Rhode Island Legislature Punts on Climate: Smart Siting Legislation Languishes
Several state legislatures in the Northeast have gone big on climate in recent weeks.
New York passed a sweeping climate plan pledging to reach 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040 and net zero greenhouse gas emissions, across the whole economy, by 2050. Maine enacted legislation that doubles the amount of renewable electricity in its Renewable Portfolio Standard to 80% by 2030 and 100% by 2050. Connecticut authorized a massive boost to offshore wind—the construction of up to 2,000 megawatts.
Not Rhode Island. Legislators in Rhode Island ended their six-month session late last month without passing any climate legislation at all.
Several climate bills died in committee, including one that would have established an economy-wide price on carbon pollution and another that would make binding the greenhouse gas reduction targets of the Resilient Rhode Island Act. (Unlike in Massachusetts and Connecticut, Rhode Island’s emissions reduction goals are aspirational, not mandatory.)
The General Assembly also failed to act on a high-profile challenge whose resolution is important to ensuring that solar reaches its potential as a climate solution in Rhode Island. Here’s a look at how that issue played out.
Balancing solar and land stewardship
Both the House and Senate introduced legislation that would have addressed the urgent pressure many communities are facing over the siting of large-scale, ground-mounted solar projects. The bills were informed by the work of a group of stakeholders the state Office of Energy Resources and the Department of Environmental Management convened nearly two years ago to work through the complexities of the issue.
Acadia Center has added its clean energy expertise to the group, which includes renewable energy developers, municipal planners, clean energy advocates, conservation groups, and consumer advocates. The goal? To develop strategies that balanced the need to accelerate solar while also minimizing its environmental impact on forests and prime farmland.
Guided by 13 smart siting principles stakeholders developed through consensus, the committee put forth strategies that garnered widespread support from diverse quarters. The legislation, as introduced, would have:
- Closed a loophole that effectively allowed projects to bypass the current statutory 10 MW cap on individual remote net metering projects by combining multiple installations at one site. Co-locating projects on contiguous parcels would no longer be allowed;
- Applied a smaller size cap—of 4 MW—to solar projects in designated areas of environmental concern;
- Created a new incentive for siting solar projects in preferred areas like landfills, gravels pits, and brownfields by reimbursing energy developers for interconnection costs; and
- Established a timeline for municipalities to adopt individually tailored solar siting ordinances to help local officials review projects and provide developers with a more predictable process.
The House’s siting bill never came to a vote in committee. The Senate passed a watered-down version that did not sufficiently address siting incentives. While the Senate’s amended bill mandated enactment of municipal siting ordinances, other critical strategies including reasonable size limits in areas of environmental concern and incentives for siting in preferred areas were scrapped.
Without any of the improvements proposed in the solar siting legislation, the status quo will largely continue: Rhode Island is likely to see the construction of more large projects on cleared forestland.
In some communities, the legislature’s inaction could have the opposite effect: leading to municipal moratoria that put at least a temporary pause on any solar construction. That outcome not only hinders Rhode Island’s ability to meet its climate goals but also dents growth of the clean energy sector, which has been a bright spot in the economy.
Rhode Island continues to be a leader in energy efficiency, and is moving ahead with a full-size offshore wind farm to join the nation’s first, Block Island. Rhode Island has committed to develop, along with nine states and Washington, D.C., a regional policy proposal to cap and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the most polluting sector: transportation. The Governor just signed an Executive Order for focused inter-agency work on the state’s heating sector, which must move off natural gas. All of this is welcome progress.
Still, the legislature will have to think—and act—bigger on climate, or risk Rhode Island being left behind. The climate crisis is here; there is no time to waste.
Author: Erika Niedowski, Rhode Island Director & Policy Advocate