Herding cats: Controversy over the solar siting bill in Rhode Island

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The proliferation of large-scale solar farms in the nation’s smallest state has led to push-back from residents, cities and towns. Last December the town of Exeter placed an emergency moratorium on ground mounted solar, and a Superior Court judge has stopped a solar farm in Portsmouth by the unusual step of decreeing it to be “manufacturing”.

In order to get everyone on the same page, 18 months ago the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources under Governor Gina Raimondo (D) sat down with conservationists and environmental non-profits to come up with a means to bring local decisions into compliance with state law, and to set some ground rules about where to site and where to not site solar projects.

The resulting bill, H 5789, would require that cities and towns adopt or update comprehensive solar siting ordinances for both roof-and ground-mounted PV installations by April 30, 2020, and to submit these to the state by January 31, 2020 for review.

The bill doesn’t say a lot about how cities and towns needed to set their ordinances, only that they be in compliance with state building, fire and electrical code law, as well as the state’s renewable energy generation and interconnection laws.

Along with this, it would also set up a state-wide database of “preferred siting locations” including gravel pits, previously disturbed lands and other locations in the state. It would also give DOER permission to develop a system of “interconnection value reimbursements” on these sorts of sites, to incentivize developers to build there instead of in forests or farmland, or other areas with with conflicting uses.

 

Non-profits largely in favor

This approach appears to give a lot of leeway to towns and cities to make their own decisions about how to regulate the siting of solar, and would also steer developers to previously disturbed sites. As such it was endorsed by many of the main non-profits active in the environmental and energy space, including Conservation Law Foundation, Audubon Society, Acadia Center, Save the Bay and Green Energy Consumers Alliance.

However, this was not good enough for some of the conservationist and land-use groups, who showed up to argue against the bill at a hearing last week before the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee. One of the more measured voices was that Rupert Friday, the executive director of the Rhode Island Land Trust Council, who stated that specific provisions for protected lands that had been agreed upon by the committee early in the process were not included in the bill.

 

NIMBYism rears its head

However, many of these arguments were not based on any particular aspect of the law. Instead, they were arguments against cutting any trees for solar and against ground mounted solar in general. This included a representative of the Burrillville Land Trust, an organization which has been deeply involved in fighting Invenergy’s plans for a new gas-fired power plant in the rural town in the Northeastern corner of the state, including putting giant ads on Providence busses.

And while the Burrillville Land Trust doesn’t want a gas-fired power plant, it apparently doesn’t want solar either, as the Land Trust’s representative stated that the bill didn’t go far enough to stop large solar farms. Another representative of a land trust argued that he didn’t want to see “acres of solar development along the highways”, which may point to an under-appreciated source of opposition: that rural and suburban residents in the nation’s 2nd-most densely populated state often feel that it is their privilege to use electricity, but not to have to see it the facilities that generate it.

This sort of Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) attitude is rampant throughout affluent parts of New England; in fact what would have been the nation’s first offshore wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts was stopped by the unusual alliance which included the Koch Brothers and environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Junior.

Two of the representatives at the hearing, Carol Hagan McEntee and Brian Kennedy, both expressed that their constituents are concerned about large solar developments, and the comments section of an article on the hearing on the EcoRI news site is full of anti-large solar arguments.

Many of those who oppose large-scale solar also state that they support rooftop and solar on other locations such as on brownfields, yet showed up to argue against H 5789, which would have allowed the creation of incentives to put solar on various types of preferred locations.

 

Going nowhere fast

At last check, the bill was held by the committee for further study, along with other bills that affect the siting of energy resources. It is unclear if it is going anywhere any time soon, and several of the environmental groups present warned that this would lead to a lack of protection as well as progress on siting solar.

“If the general assembly does not take any action on this bill, it risks another year without significant protection for forestland and other areas of environmental concern,” stated Erika Niedowski, Rhode Island director and policy advocate at Acadia Center. “It offers reasonable and meaningful strategies that will do far more to protect these areas is no action is taken at all.”

However, in the divisive world of local politics in Rhode Island, no action seems to be a preferred route for many. And if affluent communities are able to keep large-scale solar off their land by not getting in line with the state’s efforts, this may serve their purposes.