Solar Siting: Should the Law Define Where It’s Allowed, or Where It’s Not?


Three ground-mounted solar installations are clustered together on Route 6 in Foster near the Connecticut border. They all required the clear-cutting of forested land. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — Lawmakers and environmental groups remain split among themselves over a key question of solar-siting reform: Should the law define where developers can build ground-mounted solar projects, or should it define the areas where they are not allowed to build solar arrays?

It sounds pedantic and overly wonky, but the distinction encapsulates a long-running debate within Rhode Island communities where solar arrays are frequently placed on forestland or over green space, much to the consternation of those who would prefer them elsewhere.

Despite the broad popularity of renewable energy in Rhode Island, residents from Warwick to Hopkinton to Portsmouth have protested the loss of forest and open space to solar development and have asked local officials for more restrictions on where they can be built.

A statewide fix has been long in the making. This year marks the furthest the General Assembly has gotten toward finding a state solution for the issue, but the two bills under consideration show competing visions for renewable energy development in Rhode Island.

Almost everyone agrees on the problems solar development has brought to Rhode Island — 69% of all forest loss in the state is from solar development, and more than 1,000 acres of forestland has been cleared to make way for such projects. Rural towns, such as Hopkinton, have seen more than 200 acres clear-cut for solar arrays.

A coalition of lawmakers, environmental groups, solar developers, and labor unions made headlines earlier this year when they announced that, after six years of negotiation, they had settled on legislative language for a solar-siting reform bill.

The legislation (H5853 and S0684A), prohibits solar development incentives, such as the state’s Renewable Energy Growth (REG) program or the net metering program, on specifically defined core-forest areas — unfragmented sections of forest across one or more properties that total 250 acres or more and at least 25 yards from any major roads — and, crucially for solar development companies, expands the cap on incentives.

The legislation is backed by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, The Nature Conservancy, the Rhode Island Land Trust Council, Climate Action Rhode Island, Save The Bay, and the Green Energy Consumers Alliance.

Under the definition laid out in the legislation, about 42% of the state, almost entirely in rural areas, would fall under a core forest designation, and receive state protection from solar development. All other state lands, unless otherwise laid out in state law, would be eligible for state incentives for solar development.

The legislation also defines preferred sites — locations for renewable energy development such as landfills, gravel pits, quarries, brownfields, parking lots, and rooftops. It also lifts size restrictions for solar projects in the state net metering program and lifts the 5 megawatt project cap for projects on preferred sites in the REG program.

But not all the environmental groups agree. Scott Millar, a policy analyst with Grow Smart Rhode Island, said the bill offers little in the way of new protection for the state’s forests and will simply flip a switch on development pressure from rural areas to suburbs closer to the urban core.

“The towns that all have core forest have all adopted responsible solar siting ordinances that would preclude utility-scale solar from clearing forest, because most of that forest is in a residential zone,” Millar said. “If there’s forest in a commercial and industrial zone, you can be cleared, but there’s very little, if any, core forest in industrial and commercial zones.

“We really should not be providing any economic incentives for the loss of forest. I mean, that’s just inconsistent with the Act on Climate.”

Millar said Grow Smart was opposed to any expansion of the net metering program, calling it “just a bad deal for Rhode Islanders who pay these fees on their monthly electric bills.”

He’s not alone. Nick Ucci, director of government affairs for Rhode Island Energy and the former chief of the state’s Office of Energy Resources, testified before legislators in March that, even without the reforms proposed in H5853, the costs of net metering were exploding for Rhode Islanders.

“In the five-year period between 2017 and 2021, net metering costs grew exponentially — from $3.9 million to $47.8 million,” Ucci wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “When looking at public policy drivers overall, a ‘typical’ residential electric customer will pay approximately $15.74 per month in policy costs effective April 1st, accounting for 12% of their total bill.”

The state Public Utilities Commission also told lawmakers it was against the bill’s proposed expansion of net metering because of the cost associated with the program and concerns it would siphon state dollars away from the REG program, which it prefers.

“The design of REG provides more pricing transparency than community remote net metering,” Cynthia Wilson-Frias, chief of legal services for the PUC, wrote in testimony to lawmakers. “REG projects compete against ceiling prices that are developed through a stakeholder process to provide developers with a reliable revenue stream to recover their costs and earn a fair return on investment. In contrast, the compensation for remote net metering projects is not set based on project costs but is instead set based on electric rates.”

Millar said Grow Smart prefers legislation H5540 introduced by Rep. Megan Cotter, D-Exeter, which would limit state incentives to solar projects only built on disturbed sites, such as brownfields, landfills, and parking lots, and in commercial and industrial zones.

“That’s really the area that has the least amount of conflicts for siting solar,” Millar said. “If you try to site it in a residential zone, it’s going to be very controversial.”

Most people, Millar added, don’t relish the thought of living near a large-scale solar facility.

Cotter’s bill has slimmer support on Smith Hill, with many environmental groups preferring H5853. Cotter’s bill was also opposed by several solar development companies.

Cotter’s bill is also opposed by Rhode Island Energy and the PUC. Wilson-Frias told lawmakers the carve-outs for projects in the legislation would reduce competition and increase costs in their solar incentive programs, while Ucci wrote to lawmakers the legislation does nothing to address the escalating costs of net metering.

As of this writing, both bills remain in committee for further study.


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  1. Sustainable Energy Advantage, the state’s paid consultant who sets the REG prices, released their report determining current net metering costs, and lifting the limit on net metering system size limits would have little to no impact on electricity rates in the state.
    Nick Ucci gets paid a lot by RI Energy to protect their profits and has never mentioned the dozens of ways rooftop solar customers save RI Energy and ratepayers millions a year. Not surprising .

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