House Commission to Study Feasibility of Solar Arrays on Highway Medians
November 13, 2023
PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island could be sitting on hundreds of acres of unused land for new solar installations, and thousands of drivers whiz past these spots every day.
A new study commission is meeting this fall to investigate the idea of building ground-mounted solar arrays on the median strips found along interstate highways and Route 146. As part of its authority, the commission, chaired by Rep. Robert Phillips, D-Woonsocket, who also sponsored the bill creating the panel in 2022, will also study and provide recommendations for solar carports in state parking lots and in other public locations.
In some ways median strips are the perfect sites for solar. Many are already relatively flat and ready for building thanks to interstate construction, and barring trees or wetlands, there isn’t much else that’s allowed to be placed on median strips. It is illegal for the public to tread on them.
A preliminary list compiled by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation identified 15 potential sites for solar placement along interstates, totaling about 330 acres. Building solar on all identified sites could provide more than 100 megawatts of renewable energy, using the latest solar density estimates from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Joseph Brennan, an attorney from the General Assembly’s Legislative Council, told study commission members last week that state law already allowed solar to be built on highway medians.
While the land that highways such as interstates 95 and 295 sit on are owned by Rhode Island, state officials have to get approval from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) before embarking on any major projects on or changes to median strips. Brennan said state officials would have to rewrite the state’s utility accommodation policy (UAP) to provide guidelines for solar projects and have that guidance approval by the FHWA.
“I think the state has a path forward from the legal side,” Brennan said. “I think it’s just the implementation from here.”
It’s not all win-win though; the proposal has a couple of downsides. As with offshore wind and already-existing solar development, Rhode Island’s electrical infrastructure is in dire need of serious upgrades, with Rhode Island Energy reporting many of the feeder lines already at capacity with no additional room for more solar projects.
Shauna Beland, director of energy programs and policy at the Office of Energy Resources, told the study commission at its meeting last week that interconnections remain one of the top challenges facing solar projects, as there aren’t that many ideal interconnection spots that can host additional power connection in the distribution system without adding a brand new substation. Interconnecting a new project to the grid can take a long time, and it is expensive; a fact not made easier by higher interest rates when it comes to financing.
“If you polled 20 solar companies and asked them what their biggest challenge was deploying solar, not just in Rhode Island but regionally,” Beland said, “I would bet they would all answer interconnection.”
Median areas may also contain wetlands, meaning any solar development would have to adhere to the state’s new buffer rules for wetlands as co-managed by the Department of Environmental Management and Coastal Resources Management Council.
It’s a novel idea for solar siting in a state that is desperately short on space. Siting solar projects, often at the expense of open space and forestland, has proven controversial in many municipalities around the state. As a result, several, including Warwick, Cranston, and Portsmouth, have enacted stricter ordinances or moratoriums on solar development.
It’s not hard to see why: nearly 70% of all forest loss in Rhode Island has been attributed to solar development. The economics of solar development means it is cheaper to cut down forest than demolish a building or deal with a brownfield or a Superfund site. Rural towns, such as Hopkinton, have seen more than 200 acres clear-cut for solar panels.
A 2020 study estimated that Rhode Island could gain up to 4,680 megawatts of solar power by using all available rooftops, brownfields, landfills, gravel pits, and parking lots in the state for solar arrays. The study also noted that financing projects at these sites would have higher than equivalent costs for arrays built on conventional locations.
For parking lots and carports — identified as a potential for solar array in both study and the legislation enabling this year’s study commission — that dollar amount is even higher. State regulators quietly approved a request from Rhode Island Energy last year to eliminate financial incentives for solar canopies in parking lots.
Earlier this year state lawmakers, spurred by the dozens of local controversies surrounding solar development, rewrote the incentives eligible for such projects. Under the law passed last session, solar projects proposed in specifically defined core-forest areas — unfragmented sections of forest across one or more properties that total 250 acres or more and are at least 25 yards from any major road — cannot receive the financial incentives from the state’s Renewable Energy Growth (REG) program or the state’s net metering program.
The law also expanded the state’s virtual net metering program, opening it to commercial and industrial sites, and placing a firm cap of 275 megawatts, with a 20% reduction in the state incentive for all projects after that.
The study commission has until April 11 to submit a report to the House of Representatives.