The city came a step closer to getting its first two solar parks, plus reduced electric bills and payments amounting to $300,000 annually, with City Council approval Monday of zone changes sought by Southern Sky Renewables of Warwick.
There was more concern than opposition to the smaller of the parks planned for 10 acres of vacant land off West Shore Road and wedged between single-family homes to the east and Amtrak to the west. Residents worried about the potential of noise pollution from inverters that would only operate during daylight hours. K. Joseph Shekarchi, who represented Southern Sky, said the noise would be no greater than a washing machine.
“I’m in favor of it. I think it is great,” said neighbor to the development Steve Laprocina. Yet he was troubled by the possibility of noise, suggesting that the council strengthen limitations recommended by the planning department.
The benefits of the two parks scored high with the council.
Shekarchi said the parks are privately funded, with the power going to National Grid. In return, the city will receive a 13-percent discount on the electricity it purchases for all city buildings with the exception of housing for the elderly. In addition, Palumbo said, the city would get $70,000 in lieu of tangible taxes on the equipment, which under state law is exempt from taxes. Palumbo estimated the benefit to the city at $300,000 to $350,000 a year and totaling $8.2 million over 25 years, the term of the land leases.
Shekarchi said the two projects would be bonded, pointing out that there would be the funds to complete work should Southern Sky fail to meet terms such as removal of the equipment at the expiration of the leases. He said Southern Sky had two five-year options to extend the leases.
“It is good for the city; it is good for the environment,” reasoned Shekarchi.
The West Shore Road solar park, which would generate 1.1 megawatts and cost about $2 million, would disturb about half the 10-acre site. Shekarchi said a study found solar glare would not be an issue and that the plan has been run by the Rhode Island Airport Corporation as it would be in the flight path to Green Airport. The site would be fenced and there would be plantings along the residential side of the development.
City Planner William DePasquale called the property a “difficult site” for development because of wetlands, access next to the West Shore Road underpass, and proximity to Amtrak and a residential neighborhood. He called the solar park a “perfect application.”
Currently zoned residential, the land would be rezoned to general business and site specific to a solar park.
The second solar park of 36 acres is part of the former Leviton Manufacturing property. It is zoned open space and would be rezoned to general business, specific to a solar park.
A portion of the land is wetlands and comes under a conservation easement. It has been identified as a brownfield from the dumping of industrial waste. This solar park would generate 6.2 megawatts, cost $12 million and cover 20 acres. The site abuts the Airport Connector Road and industrial property.
Because of environmental issues relating to its former use as a dumping ground for industrial waste and also containing wetlands, Shekarchi said the Kilvert Street site has “very limited development possibilities.”
In voicing her support for the two parks, Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson pointed to the possibilities of the developer working with the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center and exposing students to the developing technology of renewable energy.
Ward 1 Councilman Steve Colantuono was satisfied to hear the West Shore Road park meets FAA approval, adding, “Any way we can seek clean energy I’m in favor of.”
Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon noted that neither of the parks would require any infrastructure improvements from the city. He also pointed out that the Warwick parks would be the third and four parks Southern Sky has built or is planning in Rhode Island.
Both parks were approved by seven votes. Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur abstained in both votes. Ward 7 Councilwoman Kathleen Usler was absent.
Assuming second passage by the council next month, Palumbo thought all regulatory approvals would be in place by January and that construction could start in the spring. He said the company is under pressure to have the parks operational by Dec. 31, 2018, at which time the investment tax credit for sustainable energy projects drops from 30 to 22 percent.