Study Commission Ready to OK Installing Solar Panels on Medians


A preliminary list compiled by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation identified 15 potential sites for solar along interstates. (istock)

PROVIDENCE — Should Rhode Island install solar panels along highway medians and other places? A state panel studying the issue says yes.

The commission, chaired by Rep. Robert Phillips, D-Woonsocket, has been studying the feasibility of installing solar panels in the medians of highways like I-95 and I-295 since September.

“We want to make sure we take advantage of any and all areas that can produce solar energy for the state,” Phillips said.

Under the possible recommendations discussed by the commission Feb. 12, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation would modify its utility accommodation policy (UAP) to include procedures and regulations for the state to follow when accepting future solar projects on lands adjacent to its interstate highways, which in turn would have to be approved by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

Once the modifications are approved by the federal government, the state is given the all clear to accept bids from contractors on solar projects, like any other procurement process from state officials.

A preliminary list compiled by RIDOT officials last fall identified 15 potential sites for solar placement along interstates, totaling about 330 acres. Building solar on every available acre could provide more than 100 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy, using the latest solar density estimates from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“It’s a slam dunk,” Robert Rocchio, a chief engineer at RIDOT, told commission members last month. “It’s a way of extracting value from land that otherwise has no utility.”

That’s good news. But what’s the downside?

Commission members expressed concerns about a possible procurement process from the state, and perhaps more crucially, interconnecting the projects within the greater electric grid. Renewable energy projects in the New England region are regularly bottlenecked because the infrastructure of the electrical grid, administered by dozens of different utility companies nationwide, does not have the capacity to handle additional power generations.

A study released last year by the Clean Energy Group, a Vermont-based nonprofit dedicated to studying renewable energy issues, showed an alarming number of renewable energy projects stalling in Massachusetts because of repeated delays, and surprising costs when it came to connecting electrical projects to the grid.

As a result, completion rates for projects are low and wait times are on the rise. A study released last April by the Berkeley Lab showed that only 20% of new projects requesting interconnections between 2010 and 2017 reached operational status by the end of 2022. The completion rate for solar projects is even lower, at 14%.

The reason for the wait? Renewable energy projects, which make up about 93% of all interconnection requests nationwide, are a victim of their own success; business is booming and overwhelming the queue to update aging electrical infrastructure. In December, Rhode Island Energy, the dominant utility company in Rhode Island, told the commission the large influx of distributed generators had pushed some substations and feeder lines to their limits.

It’s the second environmental study commission closing in on the finish line early this legislative session. Earlier this month, the commission studying wildfire prevention and forest management, chaired by Rep. Megan Cotter, D-Exeter, discussed its recommendations for a draft report to the General Assembly.

Cotter, mindful of the short runway that study commissions have between concluding their business and introducing legislation, told ecoRI News last year she wanted her commission to finish in time to introduce legislation. Since the start of the term last month, Cotter has introduced two bills, one to allocate money for new positions in the Department of Environmental Management’s forestry division, and another to add $16 million to the green bond for open space, farmland preservation, and forestland management.

The other two study commissions — one to study the decline in quahog landings in Narragansett Bay and another to study the effectiveness of a bottle bill — are expected to continue to meet further into the legislative session.

The House commission on solar panels is expected to meet one more time. The study commission expires in June.


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  1. The collision between preserving biological diversity on the one hand, and de-carbonizing our energy supply on the other, taking place off shore, at the moment, will soon appear child’s play compared to what’s in store very soon on shore, prefaced by the study commission’s remark above that our electric grid, unless drastically re-engineered and expanded, “does not have the capacity to handle additional power generations.”

    Take the dormant power line right of way, acquired by eminent domain by Narragansett Electric in the late ’80’s. It runs from Warwick west toward Connecticut and then curves north through Foster, Glocester and Burrillville to the 744 acres Enbridge Energy owns at the former site of the wildly controversial Clear River Energy Center’s gas-fired power plant where it intersects with a major regional power line that has been in service since the 1960’s and was expanded just eight years ago. Has Narragansett’s title to that un-built upon right of way lapsed since then? Perhaps. (The research is no easy matter.) But regardless, major new power lines to distribute our growing wind and solar generation are going to be needed, and we can expect that in Rhode Island.

    As to Enbridge’s Burrillville holdings, and the adjacent 200-some acres Narragansett owns outright next to that major existing power line, regional grid-decarbonization infrastructure projects are certain to be proposed. If the former power plant site could accommodate a pair of 500MW gas turbines, might it not be the perfect site for the very keystone of our all-electric future, long term battery storage? The trump card that wins the game against the sun doesn’t always shine nor the wind always blow carpers?

    This is not pie-in-the-sky, but a rapidly developing technology already out of the laboratory and into the field demonstration stage. And no, not a lithium or precious metals technology at all, but one using iron, water, salt, and air.

    The Energy Facility Siting Board, while vetting the Clear River Energy Center, ordered the company to conduct a biological inventory of the site which incidentally shares a property line with the George Washington Wildlife Management Area. And fifteen “State-listed” species was the yield of the pitifully short study. Under oath, a Deputy Director of DEM affirmed that the site was biologically one of the richest ever identified in the state. A Connecticut environmental consultant testified that in his entire career, he had never come across such an extraordinary number of threatened species in one relatively small place.

    But there will be no EFSB hearing if this site is proposed for a battery farm. In a decision made not long after the Clear River Energy Center case, the EFSB decided that vetting energy storage facilities was beyond their purview precisely because they did not generate electricity but merely stored it.

    Again, this kerfuffle offshore, I’m afraid, is soon going to be remembered as child’s play.

  2. This seems like a horrible idea. Animal and bird corridors and crossings, breakdown and crash zones, reflected light in driver’s eyes, taking down even more trees ….. instinctively it just seems bad. Have they considered high solar roofs over sections of highway and industrial parking areas?

  3. Using median strips for solar is an idea who’s tome has come. I suggested it 40 years ago. I also think small turbines along the roads would be good. have you ever stood by the interstate and felt the wind from all the passing trucks. sd,all turbinesd running on wind along the highway would generate a lot of power.

  4. Solar panels located along highways:
    While I was traveling on a bright sunny day on 95 south from Mass to RI. I noticed solar panels were lined up along a section of the Mass highway. Depending on the time of day, the angle of the sun was hitting & reflecting off the panels. I was immediately blinded by the suns glare bouncing off the panels into my eyes which caused difficulty navigating onwards.
    RIDOT should seriously study this glare problem going forth in the decision on placing solar panels so close to the border and along a highway for safety reasons.

  5. While many of us see highway medians as “empty spaces” and readily available for solar power panels, I seem to recall fiber optic cables that were run under the median strips along I-295 (the northern parts) about 20 years ago. I assume and trust all of the study on “empty median spaces” includes careful consideration of the infrastructure below, and if it is an issue or obstruction, or not.

  6. “We want to make sure we take advantage of any and all areas that can produce solar energy for the state.”
    Rep. Robert Phillips I agree that this should be the goal however, I couldn’t disagree with you more with the proposed location of solar panels in highway medians. Why isn’t the State looking to provide incentives or new requirements for all re-development and new development of buildings? Why aren’t parking lots being considered to contain solar carports? As such, business’ and developers should be given tax credits for including these as part of their business plan/construction. Between being a contributor to the added loss of biodiversity and the toxins that most solar panels contain that would be released into the air, soils and waterways as a result of the panels getting damaged from car accidents should be enough to not even consider this option. I also agree with Ms. Schnabel regarding concern for sun glare. It would also appear that maintaining these and disrupting stormwater flow would create another level of challenges that haven’t been vetted well by the ‘study’.
    Please consider not placing these in locations that wildlife is already struggling to find safe refuge while trying to cross the highway and to keep these areas truly “green”.

  7. Good use of otherwise ‘useless land’ BUT do not place them in areas that would limit visibility, scenic locations,, or would require the cutting of trees – (i.e. don’t destroy the trees just to generate solar energy).
    A limiting factor is the shortage of nearby electrical connection infrastructure.

  8. I agree w/a lot of the concerned commenters, Jenn, Robin, Kathy, Bill (though I don’t fully grasp the entirety of his view), and find it interesting that the same ecori newsletter email that had a link to this article, also had a roadkill article… It would be nice if they put animal crossings over the highways before or along with any other development. I implore any one with concerns about solar development siting to reach out to their representatives to voice their concerns!

  9. Let’s go back to maxed out substations using our existing ground mount infrastructures in RI and MA with batteries and commercial solar trackers. This will double the very low existing capacity factor of solar in RI and MA from 20% to 40%. Our substations are maxed out for two hours on a bright sunny day. This is insane tying up billions of dollars of our distribution network for two hours a day and only on sunny days.
    We just need to keep the batteries in the connectivity program and at the same time have a daily discharge. This is the most practical and economic thing to do at this point in time. Power would be discharged on the grid from batteries in the summer afternoon and early winter morning. Call me at 401-255-1683 for further explanation.

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