Land Use

West Greenwich Utility-Scale Solar Project Worries Environmentalists

In middle of 2,500-acre core forest near Queen River could have impacts downstream

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Many of the ground-mounted solar arrays being developed in Rhode Island, like this is one off Route 91 in Richmond, have come at the cost of trees and open space. The issue has become a controversial topic. (Cliff Vanover)

WEST GREENWICH, R.I. — Environmentalists are calling a proposed solar project a mile from Hopkins Hill Road the start of a “death by a thousand cuts” for critical state habitats.

The utility-scale solar project is being developed by Warwick-based Revity Energy and will be sited on a forested landlocked parcel between the headwaters of the Queen River and the town border with East Greenwich. The project is expected to occupy 80 acres and generate 18.5 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy for the electrical grid.

The rub? The project area is in the middle of a 2,500-acre core forest — defined under state law as unfragmented blocks of forest totaling more than 250 acres — and the only access to the site is overland via a cart path right of way on properties owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) of Rhode Island, with conservation easements owned by the West Greenwich Land Trust and the state Department of Environmental Management.

Under the plan, the right of way would become a 25-foot-wide gravel road used to access the project site. The road is expected to alter wetlands associated with the Queen River in at least two places. Revity’s wetlands permit is under consideration by DEM, with a decision expected this year.

Environmentalists are worried the project could have bigger impacts in the future. Kate McPherson, the Narragansett Bay riverkeeper for Save The Bay, said she was concerned the project would increase the forest’s edge areas, and its location near the start of the Queen River meant the project could ultimately have bigger impacts downstream.

“This river is also a cold-water fishery,” McPherson said in an interview with ecoRI News. “Rhode Island doesn’t have a ton of cold-water fisheries left because we’ve developed a lot of parts of our watersheds.”

Cutting down trees and putting in ground-mounted solar panels could gradually warm the river, according to McPherson. With fewer trees, she said, the rainwater hitting the now-exposed river is going to be warmer, and stormwater runoff making its way into the river’s watershed is also likely to be warmer than it was before.

“It’s going to be warmer, there’s just no way around it,” McPherson said. “If warm water hits the river, the Queen River is going to incrementally warm, and cold-water fish species, like native brook trout, may have reduced habitat there.”

McPherson also said she was concerned about increased exposure of invasive species to the newly opened project area. Invasives such as burning bush, oriental bittersweet, autumn olive, and honeysuckle thrive on the edges of forest areas in Rhode Island, and clear-cutting greatly increases the amount of forested edge areas.

There’s an unusual legal twist for this controversial solar project: TNC, DEM, and the West Greenwich Land Trust, because of the different legal statuses involved between the property, the easements, and the right of way (ROW), signed off on an agreement with Revity to codify their ownership of the ROW and gain certain concessions.

The agreement was approved by the State Properties Committee last summer, and recorded at Town Hall in September.

The reason for coming to an agreement with the solar developer? All three organizations may not have had legal standing to say “no” to the project.

“There certainly have been cases where TNC has gone to court to defend its interests,” Rhode Island TNC spokesperson Tim Mooney said. “On this one, a confrontational approach would have risked greater environmental damage, and we’re satisfied we negotiated the best deal possible for the environment.”

While TNC owns much of the land the ROW travels across, the ROW itself, often referred to as a “cart track,” dates back to the 19th century, and its ownership is transferred to whomever owns the property the Hidden Valley Solar project would sit on.

Mooney said TNC gained four major concessions as part of the agreement. The ROW traveling over TNC land is limited to a 25-foot width — the property is zoned industrial and could have been as much as 40 feet wide — the roadway can’t be paved, and its export power lines must be buried underground.

The developers have also agreed to resolve a 20-year boundary dispute between TNC and the Hidden Valley Solar property by donating 7.76 acres of forest on the Queen River, and when the solar facility is decommissioned, TNC has first right of refusal if the property is ever listed for sale again.

TNC has real skin in the game when it comes to the project. Just a few miles downstream from Hidden Valley Solar’s project site is the Queen’s River Preserve, a conservation area that is still recovering from a wildfire last April.

“We’re confident that the permitting process will yield a design that protects natural resources,” Mooney said.

He noted TNC had attempted twice in the past 20 years, once in 2012 and again in 2020, to acquire the property outright, but negotiations with the landowners were unsuccessful, with TNC being “unable to meet the sellers’ expectations on price.”

The property was bought by Hidden Valley Realty LLC, a holding company that lists Revity Energy president Ralph Palumbo as its sole manager, in May 2023 for $1.95 million.

Hidden Valley Solar was one of 10 outstanding solar farm proposals in West Greenwich that predated the town’s solar ordinance and were grandfathered in. West Greenwich, like many Rhode Island municipalities, including Warwick, Cranston, and Johnston, enacted more stringent ordinances for solar development after public outcry over a big influx of project proposals in the 2010s from developers.

“It’s a sad story,” said Scott Millar, who serves on the state’s Forest Conservation Commission and recently retired after nine years with Grow Smart Rhode Island, on the local backlash to ground-mounted solar projects. “It’s unfortunate when the people advocating for renewable energy didn’t see these unintended consequences.”

Millar, a longtime advocate for defining and protecting the state’s core forests, said he did an informal inventory of the 13 municipalities that contain the bulk of these forested areas. Of the 13, Millar said, none of them currently allow utility-scale solar by right.

“Towns were left to their own devices and used their land-use authority to, more or less, ban [solar projects] or restrict to industrial or commercial zones,” he said. “That’s pretty much what has happened.”

West Greenwich, per town ordinance, prohibits projects that would have “adverse effects on the rural character” of the town. Any new projects must meet specific requirements, including a 200-foot setback from residential areas, a maximum height of 12 feet (more if the proposal is for a parking structure), and any potential solar project must not cover more than 50% of the parcel.

Both Millar and McPherson said they had concerns over fragmentation of core forest, and over the flooding that could result from removing trees and vegetation from the project site and access road.

McPherson said the project applicants had followed everything they were required to do by state law regarding wetlands, but that the recent intense rainstorms experienced in Rhode Island gave her doubts about the impacts of erosion controls downstream.

“I will say, on paper, it looks like the applicants have done everything they need to do,” McPherson said. “But in the real world? That’s why I say I don’t know.”

Revity Energy did not respond to a request for comment.

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  1. How can people get involved here? What organization needs our help? The Queens River is protected under Federal Law.

  2. Warnings from Tiverton: Less than two miles from my home, we had 50 acres leveled for a new ground-mount solar project that has been developed over the past several years. Original plans called for a larger footprint, but it was scaled back based on feedback from the Town. Absolutely awful to see this habitat destroyed — along with all the benefits that formerly-intact ecosystem provided for. While I’m a strong proponent for renewables, it cannot come at the expense of forest.

    The kicker: Just wait until your roads get ripped up to create the path to connect the output of the field to the grid. That was — and still is — salt in an open wound.

  3. Why are solar companies using huge swaths of our unbroken forests to build renewable electricity? When there are literally thousands of acres worth of industrial rooftops and parking lots available? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for renewables, but there are better ways to go about it.

  4. vulture capital has learned to talk “green” but the reality is that not all renewable energy is green. Please show that photo whenever there is yalk about “clean energy” – n such thing, but a feel-good concept giving folks the idea consume, consume, all you want, but try to use renewable energy. Indeed while renewables are growing quickly, fossil fuel use is also up because demand is growing – we need to talk less about “clean energy” and more about slowing demand (even if it is less of a feel-good vote-getter, fundraiser)

  5. The government crony developers sucking down federal dollars for these large-scale solar and wind projects go where the resistance is the least — carbon-absorbing forest. Then they’ll sell their “free” energy at high rates to their chump consumers.

    Protect open space. Site solar on the rooftops of individuals/companies that choose to do so. For for large-scale generation, build small-footprint natural gas and nuclear generating plants that don’t destroy our environment. And don’t let the grifters near the trees.

  6. Developers are taking the green government subsidies and then siting their projects where they can get them going as cheaply and as fast as possible. They don’t care much for the actual, physical environment.

  7. It is interesting to see that people are clearly against destroying forests for solar because they can see it whereas the destruction of Coxes ledge for Wind turbines gets the support of EcoRI. Truth is that all projects need to be sited responsibly.

  8. Once the forest is gone, it’s gone forever. Why don’t people realize how much damage we are doing to the planet. As stated earlier, there is plenty of open areas for these panels without destroying the environment. The huge swath of land dividing north and south bound lanes of rte 95 in West Greenwich and Exeter. I’d rather see panels there where wildlife doesn’t live than the massive barren area that was taken along the side of the highway in that area. The land around the on/off ramps can also be used. Quonset Industrial Park has tons of open space that has already been ruined. On top buildings, large tracts that are already cleared, there are so many alternatives to forest devastation that are being overlooked. When are we going to wake up and see what we’ve done ? Read Dr Suess’s “TheLorax” if you’re having trouble comprehending the damage being done. A few years from now, {like all new inventions} solar panels are going to be much smaller or obsolete but it will be way too late for our wildlife. Even windmills seem like a better choice than solar……..Good Bye environment, I’m really going to miss you.

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