HOPE VALLEY — A focus group at Langworthy Library invited residents to provide their input on a survey of solar siting preferences that will be conducted in the coming months throughout Rhode Island by researchers from the University of Rhode Island.

Wednesday’s focus group followed a similar session on Tuesday at the Clark Memorial Library in Richmond. Participants in both groups, which were limited to a maximum of eight people, were paid $40 each for the 90-minute sessions.

The research study, led by associate professor Corey Lang, is a collaboration between URI’s Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics and the URI Cooperative Extension.

The study is funded by a $300,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Vasundhara Gaur, a Ph.D. candidate in natural resource economics, explained that the research, which will  constitute part of her thesis, will try to gauge people’s opinions on the siting of large, ground-mounted solar energy facilities.

“Basically, what we’re trying to get out of this is to see what preferences people have regarding solar siting in Rhode Island and whether they would prefer solar to be sited on brownfields,” she said. “That’s the issue here, that it’s been sited on lands that should not have them.”

Kate Venturini, program manager at theh URI Cooperative Extension, will disseminate the results of the study.

“This is a three-year project, so a lot of what we said we kept somewhat loose,” she said. “In my opinion, we need to determine where the best places to create a repository are. Is it the internet? Where should we hold this information and how will it be most useful to local decision-makers and the state?”

The solar siting debate, Gaur said, was a relatively new issue to her, but several focus group members were Hopkinton residents with years of experience in the town's solar controversies. Town Council member Sharon Davis, Planning Board Chairman Alfred DiOrio, and Carol Desrosiers, a member of the Hopkinton Citizens for Responsible Planning group, offered input and knowledge gleaned from grappling with the solar siting issue. 

In the first half hour of the focus group, participants went through the survey, which contained several pages of questions about commercial solar facility siting and varying siting scenarios. 

“We need your feedback to make our research better, to refine our questions and make sure that the questions we have here are pertinent,” Gaur told the group. “That is why I would really, really love it if I could get your honest feedback.… Hopefully, once these focus groups finish, I incorporate your feedback into this and we get the survey out as soon as possible.”

Participants proposed several additions and changes.

DiOrio suggested that one of the hypothetical scenarios described in the survey, involving underground transmission lines, was not realistic, since National Grid does not bury its transmission lines.

“The first thing that’s going to come to people’s mind is, you have solar panels and you have the street with the utility lines that are already on it,” he said. “That’s never the case. Instead, what we see is solar panels and a forest of utility poles at the interface.… National Grid says ‘We don’t do anything underground.’” 

Asked how they felt about the need for renewable energy projects to be built even where they might not be desirable, Davis, who opposes commercial solar projects in residential and farming zones, said Hopkinton already had more than enough.

“Hopkinton has replaced 80 percent of its energy with renewable energy,” she said. “We use 99 megawatts, we’ve approved 80, so I think we’re done.”

The final version of the survey will be administered to sample groups throughout Rhode Island. Venturini said it will provide data on the values people place on different sites.

“There is a push at the state level to do a market valuation of what does it cost a developer to develop in area A versus B,” she said. “What we’re doing is non-market valuation, giving a voice to how people value certain siting attributes.”

Gaur said public response to the two focus groups had been so positive that she was considering holding a third focus group at URI.

“We got a really good response from people,” she said. “I had to turn some people back because we reached full capacity.”

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