Energy

North Smithfield Approves R.I.’s Largest Solar Facility

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Green Development has been given the go-ahead to build a 38.4-megawatt solar installation on 400-plus acres of woodland in North Smithfield. A portion of the site is considered by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management as part of a designated wildlife corridor. (Diprete Engineering)

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.

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  1. This is terrible. But since it’s private land, there’s not much can be done. There is no excuse for felling hundreds of acres of trees to install solar. No excuse. There is plenty of abandoned open space in RI and plenty of rooftops. The blasting is inexcusable. Green Development is DEVELOPERS, not environmentalists and they’re embarrassing solar industry professionals who actually care about preservation.

  2. This is really disappointing. There should be and should have already been more caution taken to protect the wildlife in the area. And an alternative method really needs to be discussed in depth instead of using chemical bombs to clear the rest of the land. The risk of contaminating the groundwater is well worth a preventative measure vs. having to figure it out once the damage is done. If residents are going to be disturbed by the sounds of the explosions, that’s another matter… and can you imagine being an animal who lives there having your home exploded? I’d imagine there are existing empty lots that could have been used and/or expanded for this purpose instead of destroying existing forest land too. So sad. It makes me want to leave Rhode Island when more and more things like this get approved. It’s really upsetting to see people put a supposedly "green" method of power over existing life.

  3. Did anyone ever consider the amount of oxygen that the atmosphere & us humans will be deprived of by clearing the woodlands?

  4. I’m confused about the comment that no permits were required to clear the 160-acre site. Doesn’t RIDEM require a Construction General Permit for construction sites where > 1 acre of soil is exposed? At a minimum they’d have to prevent sediment from entering waterbodies, and based on the nearby resident’s comments that’s not happening. Regardless, this is an epic failure on the Town’s part to protect natural resources. Creating a "special zoning district" specifically for this project smacks of the spot zoning act Green Development tried to get passed in Exeter.

    • Jan, you were correct about permit required to clear-cut the land. Thank you for pointing out our mistake. The story has been updated to reflect that, and will be updated again when we get more information about the permitting process for that work. — Frank Carini, ecoRI News editor

  5. Every player in this is despicable. From the Town of North Smithfield to the land owner(s) to the Green Development Company. I have seen this town council in action….it is a poorly read group that lacks any real concern for issues that stack up on any project. They are really ill-equipped to deal with major projects in a thoughtful way. Is it so difficult to do the right ethical and moral thing, which must include serious concern over environmental issues? I feel sorry for the neighbors and the brown bats and all the displaced wildlife. It really shows human beings as a pestilence, greedily usurping the land. The water and blasting issues are atrocious. And no zoning board action because the zoning board is "legally" bypassed???? When humans come in and "manage wildlife" there are always bad consequences that were never imagined. This is a heart-breaking story, that is being sold to you as "green". Now there’s a hoax…..the term “Green washing” emerged for just this type of circumstance.

  6. Very disappointing, Perhaps the "Green Development" firm should be called "not-Green Development!" This kind of thing is what Michael Moore warned about in his film Planet of the People, that despite the appealing sound-bite about "clean energy", renewable energy is not necessarily clean and that irresponsible corporate developers were cashing in on subsidies available for dubious renewable projects. The RI environment community has failed to get this loss of woodland under control, even opposing a Grow-Smart backed bill some years ago that might have helped. More attention needs to be given to reducing energy demand – through efficiency, conservation, better land use, and lower population growth.

  7. There is no sense to this. "Green Development" does not have a good reputation and they’re not green at all, except green for money, and they will make alot of green with this. This is awful. North Smithfield residents need to closely watch and monitor this. Take photos. This is not good for the environment, for RI wildlife, or for the residents.

  8. Its disturbing to watch the investors in this boondoggle make all the money. The only part about the wind and solar projects is money. Go green while destroying the Congo and china and other parts of the world to get the metals needed to feed the greed. Lets blame fisherman and farming for destroying the planet while we build huge solar arrays ,offshore wind and deep sea mining operations. Im so done with all of it. The next best thing coming down the pike is offshore industrial fish farms. The will be another nail in the coffin for our ocean ecosystems

  9. As someone who lives in Warwick, and recently witnessed a smaller solar field put in adjacent to the property where I live, I can attest to the huge impact it has on wildlife – and humans in the surrounding area. The project here is on 8.5 acres, a leased operation by a private landowner to "Smart Energy" company. Thankfully, there was no blasting involved here as it was already a level field, but at least 50 trees were taken down, regardless of active bird’s nests being in many of them (which seems to go against the Migratory Bird Act), and even trees that were not in the field, but along the outside of the area, across the road were felled! The private property owner was likely enticed by the financial benefits of having the solar company utilize their land, and did not thoroughly consider how the rest of the residents – human and animal – would feel or have their lives changed. The construction for this much-smaller-than-No-Smithfield’s project lasted for months, and started at 5-6am every day with the inescapably loud cutting & felling of trees, and progressing through the other abrasive sounds of construction. I have noticed an increased level of high winds, which seem connected to the angling of so many panels directing the wind – now unfettered by any protection of trees – from the open lot to our house. I’ve lived here for 14 years and never experienced such window-shaking gusts as I have since the solar field was put in. It’s interesting to find that there are few if any studies of the weather effects that these panels create. You are more likely to find studies on how weather affects the panels! Considering the ground would normally absorb the sun’s rays, but now they are being concentrated to the panels at a raised height (6.5 foot tall panels), and knowing how this affects wind creation, I think my suspicion can be scientifically proven. The field here was also a place where deer often grazed, you might spot a fox now & then, and you could bank on seeing squirrels, rabbits or a woodchuck… it’s now completely fenced in and the animals who enjoyed it have likely been pushed to survive on the floodbanks of the river. The article also mentions the "pollinator habitat" that the company promises, and I wonder if locals there also had to actually advocate for this, as they did here, instead of the company wanting to do something themselves/throw nature a bone. Since I now have the hideous view of the solar field from my backyard, I haven’t noticed any of these pollinator-friendly plants being planted inside of the fenced area (vs gravel!!), but I haven’t ventured closer and don’t like going down the bike path and seeing this eye sore. The bigger issue is the real cost of solar panels and their environmental impact vs the "green" energy benefits. This type of panel still is made with toxic materials, so when they breakdown or have to be replaced/discarded in time, there is not a safe way to dispose of them. The manufacturing and transportation of the mass of materials needed for these solar projects and the associated cost & pollution alone leave one scratching their head as to whether this is really the best we can do. I’m sad and disappointed that Green Development’s project was approved. The coding laws for private properties developing with this kind of high-impact energy project, need to be updated. There are already so, so many already-paved and developed empty lots around Rhode Island that would be much more suitable for these kinds of things. Imagine – driving down Airport Road and half of the parking lot for Ann & Hope has been fitted with solar panels? Even if that wasn’t ideal because of the proximity to the airport, (which should be fine, since they have studied wind’s effects on solar panels vs. the panels’ effects on wind, as I mentioned), there are still so many vacant lots that would be much wiser locations. Change the code, update the laws, take away the ability for these companies to tempt landowners financially, stop destroying/changing the lives and ecosystems of the wildlife and residents! Protect what is truly "green" and wild while we still have it.

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