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Monday, April 17, 2023

R.I. Needs Responsible Solar Development

Use otherwise unusable land, not forests, or solar projects

By Rep. Megan Cotter (D-Richmond, Hopkinton, Exeter)

Rhode Island needs both renewable energy and the forest to comply with the Act on Climate. However, solar development is responsible for 69% of the state’s forest loss since 2018, according to the Department of Environmental Management.

Continuing to provide economic incentives to clear-cut thousands of trees in pursuit of renewable energy is unacceptable and unnecessary. It is counterproductive for Rhode Island to continue to encourage the development of forests that are needed to help mitigate the harmful effects of climate change, as well as provide clean air and water, habitat, and contribute to our quality of life. We can and must do better.

I introduced bill H5540 that would establish more responsible solar siting. This bill, which was written by Grow Smart Rhode Island, will remove the economic incentives that are encouraging solar development on forests. 

Instead, it will direct these incentives to limit solar development to previously developed and disturbed “preferred sites,” which include landfills, gravel pits, brownfields, carports, commercial and industrial zones, and all rooftops. 

These preferred sites have by far the least conflicts for solar siting, and solar development can be accelerated in appropriate locations. This will also remove solar development pressure off our farms, forests, and important wildlife habitats. Moreover, the public will stop paying for solar development on forests by the extra fees they pay on their monthly electric bills.

To be successful in the fight against climate change, Rhode Island must achieve two broad objectives. First, the state needs to eliminate carbon emissions ASAP. The second objective is to remove and store the massive amounts of carbon that have already been released to the atmosphere. Renewable energy addresses the first objective but, unlike forests, can’t remove or store carbon.

The U.S. Climate Alliance has determined that as the impacts of climate change continue to intensify, it is essential that we safeguard and enhance the capacity of forests and natural lands to absorb and store carbon. The General Assembly in 2021 adopted the Forest Conservation Act. This act stated that “Forest land should be maintained to meet Rhode Island’s aggressive climate change goals.”

The good news is that Rhode Island can meet our renewable energy goals without sacrificing our forests. A 2020 study titled Solar Siting Opportunities for Rhode Island analyzed developed and disturbed sites, including rooftops, landfills, gravel pits, brownfields, commercial/industrial, and carport solar. 

These are the preferred sites in my bill. This study found there was the potential on these developed/disturbed sites to site solar that could eliminate as much as 70% of Rhode Island’s total, current greenhouse gas emissions.

For all these reasons, it is imperative that H5540 be adopted this year. Next year is simply too late.

Democrat Megan Cotter represents the towns of Richmond, Hopkinton, and Exeter in the Rhode Island House of Representatives.