State, Municipalities Push Back Against Solar Sprawl
November 15, 2019
Large solar arrays may become less common in rural Rhode Island areas inundated with solar sprawl, as local and state efforts to address this simmering issue advance.
In October, the town of Richmond banned solar facilities on open space zoned residential. The town also requires commercial solar projects be within 2 miles of an electrical substation. Neighboring Hopkinton is also pushing back against the surge of rural solar development. During the past two years, the town has approved 19 commercial solar projects, with 12 more applications pending.
At meetings on Nov. 4 and 6, Hopkinton residents complained of the visual disturbance caused by what they called the abrupt clear-cutting of 70 acres for Green Development LLC’s Maxson Hill solar project. They were also upset that logging trucks transported the downed trees along an unauthorized route and that portions of the property were bordered with a meager strip of vegetation.
Project critics urged the Hopkinton Town Council to stop granting zoning exemptions for solar facilities like Maxson Hill. Fourteen abutters are taking legal action in Washington County Superior Court to halt projects approved by the council. Maxson Hill, the plaintiffs argue, was improperly authorized by the council when it went against the recommendation of the Planning Board to grant a zoning exemption.
The 139-acre project is going forward despite the legal challenge and other other stipulations such as an outstanding reforestation plan and a reserve fund to disassemble the solar facility when and if the owners decide to shut it down.
Planning Board chairman Al DiOrio said the decommissioning study will draw ideas from California solar experts and receive input from the Providence-based planning group Grow Smart Rhode Island. The result will be better than any plan in Massachusetts, he said.
“No other town in Rhode Island anyway has delved into this issue as deeply as we are about to delve into this,” DiOrio said at the Planning Board’s Nov. 6 meeting.
DiOrio also said a 37-acre solar facility proposed for a driving range on Main Street in the village of Ashaway isn’t the best use for the property. He promised to give added scrutiny to the proposed 14-megawatt Frontier Road/Revity Energy LLC project, which would require 4.8 acres of tree removal.
Hopkinton resident Wayne Cotton spoke against the Frontier Road project.
“I think what you guys are doing is disgusting,” Cotton said. “Everything around my house, which a year ago was all farm and trees, it’s all going to be solar. I’m totally against this.”
Eric Bibler, founder of Hopkinton Citizens for Responsible Planning, said the grassroots opposition group he started is drawing new members now that residents are seeing the impacts of clear-cutting. Opponents are attending public meetings and have signed an online petition to halt renewable-energy projects.
A legal complaint Bibler launched against the Skunk Hill solar facility has drawn 97 plaintiffs. He urged town officials to stick to the goals of Hopkinton’s comprehensive plan and preserve the town’s rural qualities.
“It doesn’t matter if (the solar arrays) are 1 acre or 32,” Bibler said. “If you start putting these in every corner of Hopkinton, it puts a pretty good dent in your rural character.”
Promises made by developers often fail to be realized once the construction begins. The Gold Meadow solar facility in Cranston, completed this year, cleared 40 acres of woodland all at once, instead of 5 acres at a time, as written in plans approved by the city. Wetlands were polluted as a result of poor runoff control measures, and utility poles were erected without approval.
A site visit in late August by a Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management agent pointed out the property’s shortcomings in controlling stormwater runoff.
The developer, Southern Sky Renewable Energy, based in Boston and Warwick, R.I., didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The city of Providence buys renewable electricity from the Gold Meadow project to lower its carbon footprint. Asked if the city is complicit in the environmental impacts cased by a tree-clearing solar facility with poor runoff controls, the mayor’s spokesperson, Ben Smith said, “Other municipalities are responsible for setting their own zoning policies to encourage or discourage such developments in their community.”
Hopkinton town planner James Lamphere told ecoRI News that residents must understand that the town monitors construction but doesn’t have a say in what gets removed.
“We have accept the fact that a private property owner can take every tree down on their property if they want to,“ he said.
Lamphere visits the Maxson Hill site weekly and praised Green Development for sticking to the construction plan. He said any unauthorized damage to predetermined buffers will be addressed.
“They have to make reparations if they take out more than they are supposed to,” Lamphere said.
But renewable energy developers across the state are starting to feel the squeeze.
“The large (solar) ground mounts are going away,” said solar developer Vito Buonomano, owner of Northeast Solar & Wind Power LLC in Providence.
He focused much of his business on solar arrays that occupy a modest portion of farms and typically don’t require clearing trees. Lately, he said, his solar focus has shifted to carports and canopies.
“All the towns are clamping down on the big developers in the rural areas,” Buonomano said.
At the state level, efforts are progressing to include an “adder” for solar carports and canopies to the popular fixed-priced Renewable Energy Growth Program. The Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC) rejected the request last year, but there is optimism it will get approved for the 2020 program.
Under the proposed docket, 6 cents per kilowatt-hour would be paid on top of the fixed price offered for larger solar arrays. The Office of Energy Resources (OER) and the Distributed Generation Board are asking the PUC to set aside 26.53 megawatts for the two categories of solar projects. The requested 20-year fixed prices are 18.25 cents per kilowatt-hour for commercial arrays and 13.65 cents per kilowatt-hour for a group classified as large solar arrays.
The Audubon Society of Rhode Island, Grow Smart Rhode Island, The Nature Conservancy, and Save The Bay recently submitted a letter to the PUC in support of the solar carport incentive.
“The organizations have broadly agreed that it is critical to prioritize the siting of renewable energy projects on developed and disturbed areas, such as landfills, brownfields and parking lots,” according to the Nov. 7 letter.
Public hearings on the docket are expected in December and January, with a decision expected soon after.
In late September, OER launched a study of ways to encourage solar development on landfills, gravel pits, brownfields, and parking lots. A draft of the study is expected in January, with the final report expected in March.
Fred Unger, owner of the Providence-based solar consulting firm Heartwood Group Inc., said there aren’t enough brownfields, rooftops, and parking lots to meet the state’s renewable energy goals. Plus, he said, building on disturbed sites is more expensive than building large-scale ground-mounted systems.
“Economics matters if you want to achieve environmental sustainability,” Unger said.
He noted that a few solar arrays that are “big and ugly and right in peoples’ faces” are creating public resistance and undermining the potential of ground-mount solar arrays.
Unger said he develops projects on sites that can be screened from roads and neighbors with vegetative buffers.
“It’s not impossible to do these things in ways that don’t raise community opposition,” he said. “But you have to be able to walk away from projects that are likely to raise opposition.”
There is adequate room for both ground-mounted solar arrays and to protect critical wildlife habitat and recreation areas, according to Unger.
“What we are talking about is not radical land transformation,” he said.