Solar Development, Forest Protection Need Better Balance
Conservationists say the best weapons in the fight against climate change are forests and renewable energy and both need to succeed
March 24, 2021
The siting of renewable energy is a complex issue that dances around property rights, tax revenues, the carrying capacity of energy infrastructure, smart grids, energy storage, and environmental protections.
Rhode Island began grappling with the siting of utility-scale renewable energy, most notably ground-mounted solar arrays, about five years ago, when developers started to take advantage of the state’s inability to direct such projects to already-developed areas. Instead, they bought or leased less-expensive rural open space upon which to erect renewable-energy systems.
The state’s green-space energy rush began in earnest in March 2017, when then-Gov. Gina Raimondo signed an unenforceable executive order that encouraged the state to attain 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2020.
The governor’s order, which gave little thought or guidance to where solar installations should be sited, increased the number of renewable-energy applications being filed in cities and towns that hadn’t yet adopted regulations that adequately addressed the impacts of this fast-growing industry.
The solar energy rush overwhelmed municipal officials and volunteer board members — many of whom don’t have the expertise and/or lack a statewide perspective regarding this issue — were caught flat-footed when confronted with an abundance of utility-scale energy development.
While the past five years have given Rhode Island more megawatts of cleaner energy, the acres of installed ground-mounted solar have further fragmented and stressed Rhode Island’s forests.
The covering of open space with solar panels comes with a cost, even it reduces dependence on fossil fuels and generates tax revenue.
“It’s essential that we safeguard and enhance the capacity of forest natural lands to absorb and store carbon,” Scott Millar, senior policy analyst for Providence-based Grow Smart Rhode Island, said during a recent presentation on forest conservation and solar reform.
He noted that both Rhode Island and Massachusetts have the opportunity to become national leaders in balancing two of “our best weapons in the fight against climate change: forests and renewable energy.”
The former Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management staffer moderated a March 17 discussion featuring various experts in the forest conservation and solar realm in New England, each bringing their own perspective and data on how forest conservation and solar could work together.
Part of this relationship, they said, centers around the idea that promoting solar shouldn’t mean clear-cutting valuable forestland. In fact, it can be easily argued that it’s detrimental to the very principals that have spurred on solar use: reducing carbon emissions.
“We need to conserve forests and natural areas to absorb and store carbon,” Millar said. “It has been well documented that forests and natural areas are the most practical and cost-effective tool. The crucial next step is to reform our renewable-energy programs to provide incentives to accelerate solar in developed and disturbed locations, such as rooftops, landfills, brownfields, and parking lots, and stop any incentives that are encouraging the clearing of forests and natural areas to make way for solar development.”
He said the fight against the changing climate is like a three-legged stool, where all the legs are needed: cut greenhouse-gas emissions as quickly as possible; conserve energy and use it efficiently to reduce demand; and conserve forests to absorb and store carbon.
Frank Lowenstein, chief operating officer at the New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF), sees a future where forests are given value both as beautiful natural places and as natural carbon sequesters. He also sees this as indispensable to reducing carbon emissions.
“We need to get down to about half of our current emissions over the next ten years,” he said. “That’s a very big challenge. You need to get rid of 187 gigatons of expected emissions over the course of 10 years.”
To promote healthy forests and therefore help reduce human-generated carbon emissions, Lowenstein promoted the idea of creating incentives for forest landowners to practice what NEFF calls “exemplary forestry.”
The NEFF website defines exemplary forestry as “a forest management approach … that prioritizes forests’ long-term health and outlines the highest standards of sustainability currently available to the region’s forest owners.”
In addition to protecting forests and their ecosystem services, NEFF noted that exemplary forestry is designed to accomplish three goals: enhance the role forests can play in mitigating climate change; improve wildlife habitat; and grow more and better-quality wood.”
The third goal — grow more and better-quality wood as a building product — is an interesting part of this complex equation. This goal dovetails with the idea that NEFF promotes of using naturally carbon sequestering materials, e.g. timber, to build carbon-storing structures and limit the use of emissions-heavy steel and concrete.
“It’s one way to increase the productivity of the forest, the actual amount of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere per acre per year,” Lowenstein said. “We can basically double the average productivity per acre per year of New England forests. That lets you do two things: it lets you store more carbon in living forest … and it also lets you continue to harvest wood to create wood products and long-lived wood products like wood flooring, wood paneling, tables, and wood buildings that all keep carbon dioxide locked out of the atmosphere.”
A local example of this wood-centric construction is the Rhode Island School of Design’s recently completed North Hall, a steel-frame and cross-laminated timber (CLT) hybrid.
CLT is also known as mass timber and is created by gluing milled planks together and layering them to create a sturdy building material.
While the use of CLT is more popular in Europe and gaining some traction at more sustainably minded entities in the United States, tied up in this idea of using carbon-storing wood — and better preserving forests in general — is one word: incentive. And this incentive to preserve forests and use wood to build is linked to solar development.
David Milner, CEO and founder of Warren-based NuGen Capital, discussed how solar developers are often incentivized to clear-cut forests for solar installation because of the difficulty and high costs of siting solar on developed areas and disturbed locations.
Last year his company started construction of a 6.76-megawatt rooftop solar system on a 560,000-square-foot warehouse in East Greenwich. The project is comprised of more than 16,000 solar panels.
“I believe that everyone actually does care where solar is sited,” Milner said. “They just have a different opinion on where those trade-offs should be. I wanted to bring you into some of the fundamental economic reality that comes with rooftops and landfills and solar projects. The reality is rooftops, landfills are much riskier and more expensive than an open field or forestland. So that’s where people want to go.”
He went on to explain how some investors and banks won’t fund projects unless they are directly on the ground, because of inherent risks with elevated solar installations.
“Let’s take roofs for example,” Milner said. “When roofs leak, it’s a serious problem, not so much for the ground. Roofs have to be replaced. So, everybody, by and large, for large-scale solar wants to go to the ground. It’s also really hard to coordinate with the towns. Just last week I was reading about a western Massachusetts solar project that’s enormous, that’s going to clear forest, and the town can get 450 thousand dollars in tax revenue by allowing it to occur. That’s pretty tempting for some rural towns.”
Milner suggested that the only way to really promote sustainable solar siting is through incentives.
“We really do, I think, need to incentivize what we want to see,” he said. “We need to change the market dynamics and I think that’s coming.”
On the other side of incentives for preserving forests is the landowners who often sell or lease their property to solar developers since they see little money in the timber industry.
“This is particularly focused in the industrial forestlands of northern New England that are owned by individuals and companies largely for the financial benefits,” Lowenstein said. “They’re in it as a business proposition and right now they’re not getting paid for carbon in a simple enough way and a high enough value way.”
Lowenstein called for a few solutions that take incentive away from clear-cutting and put them into the sustainably sourced timber industry.
“First of all, no net loss of forest — part of that needs to be stopping incentivizing forest clearing — and increase incentives for solar in developed areas,” he said. “We also need more funding and support for forest conservation and improved management … we need to recognize that … just stopping harvest or reducing harvest, that may not do very much at all in part because wood, as I said earlier, substitutes for more carbon intensive materials like steel and concrete.”
This vision, if aligned with the needs of solar developers in making developed and disturbed locations more financially approachable and profitable, could lead to a symbiotic relationship that could change the world for the better, according to Lowenstein.
ecoRI News staffer Frank Carini contributed to this article.