Solar Siting Sparks Division Among Environmentalists
March 18, 2019
PROVIDENCE — The siting of ground-mounted solar facilities continue to exasperate environmentalists, developers and planners who are trying to protect open space amid a booming renewable energy sector.
The rift, especially between environmentalists, was evident at a March 14 Statehouse hearing for House bill H5789. A surge in open-space solar development has frustrated many municipalities, most notably rural communities, as pockets of green space have been converted to solar fields in Coventry, Cranston, Exeter, Hopkinton, Charlestown and South Kingstown.
Conservationists point to a lack of incentives for building on closed landfills, brownfields, parking lots, and gravel pits.
The Green Energy Consumers Alliance said the Rhode Island Energy Resources Act is the best approach to protect the state’s natural resources from ambitious developers while also allowing for the renewable-energy sector to profit and expand.
The alliance, formerly People’s Power & Light, was part of the stakeholders group convened by the Office of Energy Resources (OER) and the Northeast Clean Energy Council to draft proposed siting rules for renewable energy.
Kai Salem, program associate for the Green Energy Consumers Alliance, wrote in a letter to legislators that the bill should discourage renewable energy development in natural areas.
“H5789 represents a promising compromise between environmental organizations, solar industry representatives, municipalities, farmers, the utility and the many other participants in this process,” Salem wrote.
The bill offers incentives for installers to build in developed areas through an interconnection payback program set by the state Public Utilities Commission. The legislation also aims to protect open space and forestland by capping the size of projects to 4 megawatts of electricity capacity if built within state-designation conservation zones.
The Rhode Island chapter of The Nature Conservancy supports the bill because it closes a loophole that allows developers to circumvent a 10-megawatt cap on solar facilities by building two or three 10-megawatt projects next to each other. The legislation prohibits this practice on land zoned for residential building.
The Nature Conservancy and some other groups would like the legislation to omit a provision that allows municipalities to waive the caps on project size and opt out the contiguous zoning provision.
The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns supports the bill because it gives local planning and zoning boards control over setbacks and lot coverage. The municipal advocacy group also likes that the bill requires OER to offer technical and legal support to communities as they adopt new solar ordinances.
The Rhode Island chapter of the American Planning Association offered several amendments to the bill, including a need to protect natural habitat that does qualify as state-protected conservation land.
“While municipalities will undoubtedly place additional requirements and restrictions to reduce environmental impacts, the state is forfeiting its environmental stewardship role by not excluding sensitive environmental areas in its renewable energy program,” said Ashley Sweet and Jane Weidman, co-chairs of the local chapter’s legislative committee.
Grow Smart Rhode Island, an advocate for progressive land-use principals, noted that even with the environmental provisions, the legislation encourages solar facilities in areas of environmental value.
“Continuing to clear cut thousands of trees in pursuit of renewable energy is unacceptable and unnecessary. We can and must do better,” Scott Millar, manager of community technical assistance for Grow Smart, wrote in a submitted letter.
Solar development should primarily occur in places that have been developed or already disturbed, according to Millar. Grow Smart and others at the hearing stressed the value of local forests to sequester carbon and the need for untouched land in the state for meeting climate emission reduction goals.
Millar noted that the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has estimated that state forests can absorb 30 percent of Rhode Island’s greenhouse gases.
“Forests are the only proven technique that can absorb and store vast amounts of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere,” Millar said. “Solar panels and wind turbines can’t remove and store vast amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so they need to be sited in a manner that fully protects our forests.”
Solar developer Fred Unger of the Providence-based Heartwood Group Inc. argued that replacing trees with solar panels is better for the climate. Unger, a member of the OER solar stakeholder group, referenced an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) statistic that claims an acre of solar power reduces 200 times the carbon emissions than is sequestered within an acre of forestland.
Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy for Save The Bay, noted that the EPA statistic is misleading because it fails to account for all of the ecological values of forested habitat.
“We need forests to protect Narragansett Bay; to protect our watershed; to protect our marine and recreational industries and our quality of life in the state,” said Hamblett, who also submitted written testimony.
Francis DiGregorio, vice president of the Exeter Town Council, opposed the bill because he said the incentives still encourage solar development in rural areas. He criticized a provision in the bill that allows municipalities to impose a 5-kilowatt-hour tariff, calling it “meager to the point of being insulting.”
“This bill, as written, will leave towns like Exeter stripped of any defense to properly site and regulate these expansive, utility-scale solar facilities,” DiGregorio said.
The Rhode Island Woodland Partnership (RIWP), a forest stewardship and conservation group, opposes the development of renewable energy facilities in areas of environmental concern as defined in the bill, in particular conservation opportunity areas identified by DEM “that include tracts of woodland 250 acres and larger and comprise our state’s largest remaining undeveloped forests.”
RIWP supports the amendment to remove all state economic incentives for renewable energy development from areas of environmental concern.
The Burrillville Land Trust and others called for more incentives for solar carports and canopies that serve as alternatives to clearing land.
The Audubon Society of Rhode Island wants a solar-siting bill passed this year. Lawrence Taft, Audubon’s executive director, liked many of the bill’s policies, such as a requirement that OER and DEM identify locations for land-based solar and wind projects.
“We don’t know if any of these strategies will be successful but we certainly need to try,” Taft wrote in submitted testimony.
At the hearing, Taft said, “We feel that this bill is not perfect, but we can live with it. It’s in the right direction; we certainly cannot hold it up and continue business as usual.”
The bill also is supported by the Rhode Island Farm Bureau, the Environment Council of Rhode Island, the Conservation Law Foundation, and DEM. The state housing financing agency, RIHousing, supports the bill because it encourages remote net metering, which allows multiple subscribers to receive credits on their electric bills from an offsite renewable system.
If approved, cities and town must adopt the new siting rules by April 2020. Municipalities that fail to meet the deadline could lose access to state renewable-energy subsidies.
The bill was held for further study pending additional hearings.
In 2018, two bills establishing siting guidelines for renewable energy failed to pass the House and Senate. H7793 passed the House but never had a hearing in the Senate. H8141 died in a House committee.
Correction: The Rhode Island Woodland Partnership’s opposition to bill H5789 had been reported incorrectly. It opposes a section of the bill.
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Should someone that advocates for solar be classified as an "environmentalist" when it requires habitat loss? I don’t think so. A solar proponent that advocates for solar on impervious surfaces (abandoned parking lots, businesses, rooftops, closed landfills, brownfields, and gravel pits) rather than clear-cutting, grading, and habitat destruction would be an environmentalist. A better descriptive term would be "developer". Reducing carbon emissions as a justification for permanent habitat loss and reduction in species diversity is ludicrous.
Wholeheartedly agree with "Concerned" — very well stated! We have so much such abandoned space in Rhode Island that I would think that an additional incentive for using it would just covering up the depressive abandoned properties that make certain parts of the state look worse that the so-called third world.
in 2016 we were losing 1000 acres/year of forest to solar panels.
Well written article but nowhere in it does it mention the rights of the property owners who have decided that they desire to put their own land into a landbank that would preserve the land by installing solar. Have we become a society that allows the government to determine what is allowed with private land that taxes are paid upon?
It’s so short-sighted. Bulldozing large ares of trees that allow aquifers to refill, clean our water, remove carbon dioxide from the air, make oxygen, prevent erosion by protecting, and stabilizing the soil, reduce area temperatures in the summer, provide pollen and nectar for bees, provide food for caterpillars of lovely butterflies, homes for fox, raccoons, owls, and more. The forests provides a quiet place for us to walk, or sit and contemplate. It provides a safe respite from the hectic pace, and crowded conditions of life today. I could go on and on. There are the roofs of hospitals, universities, malls, schools, home repair centers, and more they could use, yet they want to cut down every last tree.
It’s insanity. Sheer greed. We’ll have no clean water to drink, or oxygen to breathe, but the developer will have his money.
I am an environmentalist. I’ve been active on environmental issues since I was 20, and got my start defending old-growth forests in Oregon. And I’m not a developer. I do advocate for building renewable energy as quickly as possible, to stave off the worst effects of climate change. And while I and everyone who has been active on the siting issue prefers that we build solar as much as possible on rooftops, parking lots, degraded sites and brownfields, we are also aware that the current system of incentives does not cover the extra costs to developers to build parking canopy solar, or to work with contaminated sites.
That’s why the siting bill allows DOER to create incentives specifically for these types of installations. But even if we do this, to effectively and quickly decarbonize our electricity supply, we’re going to need some flexibility in siting solar and other renewable energy sources.
There is not a serious concern about habitat loss due to solar development affecting any species that I know of in Rhode Island. Instead, those who oppose this compromise bill repeatedly have revealed their actual motivation, which is that they want their views to remain the same.
If we are going to use electricity, it is going to need to be generated somewhere. Conventional energy like coal and gas causes not only views to be changed, but actual health impacts, unlike the clean energy that we are talking about here.
Those who want access to clean electricity but want it generated somewhere else are showing their privilege – their privilege to use power and but to not even have to look at it. In an era when our species and countless others are threatened by climate change, this is immoral and a betrayal of future generations.
Cumulative forest fragmentation is a loss of habitat and natural habitat values to an extensive range of species. One of the most amazing things to me is when a rural community changes the zoning to facilitate solar in exchange for nothing. Undeveloped lands cost he towns nothing, yet benefit the residents by helping to protect groundwater and provide a quality of life. The incentives should be to the landowners that protect these characteristics. There should be disincentives to those willing to clear-cut and develop the areas as a shortsighted means to balance a local budget.
"There is not a serious concern about habitat loss due to solar development affecting any species that I know of in Rhode Island." What an ignorant thing to say. No environmentalist would say this. All around me – after living in Smithfield 15 years – I observe that we are losing an acre at a time to developers, including solar fields…it all adds up into habitat loss over time. Solar fields that displace forests are piecing apart the forests and wildlife habitats, just like developers do. To say otherwise is "green washing".
Christian, I understand the tenor of your argument and appreciate your activism in preserving the environment. However, you make a statement that is really at the core of your thesis, that simply does not hold up:
"There is not a serious concern about habitat loss due to solar development affecting any species that I know of in Rhode Island. Instead, those who oppose this compromise bill repeatedly have revealed their actual motivation, which is that they want their views to remain the same."
Indeed, part of this is true, for yourself as well as the public: No one knows of solar development in our western borderlands forest that affects "any species that I know of in Rhode Island." But the facts to the contrary are two:
First, according to the Energy Facilities Siting Act of 1986, an energy generating facility of under 40 megawatts is exempt from the provisions of the Siting Act. Forty or over, and the applicant for the generator must prove that the facility will do no "unacceptable harm" to the environment. The Energy Facility Siting Board, in pursuit of this question, formally requires the engagement of RI DEM and local town authorities, including town councils and town planning boards. Additionally, private entities, such as the Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, Save the Bay, etc. may be granted "intervenor" status in EFSB siting cases and offer expert testimony to be cross examined. The EFSB has the power as well to order Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements.
No such process exists for solar siting. The question of special habitats and threatened species is therefore not on the table in any professional, scientific sense.
Second, the department within DEM that once kept inventory of of special habitats and threatened species, and was charged with the advocacy of such in land-use decisions, the Natural Heritage Program, was eliminated by DEM in 2007. There is simply no voice left in the whole state government of Rhode Island whose charge is the definition and defense of habitats, their loss, and the species that dwell in them.
Bottom line, NO ONE has the statutory authority to speak to habitat and threatened species concerns in the solar siting land-rush that is now taking place in our western border forests, which, with it extension into the "Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor forests across the Ct border constitutes the last forested corridor on the eastern seaboard between Boston and Washington DC that connects an interior forest to the coastline.
The question of special habitat and threatened species is a big, big issue, far bigger than you understand it to be.
And this proposed bill ducks it.
It should be defeated, and a bill incorporating a formal process similar in scope and authority to the Energy Facility Siting Act should be substituted.
reading the post ad the comments makes me want the strongest bill possible to protect woodlands and natural areas. That someone from the solar power industry can totally ignore the value of woodlands and an ally can say opposition to destroying woodlands is just about preserving views shows that this industry can be seriously irresponsible.
It’s just a guess, but I suspect you, personally, are not concerned about your property value shrinking when a future brown field suddenly appears next door on property zoned residential. Maybe your home is not your biggest investment like so many others in rural RI. Maybe you think these homeowners should feel like heroes for sacrificing their quality of life for the sake of a carbon-free future. Deforestation for commercial solar development is not simply about "the view" to those of us who choose to live in rural RI, it’s also about the function of forests to protect air, water, and sound quality, and of course we are concerned about habitat and biodiversity loss. But, of course, we can excuse your ignorance because, as you say, you are "not an environmentalist," which by definition means you do not care about the environment in which you live, and cannot understand the complexity of this issue. I support those whose answer is to remove ALL incentives from solar development in undisturbed, forested areas. Instead, shift that money over to increased incentives to cover the "extra costs" involved in siting solar in areas such as car ports, landfills, brown fields, roof tops, etc. . Developers are strictly motivated by these incentives – remove them and problem solved. An increase in roof top solar incentives for home owners along with legislation to expand and preserve net metering might also provide significant stimulus to boost the rate of solar development in RI without having to clear our carbon-sequestering forest habitats.
…and what is up with RI’s Audubon Society’s lackadaisical attitude towards deforestation when every other major environmental group is strongly opposed to deforestation for solar?!