standing solar field panels

A section of the Nexamp solar panel array in Richmond. Sun file photo

WOOD RIVER JCT. — Experts invited by the Hopkinton Planning Board to discuss solar energy siting practices at a workshop Tuesday looked at the most recent state renewable energy incentives, which are shifting to encourage developers to use disturbed or previously developed sites.

Open space and forests, once viewed as easy targets for commercial solar facilities, are now valued as carbon-reducing ecosystems that should not be sacrificed for solar development.

Taking part in the workshop at Chariho Middle School were Chris Kearns from the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources, Scott Millar of Grow Smart Rhode Island, and solar developer Paul Raducha of Kearsarge Energy.

Kearns said his office had been working with an outside contractor, Synapse, on a comprehensive analysis of where solar projects could be built without destroying forests and fields.

“We’re looking at residential and commercial rooftops, landfills, gravel pits, brownfields, parking lots,” he said. “We’re also going to do an estimate of what the costs are to achieve those objectives in certain locations. We’ll also examine what other New England states and mid-Atlantic states have done in terms of solar siting with their state policy and incentive programs.”

Synapse will present its final report to the Office of Energy Resources in March.

Grow Smart Rhode Island, which advocates sustainable development, has supported solar projects that are built in appropriate locations, but Millar said solar energy facilities represent a “new land use” for the cities and towns, and state incentives have encouraged the development of natural areas.

“I think most Rhode Island communities are in the same boat,” he said. “If you talk to community planers and planning boards, they know how to manage residential, commercial and industrial development. They have many years of experience in dealing with it. This was brand new. In many case, people didn’t understand what the outcome of the project was going to look like.”

Millar said intact forests are now understood to be critical to mitigating climate change.

“The forest has been determined by a lot of studies to be the most economical means of addressing carbon sequestration,” he said. “There’s just no doubting that science at all. Rhode Island has about 368,000 acres of forest. On an annual basis, that forest is absorbing and storing about half a million tons of carbon. That’s enough to neutralize the carbon emissions, if you will, of over 100,000 cars.”

Raducha explained how his company chooses sites for solar development. Many factors, he said, contribute to the final selection, including the proximity of an interconnection to the electrical grid, but rooftops, parking lots and brownfields are considered to be prime sites for solar.

Raducha pointed out potential issues with a promising site, such as a landfill, which might be located in a residential zone where the town prohibits solar development.

“When they do an ordinance, they’re eliminating solar from a residential area or from certain zones, which makes sense, but what they may not realize is that their landfill or brownfield or contaminated site might be in residential areas,” he said. “By looking at where they are ... it’s a way to maybe zone, saying ‘we do not allow it in this zone, but if it’s a brownfield, it’s a special use and we have some kind of control over that.’”

Another area where cities and towns could be more flexible is in mandating limits to coverage of parcels by solar panels.

“In some cases, I’m looking at a landfill that’s in a town that has 50 percent coverage but the whole landfill is the lot,” Raducha said. “At 50 percent, I only get half of the landfill, which is cleared and capped, which is perfect for solar.”

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