This approach appears to give a lot of leeway to towns and cities to make their own decisions about how to regulate the siting of solar, and would also steer developers to previously disturbed sites. As such it was endorsed by many of the main non-profits active in the environmental and energy space, including Conservation Law Foundation, Audubon Society, Acadia Center, Save the Bay and Green Energy Consumers Alliance.
Solar energy is growing in the Northeast, but the urgency of climate change means that states need to accelerate the transition to clean energy sources.
In Rhode Island, siting challenges that have arisen in the past few years show that the state can’t do this without a plan. In a landscape patchworked with forest, farmland, and open space, policies and incentives must prioritize solar projects in areas with compatible land uses.
On March 14, the House held a hearing for H5789, a solar siting bill that aims to address these challenges. The bill represents months of collaboration between conservation groups, municipal planners, renewable energy developers, farm interests, state agencies and others as part of the Renewable Energy Siting Stakeholder Committee. Acadia Center has worked alongside these groups to generate a range of strategies designed to drive projects to preferred areas, including previously developed and disturbed parcels.
These strategies include:
Prohibiting the largest, most controversial projects by preventing projects from being built across neighboring parcels;
Significantly limiting the size of solar projects in designated areas of environmental concern;
Introducing an incentive through the Public Utilities Commission to reimburse solar projects in preferred areas for interconnection costs;
Directing OER to incorporate smart siting policies in an implementation plan for reaching the state’s emissions reductions goals;
Setting a deadline for municipalities to adopt individually tailored solar siting ordinances that will help local officials review projects and, if desired, establish more streamlined processes for preferred siting.
This bill is not the sole solution to the challenge of solar siting. Small-scale solar capacity in the state’s Renewable Energy Growth (REG) program has been nearly doubled to maximize residential and commercial rooftop arrays, which pose no siting conflicts. Further, just this week, OER and the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation opened a $1 million fund to support projects that propose solar on brownfields.
But make no mistake: legislators must act this session to avoid risking another year without significant protections for the state’s forests and habitats. The economics of siting currently favor large projects in flat, forested tracts, but they don’t have to remain that way.
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.
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.
Legislation also has bee filed at the Statehouse to address the issue. The Rhode Island Energy Resources Acthas the support of OER, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the Rhode Island Farm Bureau, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Rhode Island Builders Association, the Northeast Clean Energy Council, the Conservation Law Foundation, The Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.
Another bill was recently introduced that would severely hinder the construction of solar facilities and other renewable-energy projects on forestland. Environmental groups, such as the Audubon Society and the Conservation Law Foundation, have pushed back against this bill, saying it has several drawbacks, including paving the way for real-estate development and fossil-fuel power plants.
But asked whether he’d favor a moratorium, Miner laughed and took a long pause. “I don’t personally like moratoriums,” he said. “Is there a real hardship with some period of a moratorium so you could figure this out? I don’t know.”
But Bill Dornbos, who heads the Connecticut office of the environmental advocacy group Acadia Center, does. “I’ve been contacted by utility-scale developers who are expressing great concern and nervousness about this because they heard the word moratorium,” he said. “They were worried we were going to go to a place like we were with the wind-power issue.
“Legislation that restricts solar incentives on the basis of land type is probably not the optimal solution in the long term,” Dornbos said.