft a bill, the Rhode Island Energy Resources Act, that created siting standards for wind and solar projects within each municipality. The measure had the support of OER, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, 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.

    "The House passed the bill, but the Senate never bothered to hold a hearing."

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