More Money for Brownfield Solar Offered, But Better Land Protection Needed
April 30, 2020
Rhode Island is offering a new pot of money for solar development on land that isn’t forest or open space.
Beginning May 5, solar arrays proposed for contaminated former industrial sites, known as brownfields, can apply for a share of $1 million on a first-come, first-served basis through the state Renewable Energy Fund.
The capital came from Rhode Island’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). The multi-state cap-and-trade program generates revenue by auctioning climate-emission allowances to fossil-fuel power plants. The proceeds fund energy-efficiency and renewable energy projects in each RGGI member state.
“As we grow the amount of clean energy in the state, it is important that we try and site renewable projects in a responsible and sustainable manner,” said Nicholas Ucci, Rhode Island’s acting energy commissioner.
With growing resentment over solar arrays that displace woodlands and farmland, environmentalists and municipal planners have been advocating for rules and incentives that site solar installations on parking lots, rooftops, brownfields, old quarries, and closed landfills.
Rhode Island has an estimated 320 brownfields and some 100 landfills deemed suitable for solar development. Last year, $1 million was awarded through the Renewable Energy Fund to brownfield projects in East Greenwich, East Providence, Smithfield, and South Kingstown. Farm Fresh Rhode Island and The Steel Yard, both in the Valley neighborhood in Providence, received funding for new solar projects.
The Renewable Energy Fund already offers grants for solar carports. Another incentive is in the works through the state’s fixed-price energy-purchase program called Renewable Energy Growth. National Grid, which runs the program, is finalizing a power-purchase contract “adder” for building solar canopies in parking lots.
Most large solar arrays, however, don’t use the fixed-priced program and instead sell their electricity directly to the utility through net metering. But net metering, as of yet, has no restrictions on building solar projects on undeveloped land. Instead, building restrictions fall to municipal zoning ordinances, forcing many rural communities to struggle with an onslaught of utility-scale solar projects.
Legislative efforts to enact rules for protecting farms and natural habitat while promoting renewable-energy development in built areas have stalled in recent years and divided environmental groups. Some organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, have supported bills that require municipalities to establish renewable-energy guidelines and offer incentives for developing solar in preferred locations. Save The Bay and Grow Smart Rhode Island want the legislation to also protect open space through amendments to state solar incentives such as the Renewable Energy Fund and Renewable Energy Growth program.
A bill before the General Assembly (H7426) prevents developers from receiving state funds for utility-scale solar arrays until the host community passes a solar-siting ordinance. The legislation requires zoning plans to be guided by a new state siting plan that municipalities can use to, among other things, manage land conservation.
Scott Millar, director of community assistance and conservation for Grow Smart Rhode Island, said current state incentives make it too easy and profitable to build on large chunks of habitat and arable land. Millar noted that solar facilities are more lucrative for property owners than protecting land through typical conservation incentives, such as selling the development rights.
In recent years, more open space has been lost to solar projects than has been conserved. Rhode Island has lost 2,000 acres of core unfragmented forest in the past seven years to development such as ground-mounted solar facilities, according to research done by the University of Rhode Island’s Bill Buffum.
Millar noted new siting regulations in Massachusetts that prohibit the use of state renewable incentives in about 2 million acres designated as vital forest and habitat. He also noted that the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program increases financial incentives for rooftop, parking lot, and brownfield projects.
“Now that Massachusetts has reformed their solar programs it will hopefully help us advocate for a similar change in Rhode Island,” Millar said. “Rhode Island is clearly behind the other northeastern states when it comes to reforming solar-siting programs.”
Some towns in Rhode Island aren’t waiting for action at the state level. Exeter, Glocester, and South Kingstown have amended zoning rules to encourage solar development in preferred areas, while restricting solar arrays to 30 percent of a forested lot.
Millar supports Rhode Island offering another $1 million for putting solar arrays on brownfields.
“Grow Smart Rhode Island strongly supports state incentives to encourage solar on developed and disturbed areas, as well as disincentives to prevent the further loss of Rhode Island’s forests and habitat,” he said. “This is a good step in the right direction.”