Developers: Putting Solar on ‘Disturbed’ Sites in R.I. is a Costly, Complicated Process
Obstacles include property ownership, financing, legal hurdles and connectivity
September 26, 2022
In the past few years, when solar developers covered farmlands or cut down swaths of forest to erect acres of solar panels, neighbors and nature lovers often objected strenuously, and sometimes moratoriums, zoning rules, and legislation were employed to block solar projects on green spaces.
Citing common sense, people point to previously developed places like old landfills, brownfields, played-out gravel pits, huge commercial rooftops and parking lots – abandoned or in use – and tell developers: put your solar panels over there, would you?
Developers reply: That is very expensive.
In recent interviews, about 10 Rhode Island renewable energy developers described the stratospheric costs and risks of building on sites described as “disturbed” or “compromised” or even “preferred,” the last term in the language of a failed bill before the General Assembly in 2022 that would have offered incentives to nudge solar developers out of forests and onto previously developed sites.
The costs and complications of placing solar arrays on such places are, indeed, staggering, often in the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on legal, permitting, and engineering, even before the first panel is set in place.
By comparison, spending about $15,000 per acre to clear a forest – or less, if the timber is sold – is small.
Nonetheless, developers have and are building on previously developed sites, although several said the number of these feasible sites are running out because of factors including location, land ownership, local zoning, and the costs of connection to the grid.
“Developers have snapped up the distributed generation sites pretty quickly,” said Seth Handy of Handy Law, a lawyer who represents many interests associated with the renewable energy economy, including major developers. “Many that can be developed have been. The problem is that Rhode Island is heavily forested and densely populated. We have land but a lot of it is forested.”
The obstacles that developers must overcome to build on previously developed places fall into a variety of categories. Some examples:
- Physical. On a capped landfill, the covering that prevents water from leaching into the old garbage may not be punctured or disturbed. Racks that hold solar panels cannot be drilled into the ground; they must sit on the surface, held down by weights, which entail more expense and lower sunlight exposure. Many other physical restrictions exist for rooftops and parking lots.
- Legal. If the old landfill contains poisons, the solar developer is among the chain of owners and responsible parties liable for harm caused by contamination.
- Financing. Investors, or financiers, that invest in solar projects for the benefit of gaining investment tax credits are likely to be wary of legal risks, like those of a contaminated site.
- Ownership. The owner of a large commercial or industrial building that is ideal for rooftop solar may be renting the building to tenants. Why should the building owner go through the risk and bother of installing solar if the benefit of reduced electricity costs would go to the tenant?
- Connectivity. Developers must bear the cost of connecting their distributed generation projects – scattered all over the state – to the grid, amounting, said one developer, to a half million dollars for a single mile of erecting new poles and wiring.
- Incentives. Some developers say Rhode Island and its major utility, Rhode Island Energy, are stingy with incentives – essential to helping a project pay for itself – that are offered elsewhere. This year, for instance, RI Energy ended a two-year experiment with an “adder” through the Renewable Energy Growth Program to support construction of carports. (In carports – also called canopies – solar panels are erected above parked cars in an active parking lot.)
- Disincentives. Some developers complain that their projects are being charged high fees by RI Energy for capital costs and maintenance of transmission lines, the big superhighways of power lines that move electricity throughout the region. In contrast, distribution lines are like local roads; those are the lines that solar and other renewable energy projects use to move electricity within Rhode Island.
Rhode Island has a fair share of successful solar projects on former landfills. Among the earliest is the Forbes Street project in East Providence, opened in 2015. A recent 3.43-megawatt solar project, opened in late 2021, was built on the old Cranston landfill by Nautilus Solar Energy and ISM Solar Development.
Building on landfills is difficult and costly, said several developers.
It is imperative to protect the landfill cap, so extra steps are taken. Plywood may be laid down for vehicles, and smaller trucks are used, requiring more truckloads and more labor. The racking system that holds the solar panels cannot be driven into the ground, so racks must sit on the surface and ballast blocks are used to hold them in place.
The tilt of the panels, or “pitch,” to maximize sun exposure is typically 25 to 26 degrees in New England because of its location on Earth. But to keep wind from lifting panels, the pitch on a landfill is usually much less – maybe 5 to 10 degrees – thereby reducing the panels’ efficiency. (A steeper pitch would require heavier ballast.) Cable to connect the panels to each other and to the grid must be packaged in “trays” on a landfill, and these cable systems are typically longer than in ground-mounted systems.
The permitting process is long and the potential liability for owners of the solar project are manifold.
Russ Maymon, vice present of the commercial division for Beacon Solar Construction in Massachusetts, said a landfill is permitted to be a landfill, so a new use requires a post closure permit from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), which involves a complex application that needs input from environmental engineers and lawyers, among others.
On contaminated sites, the developer must work with the DEM to devise a remediation plan, and receive certification from the DEM. At some brownfield sites, even non-hazardous solid waste might need to be dug up and trucked elsewhere for disposal.
The chance that the landfill contains hazardous substances amplifies risks for “potentially responsible parties” like the developer and owners, who are ultimately responsible for future problems from contamination, Maymon said.
The new solar farm on a landfill or brownfield could be subject to an environmental land use restriction, meaning that the land could never be used for anything but industry, thus limiting its future value, beyond the 25- to 30-year lifetime of the panels.
A 2020 report titled Solar Siting Opportunities in Rhode Island and commissioned by the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources, attempted to quantify the space available for solar projects in the Ocean State. The report said previously developed sites could host from 3,390 to 7,340 megawatts of renewable power, or about 13 to 30 times the amount installed in the state at the time of the report.
The report cautioned, “Though Rhode Island is host up to 4,680 MW of solar potential on rooftops, brownfields, landfills, gravel pits, and parking lots, the cost of developing these sites may be higher than equivalent installations on conventional ground-mounted sites due to additional permitting, construction, and site remediation costs … Though siting solar on these types of sites may address siting or environmental concerns, there are potential tradeoffs given potentials for additional costs and lower-than-average annual generation.”
Rooftops and parking lots
Large commercial or industrial rooftops and parking lots – especially when not in use – look to the layman like an ideal place for solar panels. Not so fast, say the people who create these projects. First, solar panels last for about 25 years, while a typical roof needs replacement after 30 years. It wouldn’t make sense to put panels on an aging roof.
Solar carports or canopies above parking lots use two to three times the amount of steel than a ground mount system, and steel has risen in cost by up to 300% at times in the past few years, several developers said. Developers also might need to consider the drainage systems or wiring that might exist underneath the parking lot.
At an active commercial building, the building owner might not be the same as the tenant. Building owners might ask why they should undertake the expense and bother of installing the panels when the tenant would be the benefit of cheaper electricity. Under net metering rules, the solar electricity would be sold to RI Energy, which would give the occupant of the building credits for electricity it uses. The occupant or owner may sell up to 25% of what it generates back to the utility.
In Rhode Island, Ocean State Job Lot is putting solar panels on its stores. Two of its 10 stores – in Johnston and Woonsocket – now have rooftop solar panels amounting to 250 kilowatts of capacity each, and another project is underway on a store in Hope Valley. Harry Oakley, Job Lot’s director of energy sustainability, said the company made an early effort at rooftop solar but was disappointed by the return on investment and the initial shortsighted planning. Ultimately, Job Lot looked at its whole portfolio of property, and partnered with Ecogy Energy, which specializes in rooftop and parking lot solar projects. Ecogy Energy also is a tenant of the project, renting the rooftops for 20 to 30 years.
Brock Gibian, director of development for Ecogy Energy, said that by any measure, rooftop and parking carports are five to 20 times more difficult and expensive than any ground-mounted solar on a greenfield. A 250-kilowatt system, Gibian said, requires an acre of land and the same wattage requires 50,000 square feet of rooftop. A year’s lease for a ground mounted system – say, on land leased from a farmer – might be $2,000 to $5,000, while the same year’s lease on a rooftop, he said, could run $15,000 to $25,000.
Renting or buying farmland would require a simple agreement with a farmer, but building on top of a commercial building involves dealing with tenants, legal counsel, engineering, high insurance costs, the work of master electricians, along with worries about drainage, leaks, warranties, and the building’s heating and cooling system. “You can be up to $100,000 in the hole just to learn if you can do the project,” said Oakley.
The property owner may be worried about liability or put off by the appearance of the panels, and how they affect the aesthetics of the property.
Rhode Island, Gibian said, recently adopted a new set of international building codes, which include a new setback of 10 feet, compared to the previous 3 feet. This shrinks the roof space for solar panels by 20% compared to three years ago.
Gibian, whose company also works in Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, said Ecogy Energy is likely to abandon Rhode Island because the state does not offer financial incentives that are essential for the success of rooftop and carport projects. Also, he said requirements made by RI Energy are excessive.
“Rhode Island is the only New England state that does not incentivize rooftops and canopies,” said Gibian. In contrast, he said, Massachusetts’s SMART program offers an adder of 2 cents per kilowatt hour for rooftop solar, which works out to an increase of 10% to 20% of revenues over 20 years, and an adder of 6 cents per kilowatt hours for carports, which is equivalent to a 30% to 40% increase in revenue over 20 years.
New York, Gibian said, has adders for carports, building in low-income communities, and building on rooftops.
“The Rhode Island utility is against any incentive for a canopy adder,” Gibian said. “Rhode Island is behind the curve. We have 26 projects in Rhode Island, but we are leaving Rhode Island. We are moving to other markets that value us.”
Accord Power Inc. is building a parking canopy in Providence now, with help from the carport adder during its short existence. Robert Tavers, a partner in Accord, said the adder made the project viable but the size of the project was cut in half because of the cost of connecting to the grid infrastructure. “People don’t build carports because it doesn’t make [economic] sense,” Tavers said.
In March 2022, National Grid (which later became RI Energy) announced that was ending a two-year experiment offering a 5-cent-per-kilowatt hour adder for carport projects to the existing incentive under the Renewable Energy Growth program, saying that the cost of the adder exceeded the benefits.
The decision was decried by the Northeast Clean Energy Council and environmental organizations, which had hoped the adder would encourage developers to turn their sights on previously developed land and away from forests, at a time when the clearing of forests for solar farms was raising a lot of ire.
Jeremy McDiarmid, vice president for policy and government affairs for the clean energy council, said the council spoke up, unsuccessfully, for the continuation of the adder. “We said [the 5-cent adder] was not as cost effective as greenfield development, but it still met the cost effectiveness threshold. We argued for it, but National Grid did not enthusiastically embrace it.”
The push to 100%
In 2022, the General Assembly passed a bill requiring that all electricity used in Rhode Island must come from renewable sources by 2033. But some developers expressed frustration that their work is being blocked right and left, both by state government and RI Energy.
“With such aggressive goals, we should be moving at light speed,” said Handy, the lawyer who represents green energy developers.
Hannah Morini, director of business development for Green Development LLC, a major firm doing this work in Rhode Island, said state regulators throw up time-consuming hurdles. She referred to a Green Development project now in the works on a former landfill in Warren, saying that her company sought the contract five years ago, and it is still not yet underway because of state red tape.
“This should not be as complicated as it is,” Morini said. “We are seeing unnecessarily long timelines for all projects. We are five years into this project and the DEM is still asking unnecessary questions.”
She said if creating renewable energy is a state priority, officials need to look at the application process and standardize it.
“Timelines [for work] are slowing so drastically [renewable] companies are leaving the state in droves,” Morini said, echoing statements from other developers, particularly in the arena of solar carports.
Michael J. Healey, chief public affairs officer for the DEM, defended the agency’s process to ensure safe and high-quality projects. “This is a large, complex project,” Healey said. “As the state regulator, DEM must consider and evaluate health, safety, and environmental concerns along with groundwater exceedances. Certain actions must occur — actions that are standard as part of landfill closures — before the project will be approved. Although DEM has provided multiple iterations of specific suggestions and regulatory comments needed for approval, the developer has not yet satisfactorily addressed these technical issues. We have been clear and transparent in our requirements and expectations.”
Healey also said the DEM “has long supported using disturbed sites such as old landfills for renewable energy projects, including solar on landfills. Projects that we have approved include the former Forbes Street landfill in East Providence (2014, 2018), the former Cece Macera/A Street landfill in Johnston (2017), and the former North Providence landfill (2017).”
Morini also raised a topic that has been a bone in the throat of developers and RI Energy and its predecessor for at least five years: the cost that developers must bear to hook into electricity transmission lines.
When developers build renewable energy projects, they must pay the cost of interconnection to the utility’s infrastructure. Often, erecting poles and stringing wire to connect to the grid is one of the most expensive pieces of any project. Sometimes they may be building or erecting thousands or tens of thousands of feet of poles and cables to reach existing infrastructure at the cost of millions of dollars. And some municipalities may require running wires underground.
The grid was built to carry power from a central source, not for a growing crosshatch of local generators moving electrons every which way. RI Energy and other experts are concerned that infrastructure may become overloaded in places, and they are trying to plan for future scenarios.
During the permitting process, local distributed generation projects are being studied by RI Energy at the level of their impact on the transmission lines, which makes no sense, said Morini and other developers, because local projects use the distribution lines. At the same time, movement of electricity through local distribution lines should reduce the need to move electricity over long distances, and to ease the burden on the entire system – for both demand and transmission load.
The slowing down of the permitting process because of interconnection and transmission studies is lengthening the permitting process for any project for up to three to four years, Morini said, in contrast to her company’s first project, in Richmond, in 2016-17, which took 13 months to be completed, from permitting to finish.
Further, in the last few years, renewable development projects are being charged hundreds of thousands of dollars for the cost of interconnection, along with the cost of operating and maintain transmission systems.
“Local projects are using the distribution system, but the utility is charging local projects for the cost of updating and maintaining the interstate highway [of electricity],” said Handy, who represents Green Development. Developers believe they are paying for a problem that they are not only not aggravating but are working to reduce.
In response to queries, Ted Kresse, spokesman for RI Energy, defended the importance of transmission studies. He called the ongoing studies of projects entering the grid, known as “affected system operator” (ASO) or “area studies,” essential to monitor the condition of the power system.
Brian Schuster, head of external affairs for RI Energy, said, “As more and more projects are proposed, impacting both the distribution system and transmission system, identifying the impacts of what either system can handle because of increased load and over saturation becomes even more critical … Unfortunately, some developers of large-scale distributed generation projects struggle with the complexity and time it takes to complete thorough impact studies. We understand their frustration and will continually work to improve the efficiency of those studies but will always keep safety and reliability paramount.”
He continued, “If either the distribution system or transmission system needs to be enhanced for these projects, we believe we need to understand the full impact of the projects on the system, as well as ensure the costs incurred by projects are carried by the developers who will receive the greatest financial benefit from the project versus passing those costs onto to rate payers.”
Both the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission and the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities are at least three years deep into reviewing and analyzing the costs and delays of transmission studies.
Looking to the future, developers say the federal Inflation Reduction Act has enormous potential to help ease the costs of commercial solar and wind projects, making them more economically feasible. A major factor is the resuscitation of the federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC). (A wide range of tax credits and rebates also are available for homeowners in the IRA.)
“There will be no greater driver [for commercial solar] than the ITC,” said Maymon, of Beacon Solar.
The ITC, which stood for years at 30%, encouraged investment in large solar projects by big operations like U.S. Bank and Goldman Sachs, said Maymon. The percentage of the credit was beginning to sunset, at 26% in 2022, 22% in 2023, and 10% in 2024 and thereafter. The IRA will kick the level back to 30% for projects under 1 megawatt. (Starting in 2025, commercial systems will have to reach a reduction of 75% below 2022 emissions to continue getting the tax credit.)
Commercial projects of over 1 megawatt will be able to claim the full 30% credit only if they meet yet-undefined metrics pertaining to wage and apprenticeship requirements to support projects using union labor.
The IRA includes direct pay for nonprofits, which, before the IRA, normally needed to partner with a company with tax liability to claim the credit and make the project affordable.
Under the IRA, for the first time, commercial solar systems can claim the production tax credit (PTC), previously available only for wind power projects. Under the PTC, owners of solar arrays will be compensated based on production at a rate of $1 per kilowatt hour. Starting next year, tax credits for the PTC may be transferred, which opens more options for financing since it would no longer be limited to companies with enough tax liability to use the credit.
Christopher Kearns, interim energy commissioner at the state Office of Energy Resources, said, “Certainly, the IRA will accelerate renewable development.” Handy said, “From the bottom of my heart, the clean energy industry does not deserve or need any more adversity, especially as we prepare to meet our climate mandates. What we need now is real leadership on a proactive plan to achieve the mandates as efficiently and effectively as possible.”