North Smithfield Approves R.I.’s Largest Solar Facility
June 22, 2020
Rhode Island’s largest ground-mounted solar array is approved and under construction, after the North Smithfield Planning Board gave its final OK earlier this month. But some residents still want more assurances about the environmental impacts of the 38.4-megawatt Iron Mine Hill Road solar facility.
More than 180 acres of predominately mature trees, saplings, and shrubs have been cut and cleared to make way for 160 acres of solar panels. The land is privately owned. The clearing work required the filing of a notification of intent to saw or cut with the state as part of a sediment-control plan and wetland-alteration permit.
“It’s all stripped. It looks like it’s been bombed,” said Mike Rapko, a Greenville Road resident who lives a half-mile from the site.
Rapko is worried about the next phase of construction, when up to 30 percent of the site will be leveled with explosives. The blasting plan wasn’t presented by the developer, North Kingstown-based Green Development LLC, until March 5. Rapko and other concerned residents in the area urged the Planning Board to delay the approval until more is known about the chemicals used in the explosives and their potential impact on sources that provide drinking water to Woonsocket.
“It’s still not fully resolved,” Rapko said. “The Planning Board just didn’t want to tie up the process.”
In correspondences with Green Development, Marc Viggiani, superintendent of the Woonsocket Water Division, expressed concern about contamination of municipal water supplies from blasting. He asked if the excavation could instead be done with mechanical equipment to reduce chemical exposure.
Kevin Morin, director of engineering and development for Green Development, wrote in a June 4 email that mechanical equipment couldn’t be used because of the size and depth of the ledge. He promised, however, to increase testing after heavy rains and to expand testing for heavy metals.
The explanation was good enough for the Planning Board, which approved the project 4-1. If construction stays on schedule, the solar installation will be in operation by the end of next year.
Resident Bethany Levin said runoff from the site has already turned the water murky in streams that run through her property on Greenville Road. She led an unsuccessful campaign to have Green Development pay for a study of little brown bats, a species that roosts in forested areas and is listed as threatened or endangered in several states. Wildlife, such as hawks and coyotes, has decreased since the land was cleared, she said. The loss of vegetation has also allowed noise from traffic on Route 146 to reach her neighborhood.
“I can hear the highway now 24/7,” she said.
North Smithfield limits solar projects to no more than 6 acres, but the utility-scale Iron Mine Hill Road project received a controversial exemption in May 2018. To help make the project happen, the Town Council, led by then-president John Beauregard, a vocal supporter of the project, first created a special zoning district that allowed Green Development to bypass the Zoning Board of Review by nullifying the need for a special-use permit.
A PowerPoint presentation given by Green Development at an April 2018 Town Council meeting encouraged the creation of the solar overlay district. Green representatives said the town would reap $40 million in local economic benefit over 25 years from the company’s “temporary use of only 1% of North Smithfield’s land.”
To avoid getting a special-use permit, Green Development agreed to some stricter requirements, such as a 500-foot setback from Iron Mine Hill Road.
Town planner Thomas Kravitz is satisfied with the approval process.
“They (Green Development) followed all of the procedures and permit requirements,” Kravitz said. “It went the way it’s supposed to go.”
The massive project, situated within 417 acres, has been criticized by environmentalists for cutting into a portion of core forestland designated for protection by the state. A portion called Whortleberry Hill is considered by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) as part of a designated wildlife corridor and a “natural heritage area.” The array’s 122,000 solar panels are expected to limit terrestrial migration once they are enclosed by a 6-foot-high chain-link fence.
Kravitz noted that Green Development shaved off 4 megawatts of electric capacity to create a 400-foot-wide wildlife corridor that allows deer and other animals to migrate through the area. He said he was pleased that the developer took extra precautions to control runoff, such as using secured bails of hay instead of silt socks, which are less effective at containing sediment. Numerous testing wells have been installed to monitor contamination during construction, Kravitz said.
“Now it’s a matter of staying on top of the erosion and sediment control,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing to do to see if there are any impacts of solar on the groundwater.”
The 417-acre site contains a swamp, forested wetland, a stream, a river, and a floodplain. The project doesn’t alter any of the primary wetlands on the site, according to a permit issued by DEM in February 2019. The 38.4-megawatt project avoided a more elaborate review by the state Energy Facility Siting Board (EFS), which authorizes permits to energy projects with 40 megawatts of capacity or more. Green Development’s shaving off of 4 megawatts also avoided a EFSB review.
In its review of the proposed Clear River Energy Center in Burrillville, the EFSB required a detailed, multi-month environmental study of the site for the nearly 1,000-megawatt natural gas power plant. The review for the Iron Mine Hill Road project studied a single point in time and was much less thorough.
Green Development, however, is touting its solar meadow cultivation plan that includes pollinator habitat as part of a long-term wildlife management plan. The company also noted that the solar installation will prevent up to 45,542 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually — enough electricity to power 7,700 homes.
Green Development will pay an annual tax of $268,800, or a total of $5.37 million during the 20-year agreement. The town also has the option of a one-time payment of $287,500 or construction services to improve the restrooms and concession stand at a local sports complex.
The energy produced from the project will be sent directly to National Grid, according to Green Development.
Once completed, the project will be the largest operating solar facility in Rhode Island and one of the largest in New England, according to Green Development. Company officials noted that Green Development already operates the largest onshore wind facility in the state, with its 21-megawatt, seven-turbine installation in Johnston.