Published on March 11th, 2019 | by Carolyn Fortuna
March 11th, 2019 by Carolyn FortunaÂ
As a major part of state-wide efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, municipalities are defining agreements for renewable energy projects that are expected to produce increasing percentages of regional solar and wind power. Yet developing consensus across the multiple constituencies involved in renewable energy construction projects is a delicate balance.
The Rhode Island Land and Water Partnership hosted a workshop titled, â€śStatewide Perspectives on Siting Renewable Energy Projectsâ€ť at its 2019 Conservation Summit. With a relatively dry title, I was mightily surprised how invigorating and even a bit tense this workshop was.Â Sheila Dormody of The Nature Conservancy moderated the panel ofÂ Paul Raducha from Kearsarge Energy LP; Scott Millar from Grow Smart Rhode Island; andÂ Ashley Sweet, the Exeter, Rhode Island Town Planner. The conversations that emerged can provide insight into the dynamics, dilemmas, and consensus-building strategies necessary for other US states as they, too, make the transition to renewable energy.
Paul Raducha, Kearsarge Energy LP:Â Â â€śA really definable & predictable approval processâ€ť
Kearsarge, which provides commercial-scale renewable energy, guides its clients from feasibility analysis through financing, construction, and ongoing maintenance and monitoring. With a portfolio of more than 60 MW of solar PV projects ranging in size from 140 kW to 6 MW, Kearsarge is currently developing more than 100 MW of projects throughout the Northeast and 50 MW in the Southeast.
Paul Raducha, Project Developer for Kearsarge, nurtures solar projects from very first concept to commissioning and isÂ actively involved in the drafting and support of renewable energy legislation in New England and across the US. RaduchaÂ outlined the factors that are driving renewable energy in Rhode Island.
He suggested that project constraints can slow a well-intentioned plan. These include zoning ordinances (or lack thereof), location limitations of substations and feeders, and brownfields/ landfills (which can be ignored or funded). â€śOur grid wasnâ€™t built for distributed energy generation,â€ť Raducha allowed, â€śbut renewable energy is changing that.â€ť
Project siting limitations and flaws include:
Proper siting takes place alongside â€śa really definable and predictable approval process,â€ť Raducha said. Having zoning ordinances, including paths for brownfields in restricted zone, might assist consideration for compromised sites. These might include sand and gravel pits, quarries, and disturbed land.
Some towns, he mentioned, forget carports and their limitations but also potential. Proper siting can also be better with program incentives to drive projects to the right sites. So, too, can grants and off-takers control a projectâ€™s destiny, including industrial sites.
Solar panels, he said, have a life of 20-30 years or more. A â€śgood situation is looking 100 years out,â€ť so that solar projects that donate the land to open space are appealing.
Scott Millar, Grow Smart Rhode Island: â€śThe biggest detriment to the RI forest has been solar developmentâ€ť
Grow Smart Rhode Island works at theÂ state level as a leader seeking sustainable and equitable economic growth by advocating for compact development in revitalized urban, town, and village centers. They seek to balance responsible stewardship of their regionâ€™s natural assets â€“ farmland, forests, the coastline, and the Bay. They convene broad coalitions that advocate policy reforms, focusing on specific projects.
With the theme of improving solar development in Rhode Island, Scott Millar, a Senior Policy Analyst, works with Grow Smart Rhode Island to provide technical assistance and training to RI communities. HeÂ encourages them to adopt smart growth land use techniques to accommodate growth that avoids impacts to natural resources, community character, and encourages eco-friendly businesses.
Millar affirmed that balancing renewable energy expansion with carefully considered land use is imperative, as expansion into Rhode Island state solar mandates have â€śhad great intentions, but, unfortunately, it has some bad results. Some things werenâ€™t as well thought out as they could have been.â€ť Some of the negative consequences of solar development in Rhode Island have included:
Cutting forests has the result of â€śemitting a lot of carbon that has been sequestered. When you do this kind of work,â€ť he reminded, â€śitâ€™s unlikely that this soil will ever return to its original state.â€ť
The forest in Rhode Islandâ€™s 368,000 acres absorbs carbon emissions from 400,000 cars annually, Millar said. Rhode Islandâ€™s carbon storage value is about $39 million annually, and forest preservation is seen as necessary to achieve RI greenhouse reduction goals. The forest, Millar argued, â€śis the only economic means to absorb existing high levels of carbon.â€ť
Millar explained that Rhode Island forests can absorb 15-30% of greenhouse gas emissions annually with its total land mass comprised of 56% forest â€” 368,00 total forest acres, of which 70% are in private ownerships. The forest is â€śbeing fragmented and cut off at an alarming rate. The biggest detriment to the RI forest has been solar development.â€ť
To achieve RI renewable energy goals while also protecting undisturbed areas, solar would be best placed in targeted areas like landfills. â€śWe should prevent solar in areas of environment concern, such as forested tracts of 250 acres and greater, habitats of high ecological value, and natural heritage areas,â€ť Millar concluded.
Ashley Sweet, Exeter Town Planner: â€śSome people feel their open land is under threatâ€ť
Under new legislation, every municipality in Rhode Island will have to have a solar ordinance, andÂ assistance to municipalities in writing an ordinance and understanding how the various pieces comes into play will occur. The Office of Environmental Resources and the Department of Environmental Management will conduct a study for each municipality and report on clean energy opportunities. Among the changes will be removal of barriers for affordable housing, some limits on net metering projects, and using contiguous sites to create solar projects.
â€śThe community is torn in 2 directions,â€ť Ashley Sweet, Exeter Town Planner, indicated. â€śWeâ€™re not going to get any more land. Some of our gems are our preserved land.â€ť Exeter, Rhode Islandâ€™s population was 6,425 at the 2010 census.
She described that the town is right now about â€śas densely populated as we can and still protect our land. Some people feel their open land is under threat. We want to be very careful about the land that we do have and how weâ€™re protecting it. Itâ€™s a very difficult situation,â€ť Sweet outlined.
â€śHow do you mandate at the state level and still provide autonomy at the local level?â€ť she asked. â€śHow do you balance the benefits of renewable energy while, at the same time, limit cutting down lots of trees?â€ť
She described the various constituents who come together to designÂ agreements for renewable energy projects as â€śa diverse group â€” itâ€™s almost impossible to get anything done with a group like that,â€ť she laughed. â€śThis is a consistent learning experience â€” we had 9 drafts. We learned that we needed to have interconnection plans within our draft.â€ť This would prove difficult, for example, when trying to limit the amount of trees removed.
Technical assistance to provide to municipalities will be essential, she advised, as Exeter, like â€śmany municipalities didnâ€™t know what we were up against. There was no plan. Iâ€™m a planner.â€ť She acknowledged that she found it â€śdisturbingâ€ť that the state â€śsent out a call for a certain amount of renewable energy but had no plan. We had a lot of municipalities caught off guard.â€ť Lack of assistance in the design and implementation of a solar project has driven projects into the western section of Rhode Island, as theyâ€™re easier to implement in that area.
Rather than writing a reactionary or an anticipatory project ordinance, she described, the municipality must afford enough protection for an existing or imminent project. A complex solar installation may stymie some otherwise savvy and skilled urban planners, she said.
She agreed that itâ€™s been difficult to appease homeowners who bought in a residential area but are now confronted with a utility in their neighborhood. Competing land use of residential, land trust, and solar siting are â€śfalling on top of each other on the same property.â€ť
If solar sites have a limited lease, municipalities have concerns about remediation as well as full eventual solar panel removal and the â€ścompletely dead siteâ€ť left behind, she explained. â€śitâ€™s a new industry for Rhode Island, and we wonâ€™t have a lot of experience moving forward into their end life.â€ť
A Rhode Island state solar siting bill will be considered this week and it: