Sunrise in the West?
Planner heralds solar farms in Western Cranston as environmentally friendly, long-term land use option
It used to be thought of as “the way of the future.” Now, the future has arrived in Western Cranston with a new solar farm with 60 acres of solar panels in the works off of Lippitt Avenue, in addition to the Hope Road solar farm also being built currently.
According to Planning Director Jason Pezzullo, this represents a policy shift in the planning department’s vision of Cranston’s future.
The Lippitt Avenue solar farm, being privately built by Southern Sky Renewable Energy (SSRE), is on a 100-acre plot of land in Western Cranston. Sixty of those acres will be used for interconnected solar paneling that will be connected to the power grid, Pezzullo said, and the other 40 is open space and wetlands, which he said is untouchable land.
He called the SSRE solar farm “one of the largest farms in all of New England.” He said that it is expected to be finished by the end of this year.
The site, which he said is considered a utility scale power generation site, will power 21.5 megawatts of energy to be connected to the Grid and used in homes/business across Cranston, and it won’t be connected to any one site, like Garden City, Pezzullo said. He said that as far as Rhode Island is concerned, 21.5 megawatts is a massive amount of solar power. The Hope Road site produces 10 megawatts, he added.
Pezzullo said that the planning department did a comprehensive plan amendment about a year ago to allow for solar farms like this to be put in.
“In essence, these pieces of land in Western Cranston are vacant pieces of land,” he said. “They’re not farmed and don’t have any particular use.”
He said that both the already-built Hope Road farm, which has 40 acres of solar panels on it, and the SSRE farm had approved subdivisions on them and were “all set to be cleared for roads and about 70 homes between the both of them.”
But Pezzullo said that the planning department wanted to have a new policy to guide the city when it came to open and private land in Western Cranston.
“Do we want to see this land preserved one day or just carved up for house lots?” he questioned. “The policy is we’d rather see it preserved in the long term. The idea is using the solar farms as a bridge to getting these pieces of land preserved long-term.”
He said that putting a solar farm into the land locks up the property for 25-30 years’ use as an energy creator. When the solar farm is defunct in three decades, he said, the land could be reused as a solar farm or reverted back to open land.
In the short-term, he said, they are preventing the land from new housing development, which he said would be costly to the city because of roads, new schools and other accompaniments to development. Pezzullo said that the planning department “doesn’t have many tools” to prevent costly housing development, but the promotion and creation of solar farms is one of ones they can use.
“You can prevent the housing in the near term, produce renewable energy and work to permanently preserve this [land] in the long run,” he said. “That’s a pretty good deal for the city.”
Pezzullo said that between land value, megawatt production and a lack of maintenance and development costs on the land, the city will be bringing in between $100,000 and $150,000 in yearly revenue from the site. This is based in part on the state declaring two years ago that a city could generate $5,000 in tax revenue per year for every megawatt produced on the site, Pezzullo said.
If it were a subdivision of forty houses, he said, the city would be losing around $300,000 per year from the land. He added that the city is able to absorb that cost if need be, but putting a solar farm into the site makes it a “financial win for the city.”
Critics of the new solar farms say that trees shouldn’t be cut down for renewable energy, Pezzullo said. The SSRE site was formerly a farm and had reforested, so trees did indeed need to be cut down to the solar panels to be put in.
“From an environmental standpoint, yes you are fragmenting forests, there’s no question,” he said. “But looking at the overall picture, it’s a tradeoff we’re willing to make.”
He said that trees do soak up carbon from the atmosphere, but solar farms are more efficient in that regard because one acre of solar will mitigate as much carbon as 173 acres of forest would. Unlike a coal-powered fire plant, he said, solar farms don’t burn carbon.
“We’re losing trees, but it’s for a good cause,” he said about the tradeoff of cutting down trees for solar-powered energy.
There have also been concerns raised by neighbors with how the companies are going about their construction of the solar farms. One neighbor challenged the planning commission’s approval of the Hope Road solar farm through court action, with part of that lawsuit now sitting at Superior Court. Pezzullo said that the comprehensive plan amendment made last year that set goals, policies and objectives for the land in Western Cranston make the development consistent with the planning department’s guidelines.
Aside from the solar farms, there are still lots of pieces of open space in Western Cranston that have been developed on, are being developed on, or will need a decision made on them in the near future, Pezzullo expressed.
There’s an 80-lot subdivision off of Hope Road and Phoenix Avenue that has “lots of roads and homes,” he said, which represents some residential development in Western Cranston that has already happened.
As for commercial development, Pezzullo said that there isn’t much outside of the industrial zones of Comstock Parkway, Plainfield Pike, and Scituate Avenue.
“Mostly, Western Cranston is subdivisions, golf courses, active farms and now solar farms,” he said.
Pezzullo expressed that both the city’s current long and short term goals are being fulfilled by the development of these giant solar farms.
“My standpoint is that it’s 2018 and these will be part of the rural landscape moving forward,” he said. “Renewables do take up a lot of space for what they produce, but I think it’s a good thing. We’re doing something for the environment.”