West Greenwich Maxed Out On Ground-Mounted Solar
March 13, 2020
Editor’s note: In the interactive map above, click the pins to view information about the acreage of each solar site and its status. Color key: aqua=under construction; dark blue=final; red=on hold; orange=pre-application; green=master plan; purple=operating. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News; source town of West Greenwich)
WEST GREENWICH, R.I. — A large map covered most of a kitchen island, with blue pieces of construction paper perfectly cut and overlaid on 11 differently shaped areas of town where ground-mounted solar projects have been approved, built, or proposed.
Blue paper covered some significant swaths of property, much of it, with the exception of a former gravel bank/town dump, covered or recently covered with trees. The five local residents standing around the map were particularly concerned with the three large pieces of construction paper surrounding their neighborhood just west of Interstate 95.
Three of the town’s solar projects are nestled in a somewhat triangular area around Interstate 95, Route 3, Victory Highway, and Robin Hollow Road. Three of the residents live on Robin Hollow Road and the other two live close by on Henry Clay Court.
They said these three projects, which were labeled on the map as University Solar Phase 1 and Phase 2, Robin Hollow Solar, and St. Joseph Cemetery Solar, would transform a neighborhood zoned rural farming residential (RFR2) into the epicenter of utility-scale solar in West Greenwich.
Town administrator Kevin Breene acknowledged the “big push” of solar development into western Rhode Island during the past several years. He likened the developers who have descended on West Greenwich to vultures and called them “bird dogs looking for land.”
“We have a lot of land out here, and private property owners who have owned land for years didn’t develop it,” Breene said.
During the past several years, some of these landowners decided ground-mounted solar development was the best and/or most profitable use of their property. The town’s first such solar project, a 2.2-megawatt installation built in the middle of Leyden’s Tree Farm on Plain Meeting House Road, has been generating energy for the past six years.
The town currently has 10 solar projects in various stages of approval, ranging in size from 1 megawatt to 60. Two of those projects are nearing completion, according to town planner David Provonsil. University Solar Phase I has already been built, on 74 acres of expired gravel pit, and is nearly fully operational.
The five residents ecoRI News spoke with late last month are concerned that one of the projects is directly above a major aquifer and could impact the quality of water in their wells. They’re also worried that the development of all three projects would increase stormwater runoff, impact wetlands, foul nearby water bodies, decrease their property values, and increase traffic noise from Interstate 95 because acres of trees would be cut down to make room for solar panels.
The Robin Hollow Road couple who hosted the ecoRI News visit — they asked not to be identified — said a real-estate agent “told us to get out.”
Henry Clay Court resident Victoria Butler noted that a lot of trees have already been clear-cut in a sensitive environmental area. Her husband, Aaron, a fire protection engineer, said neither municipalities, including West Greenwich, nor the state have a plan should a fire break out in one of Rhode Island’s growing number of ground-mounted solar installations being sited in rural neighborhoods.
“They’re not monitoring these projects for safety,” he said. “They’re just monitoring them for how much power they can generate.”
Peter Bamberry, a Robin Hollow Road resident, is concerned that the town isn’t collecting enough bond money to protect itself when the time comes for developers to decommission their acres of solar panels.
The largest of the three projects in their neighborhood, Robin Hollow Solar LLC, would replace nearly half of some 400 acres of private forestland, on nearly a dozen different parcels, with 180 acres of solar panels. The project requires a special-use permit, and would likely generate about 60 megawatts. A Zoning Board of Review hearing on the project is scheduled for April 14. House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick, has represented the applicant at previous town meetings.
The 10 projects that still require some form of approval, including Robin Hollow Solar, will be the last ground-mounted solar installations in West Greenwich, according to Breene. He said between October and December of last year the Town Council held public hearings about the development of ground-mounted solar arrays and eventually passed an ordinance banning any further utility-scale solar projects beyond those already on file. Wind turbines are already prohibited.
If the remaining 10 projects are greenlighted, that would cap the town’s number of ground-mounted solar arrays at 12, with a total megawatt capacity of nearly 200, or about 20 percent of the governor’s goal of 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy by this year.
“We’ve contributed our fair share,” Breene said. “We feel like the town did the best it could for its landowners and residents. We’re trying to balance the whole thing out. The Planning Board and Town Council are trying to accommodate all of the town’s residents.”
The 12 projects would consume 598 acres — some of which have been damaged by gypsy moth defoliation — out of West Greenwich’s total of 33,000. Of those 33,000 acres, including the Big River Management Area and URI’s W. Alton Jones Campus, Breene noted that 58 percent are permanently protected open space.
Both Breene and Provonsil noted that the town needs to get some tax dollars out of its supply of developable land. They said ground-mounted solar arrays, when compared with housing development, add little or no burden to public services such as schools, police, fire, and snow plowing.
Provonsil noted that these solar projects don’t require septic systems, don’t light up the night sky, and don’t increase traffic once built.
Join the DiscussionView Comments
Your support keeps our reporters on the environmental beat.
Reader support is at the core of our nonprofit news model. Together, we can keep the environment in the headlines.