Community conflicted as solar wave comes to No. Smithfield

Community conflicted as solar wave comes to No. Smithfield

A 4.5-acre solar farm located in the industrial park at Branch Village produces about one megawatt of energy, enough to power 750 homes. Taken together, the solar farms currently operating or under consideration for approval in town would produce more than 50 megawatts and cover about 269 acres, or 1.7 percent of the town’s total land area.

NORTH SMITHFIELD – With close to 2 percent of the town’s total land area under consideration or already home to solar development, and a wave of new applications and construction over the past 15 months, residents and environmental groups are grappling with the long-term impact of solar development in the town.

In recent months, the Planning Board has seen two new applications for solar farms, bringing the total number of solar projects currently under consideration to three. While two of these are small-scale commercial farms covering no more than three acres apiece off Greenville Road and Douglas Pike, a third, proposed by North Kingstown-based Green Development, would be among the largest solar farms in the state, producing approximately 43 megawatts of energy and requiring the clearing of 180 acres of forest off Iron Mine Hill Road.

In addition to the three applications, the town also issued final approval in February to a 6.22-megawatt development on 40 acres off Pound Hill Road, and saw the completion of a four-megawatt farm on eight acres on Old Oxford Road in December. The town is also in discussions with Rhode Island Renewable Energy about a possible 10-megawatt project on the recently purchased Gold property, though no formal application has been submitted yet.

Until last year, the town had only about three megawatts or 15 acres developed for solar projects. Taken together, the applications and existing projects account for about 269 acres, or 1.7 percent of the town’s total land area.

The projects have drawn mixed reactions from local residents and environmental groups, many of whom support renewable energy but express concerns about the impact of large-scale solar on undeveloped lands. Paul Soares, chairman of the North Smithfield Conservation Commission, said the commission is unequivocally opposed to the clearing of forested land for solar development. Trees, he pointed out, benefit the environment through absorption of carbon dioxide, the emission often targeted by proponents of green energy.

“I think it’s shortsighted, simple as that, to substitute solar arrays for mature forest,” he said. “And I think you could say that we are opposed to clear cutting mature forest for temporary solutions, a generation of electricity.”

While proponents say the energy produced by the panels still results in a net reduction of carbon emissions, Soares pointed out that removal of trees can also lead to problems with water runoff and erosion. He advocated instead for placing solar on contaminated sites or in already developed areas such as rooftops and parking lot canopies that would allow the town to realize the environmental and tax benefits of solar without clearing forests.

The view is shared by Grow Smart RI, a statewide group advocating for sustainable economic growth. As solar development has spread across the state, the group has lobbied for stronger state oversight and alternative incentive programs that promote solar siting on already developed properties. Scott Millar, the group’s manager of community technical assistance, pointed to Vermont as a state that has established clear guidelines and incentives as to where solar should and should not be developed.

“We believe Rhode Island is really an outlier in that the state hasn’t really taken a leadership position to manage in any way renewable energy siting,” he said. “The developer gets the same subsidy that they would to develop on a landfill as on a forest.”

Other groups, such as the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, have taken the middle ground in their approach. While the group also expresses concerns about solar development on forested property, Meg Kerr, senior director of policy, pointed out that environmental advocates spent many years lobbying for renewable energy initiatives and are reluctant to support hardline policies that could dissuade companies from working toward that goal. Instead, she said, the organization supports compromises that encourage solar in already developed areas without completely banning it on forested tracts.

“I think it feels like we’ve got an awful lot of renewable energy, but it’s not as much as we think,” she said. “And I think the other thing to remember is we’re not just trying to replace the electricity that we use right now, but in order to sort of go to net zero emissions, we’ve got to electrify a lot of things that we don’t electrify now.”

According to Paul Raducha, senior developer at Boston-based Kearsarge Energy, the difficulty of placing solar on already developed sites lies in the cost. Solar developers rely on a mix of federal and state tax incentives to make their projects profitable, most of which do not distinguish between projects in forests and those on contaminated or urban sites. Contaminated properties may require remediation, while solar on buildings or parking lot canopies is more costly to install and more likely to run into holdups with building tenants or roof maintenance.

“Now you have a contract to provide energy, but if you get a leak (and) have to pull half the panels off for one month or more, it’s going to change your economics,” said Raducha.

Last year, all three entities participated in a stakeholder group that met to discuss additional guidance and siting issues. The meetings led to proposed legislation seeking to reform the state’s solar policies, but disagreement over the various bills’ handling of forestland means the debates have continued at the state level even as municipalities look to implement their own policies.

In the absence of enforceable state policy, many municipalities have enacted solar zoning ordinances that govern siting and approval of solar projects at the local level. North Smithfield’s ordinance, enacted several years ago, requires a special use permit for all ground-mounted solar projects and additional review by the Zoning Board for any project larger than six acres or that takes up more than 30 percent of the gross lot area. The 12-page document offers extensive requirements for review and decommissioning of solar projects, but town policy also allows developers to approach lawmakers seeking changes. Last year, the Town Council absorbed criticism from some residents for approving an amendment allowing Green Development’s 40-plus-megawatt project to move forward without going before the Zoning Board.

Raducha said he believes the statewide solar industry will begin to slow down over the next few years as federal tax incentives are phased out and the state approaches its renewable energy goals. The General Assembly is also currently considering legislation that could alter state incentives. In the meantime, the debate plays out at the local level as residents and lawmakers weigh the costs and benefits of the solar rush.

Comments

If we could go back in time,knowing what we now know would we have approved Power Lines crossing through our entire town.