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Saturday, December 1, 2018

Consortium turns former disposal, industrial sites into solar farms

Clean energy project, one of New England’s largest, also has economic benefits

solar panel field in West Kingston
Solar panel field in West Kingston is located on a capped waste disposal site. It was developed and is owned by Kearsarge Energy as part of the URI-led South Kingstown Solar Consortium, which includes the towns of Narragansett and South Kingstown. (URI photo/Nora Lewis)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Quarry owners are under no legal obligation to reclaim the land they mine. Charlestown is loaded with active and abandoned quarry and sand & gravel sites. Some pose a public health risk. Most are eyesores. Charlestown should consider entering into a deal with URI to put those lands to better use than just sitting there like moonscapes. - Will Collette

The University of Rhode Island and the towns of South Kingstown and Narragansett have created the South Kingstown Solar Consortium to develop an ambitious solar power project that will generate economic benefits for all three partners while boosting the amount of renewable energy flowing into the state’s electric grid.

In the works for more than three years, the project is among the largest solar power initiatives in New England. When complete, it will cover 267 acres — in West Kingston, South Kingstown and West Greenwich.

The University and its private, municipal and state partners unveiled details of the initiative at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the West Kingston and South Kingstown sites in Kingston. A similar celebration is planned for the West Greenwich site when it becomes operational.


“With this bold initiative, URI and its town partners will see their energy costs reduced, and the entire state will benefit from a larger percentage of its electricity coming from a reliable, renewable, low-impact and clean source,” said URI President David M. Dooley. 

“The University’s commitment to this project reflects our values as a higher education institution dedicated to decreasing our carbon-footprint and contributing to a healthier global environment.”

The consortium solicited competitive proposals from private developers to construct and maintain the solar farms at no net cost to the consortium members. 

It signed 25-year contracts with Kearsarge Solar to develop the West Kingston and South Kingstown sites, and with Energy Development Partners (a.k.a. University Solar, LLC) to develop the West Greenwich site.

The capacity of the installations is 40 megawatts of direct current, which is expected to deliver 48,000 megawatt hours of energy to the grid annually. This is enough energy to power 750 homes and offset the fossil fuel consumption of 1,500 cars.

In addition, the power generated will help the state meet Gov. Gina Raimondo’s goal of having 100 percent of the energy consumed by state government supplied through renewable sources by the year 2025.

The project might also be one of the best examples of upcycling — that is, a superior secondary use of a product or material, in this case, the land. 

Of the 42 acres at the West Kingston and South Kingstown locations, 28 are non-farmable, capped waste disposal sites: the former South Kingstown town dump and URI disposal area on Plains Road in West Kingston; and the onetime South Kingstown/Narragansett dump on Rose Hill Road in South Kingstown.

How it works
The initiative is a “virtual net metering project,” in which the solar energy generated flows into the electrical supplier’s grid rather than being directly used by any one of the consortium partners, explained David Lamb, assistant director of facilities services and utilities at URI. 

State law requires that developers of such projects must be able to offload net metering credits to a public or quasi-public entity; in this case, the consortium members. 

The value of credits issued is determined by the number of kilowatt hours generated by the subject solar facilities times the Public Utilities Commission set rate applicable to solar generated electricity.

“We are supporting the development of renewable energy that will be supplied to the grid and, in turn, the consortium members receive credits that will reduce costs on their monthly utility bills,” Lamb explained.

The University expects to receive credits worth $1.2 million in savings annually on its electric bill when all sites are operational, said J. Vernon Wyman, assistant vice president of business services at URI.

As a consumer of more than 75 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year — which translates to an annual electric bill of roughly $9.4 million — the University provides its town partners with the assurance that they can transfer their net metering credits to URI if they one day consume less energy than their share of what is generated, alleviating their long-term financial risk while further reducing URI’s energy costs.

For the first 10 years of operation, the private developers receive renewable energy certificates for the electricity generated that they can trade or sell to offset their costs. 

The credits are non-tangible commodities, with each one worth one megawatt hour of electricity generated from a renewable source. 

In the eleventh year of the contracts, these renewable energy certificates transfer to the consortium members.

“The value of collaboration through the consortium is the ability to manage our consumption and maximize the benefits for the members,” Wyman said. “It’s a great partnership with environmental and economic benefits for the consortium and the state.”

The initiative has the added benefit of enhancing URI’s substantial academic offerings in sustainability. For example, students in a variety of disciplines — including engineering and environmental sciences — will be given supervised access to the solar array site in West Kingston for experiential learning.

Working together
The project also serves as a tangible illustration of the University’s longstanding collaborations with Narragansett and South Kingstown. 

All three worked together years ago to clean up the disposal sites in accordance with federal Superfund laws. Due to their former use, the sites present limited possibilities for reuse, but are ideal as passive solar farms, Lamb said.

The state Department of Environmental Management and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regional office have endorsed the use for solar farms. At those sites, the panels will be installed on ballasted platforms so the capped material remains undisturbed.

The West Kingston site includes 14 acres of adjacent open land owned by URI. The solar panels at that location, as well as at the West Greenwich location, which includes a former sand and gravel operation, will be installed on pile-driven structures. 

All locations will be surrounded by high fences to protect these renewable energy generation assets for years to come.