Municipalities looking for some guidance on how to responsibly implement solar arrays at a time when such projects are booming will receive some help in the coming weeks from the state Office of Energy Resources, which is set to release a set of best practices regarding this complex and hot-button issue.
“As of the end of 2018, 23 municipalities out of 39 that have addressed solar energy systems in some way,” said Nancy Hess, supervising planner for the Rhode Island Division of Statewide Planning, during a session on solar siting at the annual convention held by the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns. “We're hoping this guidance helps them as they look at their ordinances and move forward.”
The procedural guide on what factors municipalities should examine prior to siting and approving solar projects encompasses input from communities across the state gathered during public meetings held in each county from June to October of 2018. A draft version of the proposals has been posted on the department’s website, but a finalized version is expected in a week or so.
The topic of solar development has garnered attention lately as some large-scale projects across the state have required widespread clear-cutting of trees and other environmental alterations in order to make space for the large ground area necessary to generate significant power through solar.
Some have argued that the push for more solar, in line with Gov. Gina Raimondo’s target of 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy in the state by 2020, is ironically short-sighted and sacrificing valuable natural resources for renewable energy, contributing to a situation that is, at best, a net neutral for environmentalists. Based on the most recent numbers reflecting the third quarter of 2018, the state is producing 304 megawatts of renewable energy – 105 of which are through solar power.
According to Hess, many municipalities approach solar projects without proper protocols in place, or try to apply a rigid application of ordinances that fail to properly account for the many types of solar systems that may be implemented within a community.
“Our big point is that solar energy systems are a land use, and communities should address them as a land use in their zoning ordinance,” Hess said. “You have to look at requirements for where you want them and how to balance the creation of barriers, but also ensuring protection from potential impacts.”
During the presentation, Juliana Berry, town planner for Richmond, discussed some potential caveats for towns and cities exploring solar projects. She showed an example of a solar project that was approved and, as it turned out, the land was not adequately surveyed for flood potential – resulting in costly expenses to remediate the flooded array.
Berry talked about factoring common complaints from residents into the solar project approval processes, including whether or not the solar arrays will be easily visible, encroach on surrounding private property or involve other environmental concerns, such as widespread clear-cutting or alteration of wetlands.
Hess mentioned that the new guidelines will include a tiered approach to grading solar projects. Level 1 projects are smaller, “accessory” types of projects – meaning the panels are simply added onto structures that are already built, such as residential roofing arrays or panels added to parking canopies on the grounds of private businesses.
Level 2 arrays include the larger, ground-mounted systems that are popping up more often in communities across Rhode Island. Hess said these solar projects that could be streamlined through a more comprehensive local ordinance that dictated size requirements, necessary easements and other restrictions overseen by the municipality.
Level 3 arrays would encompass the largest arrays, such as a 21.5-megawatt array in Cranston, and would require the strictest approval process of a major land development review from the local planning board.
Christopher Kearns, interdepartmental project manager of renewables policy for the Office of Energy Resources, agreed that all large solar array projects should have to go through planning board approval.
“Give it to the experts and have those decisions decided on a case-by-case basis,” he said. He added on Monday that the recommendations set to be released are simply recommendations, and are not binding for communities to follow.
The tiered approach was an important element within the recommendation since, as both Hess and Kearns put it, solar panel projects are not one-size-fits-all.
“The big thing that we recommended is avoiding a one-size-fits-all ordinance, because the type of solar project and the location is going to be different,” Kearns said. “If you want to promote certain locations, you may want some flexibility in order to encourage sites in some locations over others.”
Adding context from a solar company’s perspective at the League of Cities and Towns session on solar siting was Michelle Carpenter, managing director of development for TurningPoint Energy, a Denver, Colorado-based renewable energy company. Carpenter took a moment to dispel some commonly held misconceptions about solar projects.
“People get concerned that solar panels cause glare,” she said. “I have solar panels on my roof and I can tell you that I drive in, see the sun up in the sky and there’s no glare coming off of my house. They’re designed to absorb solar energy, they're not designed to reflect it.”
She described the concerns over noise as a temporary issue.
“During construction, absolutely there will be noise. There’s no way around it,” she said. “There’s going to be excavators, pile drivers, delivery trucks, crews coming in and out doing the actual construction, but that’s a short-term disturbance. Beyond that, in the operation phase, there is virtually no sound.”
Carpenter said the environmental benefits of solar was already well established, as one megawatt of solar energy can replace the energy consumption equivalent to 110 single-family homes.
Solar arrays hold other potential benefits for communities as well.
“They do generate local property taxes,” she said. “That’s a benefit a lot of towns have seen and if you site it somewhere that works for the town, you can actually see some revenue associated with these projects.”