Leveling Forests for Solar: Advocates for Green Energy Square Off Over Trees vs. Panels
June 22, 2022
Stepping into any of Rhode Island’s forests, most people perceive similar things: a lush, green canopy overhead; dappled sunlight casting shadows on the forest floor; birds and small animals rustling in the underbrush.
Step out of the forest and look back, and viewpoints change. Developers see trees than can be cut down to make way for acres of solar panels, providing carbon-free electricity. Environmentalists see a natural landscape that sequesters huge amounts of carbon and, further, provides an engine to clean existing carbon from the air.
Landowners and farmers may see a chance to sell property for a good return. Neighbors may see a threat — in solar installations — to their tranquility and views. Governments and regulators see a mix of conflicting public values and private demands that they must shepherd through land-use rules that are sometimes not up to the task.
This scrum of competing interests has been building over the past five years or so as developers of large solar projects respond to a market in Rhode Island for carbon-free energy.
This year’s session of the General Assembly brings various bills to manage the push-pull of competing demands for renewable energy. Some apparent adversaries, like solar developers in forests and conservationists, are aiming at similar goals: to eliminate carbon from the atmosphere.
House bill 7531, sponsored by Rep. June Speakman, D-Warren, attempts to use financial incentives through the state’s existing Renewable Energy Growth (REG) Program to encourage solar developers to step away from Rhode Island’s forests and build solar arrays on already-developed land. The bill has been heard by the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee. It is now in the hands of the House Corporations Committee.
“It is in the interest of the entire state to preserve forests,” Speakman said.
She noted the original bill designated “conservation opportunity areas” that would discourage new ground-mounted solar installations by eliminating incentives for developers in those spaces. But it became apparent that the definition was “too broad,” Speakman said, and the bill was amended to narrow the protected areas only to “core forests,” defined as contiguous forested land on more than 250 acres.
Conversely, the bill would offer financial incentives to developers who build solar arrays on land described as “previously disturbed” or “preferred” sites. These could include closed and capped landfills, gravel pits, large commercial rooftops, and carports — that is, panels situated above parking lots.
Forests are essential, said Scott Millar, senior policy analyst for Grow Smart Rhode Island, because they perform a second and less-noticed role in reducing greenhouse gas and carbon pollution. The first way of reducing pollution is creating generators of renewable energy, such as wind turbines, solar facilities, and hydropower.
The second role is something forests do well: absorb massive amounts of carbon emitted into the atmosphere.
Millar said the New England Forest Foundation has done a study that says the region’s forest could achieve a 30% reduction in carbon in the atmosphere provided there is no net loss of forests, improvement of forest management, and new construction with wood in place of carbon-intensive steel and concrete.
Sixty-nine percent of all forest loss in Rhode Island is from solar development, according to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), Millar said. From 2018 to July 2021, Rhode Island lost 1,041 acres to ground-mounted solar development, almost 10 times more than any other land use.
“The devastation to natural resources from some of these developments is off the charts,” Millar said. “You cannot clear 300 acres of land without creating major impacts.”
‘Very, very shady’
About five years ago, Douglas Doe, a resident of a leafy, rural/suburban section of western Cranston, dove into battle and lost against a solar developer, Southern Sky Renewable Energy, which ultimately built a 62-acre solar facility on a former dairy farm off Lippitt Avenue, where Doe lives. Before the project, the land was covered in dense woods of tall, old trees, with underground ledge. The 18-month project required blasting over an area of 40 acres, on-site rock crushing, and removal of 40,000 cubic yards of rock.
Doe said Southern Sky, later renamed Revity Energy, continuously deceived local officials about the extent of its plans. He said Southern Sky promised to stockpile topsoil and plant grass between the panels. But, in fact, it covered the land in crushed rock and mulch, and it is now covered in weeds. Revity, Doe said, set the mile-and-a-half-long chain-link fence around the project directly on the ground, in violation of an agreement to raise it up to 2-5 inches to allow movement of small animals.
When he objected to the city, the original wording of the agreement was changed, he said. Revity, Doe said, clear-cut the woods right up to the property line, and tried to cut down an additional 90 trees to allow easements for power poles on Laten Knight Road. That move got blocked when the land for the easements was determined to be conservation lands; the power transmission had to go underground.
Although the Lippitt Avenue project probably would not have been blocked under Speakman’s bill, if it passes, Doe has insights from the experience that apply elsewhere. He believes municipalities were completely unprepared for the arguments of solar developers, especially after former Gov. Gina Raimondo, in a 2020 declaration, formally committed Rhode Island to be powered by 100% renewable electricity by 2030.
“They did nothing to prepare towns for the onslaught,” Doe said. “It was all very, very shady, and the planning commission was ignorant of what was going on.”
He said developers sweep into municipal meetings with money for landowners, promises of various enhancements and perquisites, and a warning that the same land could also be used for family housing, bringing in children and the need for more schools. (“As if children were the problem,” Doe said, with disbelief.)
Doe said the saddest moment he remembers was a quiet Sunday, after the chain-link fence had been erected, when he was taking a walk in the nearby woods. He heard a repeated clanging sound and couldn’t imagine where it was coming from. He investigated, and saw the sound was caused by a deer slamming its body over and over into the fence to get inside.
‘Status quo is not working’
The REG Program encourages creation of renewable energy by offering 15- or 20-year, fixed-price contracts in which Rhode Island Energy — National Grid recently sold its Rhode Island operation to Pennsylvania-based PPL Corp. — buys excess energy generated by homeowners, businesses, and developers who build renewable energy projects. Large-scale projects compete for contracts, so the resulting compensation depends on the bids. Electricity customers reimburse the utility company through a charge on their monthly bills.
The REG Program inadvertently has helped promote some of that destruction by offering incentives for solar projects, said Priscilla De La Cruz, senior director of government affairs for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. She wrote to the House Corporations Committee: “The status quo is not working: the state’s renewable energy incentives are at odds with our Act on Climate [which sets of a goal to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050].”
De La Cruz continued, “Programs to incentivize renewable energy development were designed to benefit the lowest price options. This has unintentionally led to clear-cutting large tracts of forest land as developers focus on inexpensive and privately owned open space.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, it is cheaper for developers to clear forests and build on that land than it is to build on former landfills or gravel pits or parking lots. Building on those “disturbed” sites brings up expensive problems. They include the technology necessary to avoid puncturing caps on landfills, construction of elevated panels above parking lots, and other expensive conditions.
In Speakman’s bill, REG incentives for developers would be eliminated for core forest areas and enhanced for preferred sites. The existing cap of 5 megawatts for a project would be lifted in preferred sites. Factors such as location, conservation, climate, and labor standards would be considered when developing pricing and incentive and disincentive payments. Projects that are now in the pipeline would have a safe harbor.
Opposition to the Speakman bill — especially the original version, which protected a lot more land then the later definition of core forests — came, unsurprisingly, from solar developers. Further, some regulating bodies, such as the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC), said the bill might not achieve its aims.
A statement from Cynthia Wilson-Frias, chief of legal services for the PUC, gave a thumbs-down on the bill. “The PUC does not believe the bill’s mechanism’s effectively result in greater benefits relative to the incremental costs,” she wrote to the House Corporations Committee. “It is unclear that the incremental cost would result in additional land preservation,” and therefore the cost would be “squandered.”
Nicholas Nybo, legal counsel for Revity Energy, a solar developer, said, “I understand the general intent, and the concern that solar is responsible for an outsized extent of the [forest] clearing over the past five years.”
But he noted that few businesses function under the shadow of a legislative mandate, in Revity’s case, the 2021 Act of Climate law that requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. “Government’s finger is already on the scale.”
Nybo said the bill’s restrictions would simply take too much land out of commission for the industry to keep growing as it should. “Disturbed areas [landfills, brownfields] are harder to develop,” he said. “Rhode Island is a small state and there are only a certain number of contiguous plots of land that are zoned to allow solar. There are already many bottlenecks in the business. Further restrictions will impede the industry.”
Like other opponents, Nybo objected that solar — but not housing, commerce, and other uses — is being singled out for limitations.
Nybo quoted figures from the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) to indicate the value of solar projects in the state. SEIA says 555.4 megawatts of solar capacity have been installed in Rhode Island and the prices of solar energy generation have decreased by 36% over the past five years. Another 443.56 megawatts of solar capacity is planned for installation over the next five years.
The Speakman bill, Nybo wrote to the legislature, “would significantly hinder the continued expansion of solar development in Rhode Island.”
‘Controversial projects get the attention’
Christopher Kearns, legislative liaison in the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources (OER), said OER is open to considering incentives but he cautioned that other incentives for developers outside the REG Program already are in play, and solar developments are, in fact, being done on sites like landfills and brownfields.
“We don’t want to over-incentivize if it is not warranted,” Kearns said. “We are already doing a lot of solar on brownfields.” He listed, for example, solar projects on the Forbes Street landfill in East Providence; a site near TF Green airport; a project by the town of South Kingstown and the University of Rhode Island on a gravel pit near the Exit 5 truck stop in West Greenwich; a project at Quonset Point; a project on parking lots near the Ryan Center at URI; and a project on the old gravel pit near White Rock soccer park in Westerly.
“There is a lot of activity out there; it’s the controversial projects that get all the attention,” Kearns said.
He said if forests are threatened by development, it is coming from various sources of development, including solar, housing, and commercial. “If towns want to preserve forests and other natural spaces, there are remedies to do so,” such as conservation easements.
Kearns noted that “we are all paying for these incentives in our utility bills.”
Electricity customers pay the freight for incentives in the REG and other programs.
According to Ted Kresse, spokesperson for Rhode Island Energy, for the program year ending March 31, 2023, the utility is expecting nearly about $30 million in net costs to be collected from ratepayers, a figure that includes $27.6 million in payments to REG participants. The 40-year grand total for the program is $1.6 billion, more than $1.5 billion of which is for payments to participants.
Residential customers now pay $29.52 a year to support the REG program. Other rate classes pay different charges. Together, all ratepayers were set to pay $23 million from October 1, 2021, to September 30, 2022, Kresse said.
One opponent of the Speakman bill, Joseph Walsh, representing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 99, pleaded that, before limiting development by statute, the state should create a plan of action that begins with an accurate environmental impact map. Over this map would be added layers of information and mapping of brownfields, landfills, existing infrastructure, forest, and more.
“Then, evaluate what property is available for sale with guaranteed municipal approval on each,” Walsh wrote. “Until any of this is done, I cannot fathom how we can deny a developer to put solar on a site they own and provide them no viable resources.”
There is no absence of studies on the topic. In August 2020, Synapse Energy Economics delivered to OER an 83-page report, Solar Siting Opportunities for Rhode Island, that estimated the likely solar development potential in Rhode Island in several categories: rooftop (residential and other), ground-mounted, parking lots, and carports.
The study’s findings included this information: “… technical potential for solar is between 3,390 megawatts (MW) and 7,340 MW, or 13 to 30 times the amount of solar that is currently installed in Rhode Island. This translates into 5,560 gigawatt-hours (GWh) to 12,600 GWh of electricity able to be produced. …. If this entire technical potential were installed, we estimate that up to 7.65 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (MMTCO2) could be displaced, equal to about 70 percent of Rhode Island’s total, current greenhouse gas emissions.”
By comparison, the Rhode Island Energy spokesperson recently said, “In the past few years, we’ve connected over 100 MWs per year of renewable energy projects, and there is now more than 500MW of solar connected state-wide, with another 800MW of solar in queue.”
Other states step up
With the onslaught of solar projects in the past five or so years, other states have stepped up their planning, to greater or lesser degrees.
In Massachusetts, the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program joined with a state wildlife agency to create a biomap of the state that designates core habitats, including large blocks of forest, critical natural landscapes, and habitats for endangered species, said Heidi Ricci, director of policy and advocacy for Mass Audubon.
Solar developers do not qualify for financial incentives in those areas, Ricci said, with the exception of what she called two important loopholes: dual solar/agricultural projects on farmlands and partnerships with a public entity, such as a town. As in Rhode Island, incentives for developers are paid for by electricity customers.
“It is important to have a statewide guide,” Ricci said, adding that it’s too early to know if limitations through the biomap will be effective.
Ricci said the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources is now doing a technical potential of solar study to create a ranking of more-preferred and less-preferred sites for large solar project.
A state zoning act strictly limits what Massachusetts municipalities may do when regulating solar, and towns cannot regular these projects unreasonably, Ricci said. There are cases in which state zoning laws are not as restrictive as towns would like them to be.
Vermont has had a history with solar that somewhat parallels its neighbors’. Jim Sullivan, executive director of the Bennington County Regional Commission, said the approval process for utilities was set up long ago for big operations, like a coal-fired power plant or a nuclear plant. Then, in recent years, the state’s Public Utilities Commission, the single body that issues permits for these projects anywhere in the state, was besieged with applications for hundreds of small solar operations, leading, Sullivan said, to lots of concern, confusion, and chaos.
The state pulled together all the planning commissions from every region and together they created a map, with topographical analysis, that, ultimately, identifies places where solar projects may and may not be built, or may be built with extra care.
“We don’t want to demonize solar,” Sullivan said. “It’s a good thing … on preferred sites.” Developers are paid more for their solar power when it is produced on a preferred site in Vermont.
Observers often say Rhode Island towns and cities might have been caught unaware by the sudden rise in developers planning ground-mounted solar installations, with no reference to these creations in their comprehensive plans and local land-use and zoning rules. Smaller towns, also, might not have the staffing and expertise to pull solar rules out of a hat on the fly.
But the state OER has been offering help for years to localities besieged by solar developers.
Among this help is the 2019 Solar Siting Information document, filled with information and case studies. The solar pages on the OER website are packed with information, including the Solar Siting Guidelines for Municipalities. An Inventory of Solar Ordinances in Rhode Island shows where each municipality stands in creating solar project ordinances.
Kearns, of OER, said the office has been working since 2018 to spread information among municipal governments about solar programs and rules.
“We went to eight to 10 municipalities, in every part of the state, did presentations, provided information, talked about things to think about when adopting or amending ordinances for solar,” Kearns said. “We warned people against one-size-fits-all” when creating new ordinances.
Still, towns struggle with these decisions, caught, as they are, between developers, conservationists, landowners, and neighbors.
Noting that different municipalities are charging into challenges from developers with different sets of experience and tools, Speakman said, “Individual municipalities are doing their own thing. Some are passing moratoriums (on solar developments) and other communities are saying go ahead and build anywhere.
“Could we please get our act together here?” Speakman asked rhetorically. “This is a crisis and we’ve known it for years.”
Correction June 22, 2022: An earlier version of this story misstated the percentage of forestland lost to ground-mounted solar panels in the past five years.
Correction June 23, 2022: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated comments made by Douglas Doe concerning the Southern Sky Renewable Energy/Revity Energy ground-mounted solar project in Cranston.