One of Rhode Island’s newest renewable energy installations is being celebrated as a model of solar siting, repurposing contaminated land that is unlikely to be developed. The solar array’s 6,700 panels spread across 12 acres in North Providence that comprise an old landfill.

The rapid expansion of renewable energy projects in Rhode Island – and across the region – is bringing new and pressing land-use challenges. Because of the urgent threat posed by climate change, it is important to accelerate the pace at which clean energy resources replace polluting fossil fuels. At the same time, we must protect Rhode Island’s diverse ecosystems.

With collaborative work on smart siting policies – and solar projects like the one in North Providence – Rhode Island is demonstrating a commitment to doing both: creating a low-carbon energy system and serving as responsible stewards of our landscapes and habitats.

Solar’s role in the clean energy future

The deep greenhouse gas emissions reductions demanded by the rapidly changing climate will require an energy system that looks a lot different than today’s. Our vehicles and home heating systems will need to transition from gasoline, propane, and natural gas to electricity, which has the flexibility to run off the sun, wind, and other clean sources. That means our electricity supply must move away from fossil fuels and become significantly cleaner itself.

Solar energy will play a key part in the clean energy future. According to the State Energy Plan, Rhode Island could develop over 1,800 MW of solar by 2035, compared to the current 105 MW. Determining how much solar is needed to meet the state’s climate goals under the Resilient Rhode Island Act is only one part of the equation. We must work together to determine how best to site it, including on what types of land and at what scale, to minimize land-use conflicts in local communities.

First, Rhode Island must harness the potential of rooftop solar, which gives residents and businesses more control over their energy use and production, lowers utility bills, and helps avoid the siting of projects in sensitive environmental areas. Acadia Center’s EnergyVision 2030 Rhode Island Progress Report finds that Rhode Island is lagging regional leaders on locally-sited solar resources. While rooftop solar is not the only answer, we can do more to support it.

Larger-scale solar projects are also needed. Some municipalities in Rhode Island, especially rural ones where land is more readily available, are being inundated with solar proposals – some of which have resulted in widespread tree-clearing. In response, a number of communities are halting renewables development, at least temporarily, putting at risk continued progress towards a climate-safe Rhode Island. It is imperative that we find a new path forward that balances the need to deploy renewables with forest and habitat protection.

Consensus-based solutions

A stakeholder group of diverse interests began convening in August 2017 to address the siting issue. The committee, which includes Acadia Center, developed 13 consensus principles that reflect the priorities of conservationists, clean energy advocates, farm interests, municipalities, and renewable energy developers. State officials have also been holding public workshops all across Rhode Island to gather input from communities and residents. There has been widespread agreement on the need to influence the economics of siting to encourage cost-effective development of solar projects on already developed land like brownfields, commercial and industrial zoned land, and other environmentally disturbed sites.

There are no quick solutions, but progress is being made. Rhode Island is undertaking several initiatives designed to guide solar to preferred areas. An infusion of $1 million into the Renewable Energy Fund will support brownfields projects. A proposal before the Public Utilities Commission includes a 70 percent increase in small rooftop solar in the 2019 Renewable Energy Growth Program and a new category to promote solar carports. Between six and twelve solar canopies are expected to be developed as a result.

Much work remains. The stakeholder group is discussing additional strategies for the 2019 legislative session to encourage solar siting in least-conflict locations. The work being done in Rhode Island could serve as a model for the region as states grapple with a productive path forward that both reduces harmful emissions and protects our natural resources.

  • Erika Niedowski is Rhode Island Director and Policy Advocate in the Providence office, where she works to implement Acadia Center’s priorities on energy efficiency, clean energy, and electrification in Rhode Island. She most recently served in Rhode Island state government as Communications Director for the Lieutenant Governor with a policy portfolio that included energy issues.