Energy

National Grid Offers Incentives to Massive Greenhouse Project in Exeter in Exchange for Solar Power

The proposed 1-million-square-foot closed facility with a utility-scale solar system is projected to yield 650,000 pounds of tomatoes per acre. (istock)

The region’s largest power utility has offered incentives to a company proposing to build a massive farm facility in rural Exeter, R.I., in exchange for access to the solar power expected to help grow millions of tomatoes in temperature-controlled greenhouses.

A June 24 letter from National Grid senior counsel Andrew Marcaccio to Luly Massaro, a division clerk for the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers, states National Grid will offer “energy efficiency incentives” to Rhode Island Grows LLC “for the utilization of a combined heat and power project with a net output of one megawatt … or greater.”

A capacity of 1 megawatt or more is a utility-scale installation for solar power.

National Grid asks the public utilities and carriers division to follow an authorized process for combined heat and power (CHP) projects by reviewing materials submitted with the letter, including a purchase and sales agreement from Rhode Island Grows related to the project, an estimated budget, benefit cost analysis and a November 2020 analysis providing “well-supported justification explaining why the economic benefits are reasonably likely to be obtained.”

The letter’s attachments also include a report on the natural-gas requirements and local impact of the operation.

“These documents represent a report including a natural gas capacity analysis that addresses the impact of the CHP Project on gas reliability; the potential cost of any necessary incremental gas capacity and distribution system reinforcements; and the possible acceleration of the date by which new pipeline capacity would be needed for the relevant area,” according to the letter.

National Grid’s letter asks the public utilities and carriers division to review the materials and provide an opinion either supporting or opposing the proposal by Aug. 13.

Gail Mastrati, assistant to the director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), supplied a link tracking the progress of the wetland permit sought by Richard Schartner, owner of the Schartner Farms property where Rhode Island Grows plans to build a 1-million-square-foot closed facility.

Asked if Rhode Island Grows is required to file separate permit applications for a solar array capable of producing more than 1 megawatts of power, Mastrati said the wetland and stormwater permit “is based on the size of the solar arrays, not the power output. If the number of solar panels were to increase, a new or modified permit would be required.”

“DEM does not permit the power output, just the size of the facility as indicated on the site plans,” Mastrati wrote in an email.

Mastrati declined to reveal the name of the company providing solar array services to Rhode Island Grows.

“DEM does not get involved with the choosing of the company to perform the work,” she said. “It is up to the owner to ensure that the contractor completes the work according to the permit.”

Rhode Island Grows chairman Tim Schartner and chief financial officer Frederick Laist did not respond to a request for comment.

The Rhode Island Grows project has drawn the support of Ken Ayars, chief of the DEM Division of Agriculture, as well as criticism from some Exeter residents concerned about the environmental and cultural impact of the massive growing operation that would use high-tech greenhouses to grow millions of tomatoes for distribution in six states throughout the Northeast.

Rhode Island Grows proposes to use a technology called controlled environment agriculture. The automated, hydroponic system can produce food on a large scale and has resulted in extensive agricultural production in the Netherlands, according to a video on the Rhode Island Grows website.

The company projects the operation could yield 650,000 pounds of tomatoes per acre, with an expansion to 350 acres in five years and eventually to 1,000 total acres, with five employees per acre.

The Exeter Town Council voted June 7 to return the Rhode Island Grows proposal for a zoning overlay district to the Planning Board for further consideration. The overlay would allow construction of the industrial-scale operation on the Schartner Farms property off South County Trail, where Rhode Island Grows prematurely broke ground June 1.

The five members of the council did not respond to a request for comment on the National Grid letter.

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  1. The two greatest concerns presented by this ordinance are inconsistency with the Exeter Comprehensive Plan that promotes the destruction of traditional farms and the disregard for Exeter’s jurisdiction and regulatory processes by both the applicant and state officials. This blatant abuse of local jurisdiction by state officials is not only an attack on Exeter’s Home Rule Charter, but sets a precedent to attack other cities and towns.

  2. Brian Hannon, I’m sorry, but Combined Heat and Power (CHP) systems are not solar systems. A CHP system traditionally uses engine driven generation to create electricity, with the resulting byproduct of heat being used for some other purpose. These systems are more efficient than standalone generators, and when fueled by renewable fuels (like, say, the biomass waste from a farm), they qualify for air quality and utility incentives. It looks to me like Schartner Farms is hedging their bets on the solar application. If that gets rejected, this CHP system will probably get bigger to provide the electricity they will need.

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