RI judge rejects solar project, rules solar to be “manufacturing”

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A Rhode Island Superior court judge has reversed a zoning board’s decision to approve a 2.9-megawatt solar farm in Portsmouth.

Judge Brian Van Couyghen, citing a previous state Supreme Court decision, delivered his own, arguing “Even though the Board found that the proposed solar farm was similar to a public utility, it would be, in fact, a manufacturing facility because it would transform sunlight into electricity. As stated above, manufacturing is expressly prohibited in residential zones under the Ordinance. As a result, the granting of a special use permit for a manufacturing facility—the solar farm—was clearly erroneous.”

While the decision is under review by the town, this decision sets a puzzling precedent. If the Portsmouth zoning board and the town council accept the judge’s decision, the residential solar market in the town would be effectively killed.

This is worth note, as 3/4 of Rhode Island’s solar production comes from small-scale distributed facilities, according to EIA. Under this ruling, rooftop installations would be prohibited in residential areas because the systems “manufacture” sunlight into energy. There is also the fact that manufacturing is a very strange description of the photovoltaic conversion process, but let’s not get technical.

It is possible that the town will reject the court’s ruling, considering the decision being protested was the town zoning board’s designation of a solar farm as a public utility. The town can and likely will amend the zoning ordinance to allow solar farms in residential areas. The town is also considering petitioning the Rhode Island Supreme Court to review the ruling.

The proposed farm was to be developed by Portsmouth Solar, a local installation company. The town’s initial decision was protested by Roger and Jane Fontaine, residents of Portsmouth who didn’t want thousands of solar panels near their home. Portsmouth Solar said that the company planned to shield the panels from view by planting different vegetation in the area surrounding the panels.

The attorney representing Portsmouth Solar and the town was reached for comment on the ruling, but has not responded as of the time of publication.