Area towns fear ‘energy sprawl’ from a host of solar projects

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June 18, 2017 12:14AM – By Cynthia Drummond Sun staff writer

HOPKINTON — Planning boards in Hopkinton, Richmond and Charlestown are seeing a sharp increase in the number of applications for solar energy projects. There is a consensus that clean, renewable solar power is desirable and generates tax revenue, but the towns are encountering the challenge of welcoming those projects without allowing forests and farmland to be swallowed up by “energy sprawl.”

Peter August, a professor of natural resources at the University of Rhode Island, said the demand for solar energy was growing so quickly that towns should move to regulate solar projects without delay.

“The market is pushing it fast, it’s pushing it hard,” he said. “There’s a lot of individual interest in getting involved with solar renewables, and the towns are going to have to start dealing with it whether they want to or not. The train has left the station and I think all of our communities in the state are going to have to ask themselves some difficult questions, and that is, ‘What do we value? What is an appropriate setting for a solar array and what is an inappropriate setting for a solar array?’”

Both Connecticut and Massachusetts have taken measures this year to encourage the siting of solar projects on developed land such as brownfields and landfills rather than on open space. Rhode Island Energy Commissioner Carol Grant said the Office of Energy Resources Rhode Island is also looking at the siting issue.

“OER and other agencies are looking particularly at how we can support the development of renewable energy on sites, whether it’s brownfields, and, actually carports, which are a challenge but an opportunity we see out there,” she said. “We’re really looking at what we can offer in terms of support and I think we’ll be moving forward. Some of that may be programmatic rather than legislative.”

Chris Kearns, OER’s chief of program development, said the state has several programs encouraging the development of renewable energy projects and streamlining the permitting process, all of which are contributing to the increase in solar project proposals.

The Renewable Energy Fund provides grants and tax incentives to homeowners, businesses and farmers who install solar systems to reduce their own electricity bills. A second program, the Renewable Energy Growth Tariff Program, fixes the rate at which solar producers can sell power to National Grid for 15 or 20-year terms.

In addition to the two programs, a bill passed this year establishes connection deadlines for renewable energy projects with National Grid.

“Once that agreement is signed, National Grid would have, I believe, 14 months to have that project interconnected, for that property owner and the renewable energy company associated with the project,” Kearns said.

Another measure, due to take effect in January 2018, is a statewide solar permit that will streamline the process for obtaining electric and building permits associated with solar installations. Cities and towns would retain control over the approval process.

“Right now we have 39 municipalities with 39 separate electric permits and 39 separate building permits,” Kearns said. “This legislation would have OER, through a rule and regulation process, establish a statewide building/electric permit for all solar projects across the state.”

In Hopkinton, Town Planner James Lamphere said the town was doing what it can to respond to all the applications.

“It’s something new that we’re all learning a lot about,” he said. “We’re learning as we go through it. The major point that we’re looking for is that it’s out of sight and it doesn’t affect the ambience of the town.”

Richmond Planner Juliana Berry said she had received seven applications from a single developer in just a couple of days.

“There’s certainly a surge of interest overall and as far as having applications on hand for smaller commercial solar installations that are accessory to farming, if it’s a way in which an agricultural operation can stay in business. Then you have to weigh that against the potential permanent change to the landscape,” she said.

Both Hopkinton and Richmond have passed ordinances permitting smaller solar energy developments on farms, which allow farmers to derive income from some of their land. Charlestown has not adopted a solar ordinance, but the Planning Commission is currently working on one. Ruth Platner, who chairs the commission, said she was concerned that state policies were providing incentives for solar projects in undeveloped spaces.

“The state has a policy which is essentially pushing it into farmland and forest and at the same time doing nothing to put it in places where it makes more sense,” she said. “We’ve never had a discussion about how we would do this, except we think there are ways we could do this and make it part of growth management. Yes, it might be better to have a solar farm than a subdivision, but the total area disturbed shouldn’t be greater than you would have had with the subdivision, and with a cluster subdivision, you also put land permanently in open space, so it’s like, what’s going to happen at the end of those 20 years? That discussion hasn’t happened yet between the Planning Commission, the Town Council and the public. We need to learn from the mistakes of Massachusetts and Connecticut, and even the towns surrounding us, before we go headfirst into this.”

Scott Millar of Grow Smart Rhode Island, an advocacy organization, helps towns develop ordinances to allow accessory business uses, including solar installations, on farms. He said he was concerned about solar project siting.

“I certainly understand the need for farm and forest landowners to be able to generate supplemental income from their land to help them sustain those working landscapes,” he said. “I clearly get that, however, I don’t support, and Grow Smart certainly doesn’t support, taking agricultural land that can yield good, fresh food for Rhode Islanders out of production to generate power, and we certainly don’t support the clearing and further fragmentation of forest land that can negatively impact resources such as our drinking water, habitat, to supply power. I think Rhode Island needs power, and the increase in renewable energy is an important objective, but we believe there are many existing sites in Rhode Island that have already been developed or that are zoned for industrial or commercial use that can be used to support renewable energy.”

Providence solar developer Fred Unger, who has been involved in more than 80 projects, said building solar projects in Rhode Island created jobs and generated revenue.

“State policy, at least currently, favors domestic generation for a couple of very good reasons,” he said. “One is, solar in particular creates a ton of jobs relative to other energy resources, and also by building projects here in Rhode Island, we’re keeping the dollars we spend on energy here in Rhode Island.”

Another debate has centered on the relative ecological benefits of mature forests versus renewable solar energy. A carbon equivalent calculator from the Environmental Protection Agency shows that the benefits of solar energy far exceed those from a forest.

“The value of New England forest as a carbon sink is less than one tenth of the carbon offset of a solar project on the same area,” Unger said.

Carbon calculations aside, the towns are considering multiple factors as they evaluate the solar proposals coming before them. Hopkinton Planning Board Chairman Alfred DiOrio said the applications were complex and added that he wasn’t convinced that some of the proposed projects would be good for the town.

“You’ve got this pushing and pulling going on and there’s this perspective to consider, that perspective to consider,” he said. “So I’m trying to be somewhat sensitive to the larger picture, but I’ve got to tell you that in my heart, I’m not seeing the value to the community, especially when we start talking about significant destruction of some of our natural resources. Again, I’m struggling with trying to balance that against all the somewhat positive attributes, but my heart says I’m not really certain that this is a fair shake for the community.” @cynthiadrummon4