Rhode Island Solar Development Needs to Change Its Focus to Rooftops and Already-Marred Areas
July 29, 2021
Dana Goodman sells and her company installs residential rooftop solar systems in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts. In the Bay State, she said it’s an easier and simpler process. She doesn’t know why Rhode Island chose to make a straightforward climate solution “mind-numbingly” complicated. She doesn’t understand why so many Ocean State trees have been axed to install solar panels.
“Rhode Island policy makes no sense,” said Goodman, who has been in solar sales for nearly seven years, including the past two and a half at Bristol-based NEC Solar. “Solar is easy. There’s a lot of mystery around solar, and I don’t think there needs to be.”
The Providence resident said there is plenty of untapped residential, commercial and industrial roofs that could accommodate solar panels. She noted there is a “gazillion acres” of already-disturbed space that could host solar arrays. She said trees don’t need to be killed to generate more renewable energy in Rhode Island.
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. According to the Office of Energy Resources, the state currently has 1,003 megawatts of renewable energy, including 35 megawatts of landfill gas, which is composed of roughly 50 percent methane.
The governor’s well-meaning but shortsighted call to action, which neglected to highlight the best places for such development or call for the need to incentivize the use of already-developed areas, unleashed this fast-growing industry on municipal governments ill-prepared for the solar stampede.
Before leaving for Washington, D.C., and President Biden’s administration, Raimondo signed another executive order that advances a 100 percent renewable-energy future for Rhode Island by 2030. This executive order, like the previous one, glosses over the issue of responsible siting.
Goodman said one way to help electrify Rhode Island’s heating and transportation sectors and reach the state’s net-zero targets would be to allow residential energy customers to contribute more to the grid’s overall sourcing of energy.
To start, she believes the two initiatives that guide residential solar in Rhode Island — the Renewable Energy Growth Program and net metering — need to be revamped to better address the needs and wants of residential solar customers. In the Bay State, the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program guides solar development.
Goodman suggested, for example, net metering of up to 100 percent of customers’ historic usage, and then a cash incentive for excess production beyond the 100 percent at a fairly priced supplier rate.
“We could provide ourselves with so much locally if we just increased the installation capacity limits for individuals,” she said. “The reality of becoming 100 percent renewable by 2030 is more feasible if we let residential customers produce the amount of energy they want — 10 to 20 percent extra annually. There needs to be a public discussion about why there are limitations that tap down the amount of energy residential customers can produce. More residential solar could do a lot for local power. Localized power production is the key.”
Warwick resident Jane Austin, a former senior policy analyst with Save The Bay who retired seven years ago, has made her concerns known about a solar ordinance she believes the city has tried to fast-track that puts trees and green space in the crosshairs.
Warwick officials are trying to create, in what she called an untested approach, a citywide overlay district for solar. She said the proposed ordinance would open all of the city’s residentially zoned land and significant chunks of open space to potential utility-scale solar development. She noted two significant properties are being considered for possible future solar development: the Little Rhody Beagle Club and portions of the Kent County YMCA.
Austin, whose career advocating for the environment was honored with a Lifetime Achievement award in 2014 from the Environmental Protection Agency, believes Warwick has plenty of solar development potential, with acres of rooftops and parking lots. She said city officials need to take a strategic approach, optimizing renewable energy siting and avoiding the problems experienced in other municipalities, such as Hopkinton, West Greenwich and Coventry.
She has urged the City Council to adopt an ordinance that directs solar development to its developed, commercial and industrial areas. She said as written the ordinance would give solar developers the de facto ability to develop solar “by right” citywide once properties become “overlay eligible.” She envisions a flood of case-by-case solar projects inundating the city, with many proposed for green space.
In a June 10 memorandum to the City Council, Austin wrote that the city needs to articulate and manage the key tradeoff in solar development from a climate and community character perspective.
“Where do we want solar development in Warwick?” she asked. “Unless the answer is everywhere, we should not pass an ordinance which makes that possible.”
In a lengthy June 19 response from the city’s principal planner, Lucas Murray wrote, “We believe that the proposed ordinance presents a balanced approach that allows residents to easily install personal use solar to offset their current billing; encourages the development of solar in commercial/industrial zones; affords expedited approval for contaminated sites, carports, and other similar canopy structures; and discourages to [sic] installation of principal use solar in non-commercial zones. While the ordinance proposal may not fully satisfy your specific goals, we disagree that it is deeply flawed.”
Austin isn’t buying the planner’s response. In a July 8 letter to the editor published in the Warwick Beacon, Austin wrote, “solar development is being driven by federal and state incentives designed to fight climate change. It is lunacy to add special, permissive treatment for solar development throughout the city ‘because of climate change’ if the likely result is the accelerated destruction of Warwick’s remaining forests and tree canopy.
“Warwick’s trees and forests filter pollution from our air and waterways. They lower urban temperatures, decreasing energy use. They capture carbon to slow the rate of climate change. They provide critical habitat for wildlife.”
She told ecoRI News the proposed solar overlay district has the potential to turn Warwick into a checkerboard of solar development.
The City Council Ordinance Committee recently held the proposed solar ordinance, citing concerns about the scope of its impact and questioning the adequacy of public notice.
A similar scenario is playing out in Portsmouth, where an energy developer headquartered out of state wants to build a 1.3-megawatt solar facility on a piece of private property covered in trees and close to the Lawton Valley Reservoir on West Main Road.
If developed as a utility-scale energy station, residents are concerned about the loss of wildlife habitat, increased stormwater runoff and the potential impact on a public drinking water source that serves Portsmouth, Middletown and Newport.
Union Street resident Richard Munch said it is quite shocking that a project of this kind has been proposed for this site.
Backhoes, front-end loaders, dump trucks, gravel crushers, other diesel-powered heavy equipment and explosives have leveled hundreds of acres of forestland in the name of renewable energy. The clear-cutting effort has been called a sacrifice needed to deal with the climate crisis.
“There’s so many ways to do solar right than ripping down forestland,” Goodman said. “It’s not the way to go. It’s so unnecessary.”
Thousands of trees have been felled in Rhode Island during the past four-plus years for one simple reason: money.
A former CEO for Cranston-based Green Development told ecoRI News in 2018 that installing solar arrays on brownfields and landfills is the “most expensive option known to man. It’s a great idea, but it’s a cost issue. You can’t penetrate the surface and landfills keep settling. The many issues with those kinds of sites drive costs way up.”
It’s more profitable to cut down trees, and that is all that matters. To this day, Rhode Island has failed to adequately incentivize the installation of solar arrays on brownfields, former landfills, gravel pits and rooftops. Despite a sea of asphalt parking lots helping to warm Rhode Island and exacerbate flooding, solar carports remain a rare sight.
State officials let cash-strapped municipalities and their volunteer boards become overrun with proposals for ground-mounted solar installations on open space. When some of Rhode Island’s rural communities tried to direct such projects away from residential neighborhoods and off green space, they were sued. The state shrugged.
During the construction of their utility-scale solar projects on green space, a handful of developers have been cited by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management for such violations as the unauthorized alteration of freshwater wetlands.
Few people, beyond those with ties to fossil fuels and those who lobby for them, oppose Rhode Island’s need for more solar energy, but where many of these projects are being built or proposed remains a climate misadventure, as the environment is far too often deemed a hindrance to financial gain.
In the same story where the former Green Development CEO was quoted, Mark DePasquale, the company’s chairman and founder, blamed environmentalists for exaggerating forestland concerns. He claimed if renewable energy projects weren’t being built the trees would be cut to make room for homes.
“Our forests aren’t as healthy as environmentalists think,” he said. “Clearing a 60-year-old forest doesn’t have as much of an impact as some people think.”
ecoRI News routinely receives phone calls and emails from concerned residents upset about another large-scale solar project that has been proposed for a wooded lot or meadow — the Warwick solar overlay district and the array proposed for Portsmouth green space being the two most-recent examples.
Conversely, we are notified much less frequently by state officials about a median strip being covered in solar arrays or a solar carport being erected. A June 3 press release from the Office of Energy Resources did announce the state renewed an initiative to encourage solar projects on brownfields, noting an additional $1 million in state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative proceeds will be committed to this program in addition to the $2 million allocated between 2019 and 2020.
Some of the resident angst can be contributed to not-in-my-backyard selfishness, as not every ground-mounted solar array is the work of a greedy developer or pushed through by municipal officials concerned only about tax revenue.
Some projects have been installed in places that make sense — i.e., the recent construction of a solar installation on Navy property, devoid of trees, along traffic-heavy West Main Road in Portsmouth. They can also help farms stay financially viable.
But the relentless whacking of woodlands to make room for silicon wafers is taking a bite out of a natural climate-change mitigator. And people are upset, whether it is in their backyard or not.
Editor’s note: Dana Goodman once worked for ecoRI News as an outreach associate and the company she works for has advertised with us.