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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Study Commission Ready to OK Installing Solar Panels on Medians

Either that or high-speed rail

By Rob Smith / ecoRI News staff

This system is already in place in South Korea
Should Rhode Island install solar panels along highway medians and other places? A state panel studying the issue says yes.

The commission, chaired by Rep. Robert Phillips, D-Woonsocket, has been studying the feasibility of installing solar panels in the medians of highways like I-95 and I-295 since September.

“We want to make sure we take advantage of any and all areas that can produce solar energy for the state,” Phillips said.

Under the possible recommendations discussed by the commission Feb. 12, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation would modify its utility accommodation policy (UAP) to include procedures and regulations for the state to follow when accepting future solar projects on lands adjacent to its interstate highways, which in turn would have to be approved by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

Once the modifications are approved by the federal government, the state is given the all clear to accept bids from contractors on solar projects, like any other procurement process from state officials.

A preliminary list compiled by RIDOT officials last fall identified 15 potential sites for solar placement along interstates, totaling about 330 acres. Building solar on every available acre could provide more than 100 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy, using the latest solar density estimates from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“It’s a slam dunk,” Robert Rocchio, a chief engineer at RIDOT, told commission members last month. “It’s a way of extracting value from land that otherwise has no utility.”

That’s good news. But what’s the downside?

Commission members expressed concerns about a possible procurement process from the state, and perhaps more crucially, interconnecting the projects within the greater electric grid. Renewable energy projects in the New England region are regularly bottlenecked because the infrastructure of the electrical grid, administered by dozens of different utility companies nationwide, does not have the capacity to handle additional power generations.

A study released last year by the Clean Energy Group, a Vermont-based nonprofit dedicated to studying renewable energy issues, showed an alarming number of renewable energy projects stalling in Massachusetts because of repeated delays, and surprising costs when it came to connecting electrical projects to the grid.

As a result, completion rates for projects are low and wait times are on the rise. A study released last April by the Berkeley Lab showed that only 20% of new projects requesting interconnections between 2010 and 2017 reached operational status by the end of 2022. The completion rate for solar projects is even lower, at 14%.

The reason for the wait? Renewable energy projects, which make up about 93% of all interconnection requests nationwide, are a victim of their own success; business is booming and overwhelming the queue to update aging electrical infrastructure. In December, Rhode Island Energy, the dominant utility company in Rhode Island, told the commission the large influx of distributed generators had pushed some substations and feeder lines to their limits.

It’s the second environmental study commission closing in on the finish line early this legislative session. Earlier this month, the commission studying wildfire prevention and forest management, chaired by Rep. Megan Cotter, D-Exeter, discussed its recommendations for a draft report to the General Assembly.

Cotter, mindful of the short runway that study commissions have between concluding their business and introducing legislation, told ecoRI News last year she wanted her commission to finish in time to introduce legislation. 

Since the start of the term last month, Cotter has introduced two bills, one to allocate money for new positions in the Department of Environmental Management’s forestry division, and another to add $16 million to the green bond for open space, farmland preservation, and forestland management.

The other two study commissions — one to study the decline in quahog landings in Narragansett Bay and another to study the effectiveness of a bottle bill — are expected to continue to meet further into the legislative session.

The House commission on solar panels is expected to meet one more time. The study commission expires in June.