Proposed Legislation Would Bolster Renewable Energy, Protect Core Forests
March 27, 2023
PROVIDENCE — It was a different kind of sunshine week in the Legislature when lawmakers on the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee last week considered a suite of bills to overhaul Rhode Island’s solar policy.
Solar development growth has exploded over the past decade, helped greatly by state programs such as net metering and the Renewable Energy Growth program, which developers credit for the expansion. But the expansion of solar has come at a real cost in Rhode Island; major installations are almost always sited on undeveloped land or involve clear-cutting trees for developments.
The reason? Developers say it’s cheaper to cut down a forest than knock down a build to install a solar array.
As a result, Rhode Island lost more than 1,000 acres of forest to ground-mounted solar development, nearly 10 times more than any other land use, between 2018 and 2021.
The issue puts renewable energy developers at odds with community residents and environmental groups, who otherwise support the transition to renewables but oppose green spaces getting selected for new solar installations. Municipalities close to the state’s urban core, such as Cranston and Johnston, where trees and green space are at a premium, have seen large public outcries over prominent solar developments that have resulted in ground-mounted solar array restrictions and moratoriums.
Now lawmakers say they’ve reached a compromise with environmental groups, labor, and solar developers that will bolster renewable energy development while protecting core forests.
The lodestar to this compromise is solar siting reform legislation (S0684). Introduced by Sen. Alana DiMario, D-North Kingstown, the bill would prohibit incentives from any renewable energy projects in areas designated as core forest areas. Core forests are defined as any unfragmented forest blocks across one or more properties totaling 250 acres or more. The forest blocks must be unbroken by existing development, and at least 25 yards from any major roads.
Under the definition laid out in the legislation, 42% of land in the state would fall under a core forest designation, according to the 2020 Forest Action Plan from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
Solar developers told lawmakers they’re on board for one reason: the measure includes provisions to expand the state’s virtual net metering program.
“It’s going to make our job harder to find sites that we can develop solar in, but we support it because in this bill we get to expand our virtual net metering program, a program that is quickly going away and is the lifeblood of our business,” said Nick Nybo, senior legal counsel for Revity Energy.
In the normal net metering program, residents or businesses can install solar panels on their rooftops and sell the electricity back to Rhode Island Energy for bill reductions. The virtual net metering program is similar, except developers can build solar installations offsite and sell the bill credits to specific entities.
The current virtual net metering program only includes nonprofits, public buildings, hospitals, and educational institutions. Nybo told lawmakers Revity has pretty much saturated that market. Revisions under the proposed legislation would allow all commercial and industrial properties to take part in the program, a significant expansion. (The bill also still allows municipalities to make their own regulations and restrictions regarding solar development.)
“A healthy energy supply is part of the public good, part of the public mandate,” said Sen. Meghan Kallman, D-Pawtucket, a member of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. “Doing that in a way that is sustainable and leaves a world for our children is also part of the public mandate.”
Lawmakers are also seeking to expand the caps on the regular net metering program through legislation (S0506). While the regular program allows homeowners and businesses to install solar panels on their roofs, how large the installation can be is dependent entirely on a three-year average of electricity consumption.
Simply put, if your electricity consumption goes down, or if the solar panels are too energy efficient at generating electricity, you might not be able to cover your entire roof.
Joe Walsh, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 99, told lawmakers his union was in the process of upgrading a solar array on its office rooftop that was originally installed in 2007.
“It was the biggest solar array in Rhode Island at the time,” Walsh said. “Now we can only use 75% of the real estate we had with the previous array because the new equipment is so efficient and it’s producing that much more electricity.”
But not everyone is pleased with the siting reform legislation. Scott MIllar, senior policy analyst at Grow Smart Rhode Island, told lawmakers the legislation will shift pressure from core forests to all other forests in the state, leading to additional forest loss.
“It’s counterproductive to have state renewable energy incentives that are encouraging the loss of Rhode Island forest,” he said.
Lawmakers are hoping to bolster renewables on existing developed sites as well. Legislation introduced by DiMario (S0504) would create the Renewable Ready Program to provide new funding to make renewable energy sites ready for development, whether a site needs brownfield remediation or upgrades to the point of interconnection with the power grid.
State legislators are also seeking to centralize utility infrastructure planning under a new state department. A bill (S0503) introduced by Sen. Dawn Euer, D-Newport, would create the Department of Energy Transformation Planning to oversee utility infrastructure planning within the state.
Currently that power lies entirely within Rhode Island Energy, a for-profit company with shareholders that has a monopoly on energy distribution in Rhode Island. A key way the company makes money is by making investments in utility infrastructure, but the profit incentive doesn’t always line up with the state’s energy needs.
Rhode Island Energy continues to promote and build natural gas infrastructure, despite the fact the fossil fuel inherently contradicts the state’s Act on Climate law.
Nick Ucci, director of government affairs for Rhode Island Energy and until recently the chief of the state’s Office of Energy Resources, told lawmakers the bill would remove ratepayer advocacy for the utility changes.
“The system may not be perfect,” Ucci said. “But it’s principled and it works.”
Attorney Seth Handy, a self-described renewable energy advocate, told lawmakers the utility system needs better proactive planning, away from financial incentives for a private company.
“The utility model we have is entirely broken and won’t get to the goals this assembly has set with the 100% Renewable Energy Standard and the Act on Climate,” Handy said.
All four bills were held for further study.