Grow Smart R.I. supports Rhode Island’s ambitious renewable energy goal. But how we achieve this goal is as important as reaching the goal itself. Continuing to clear-cut thousands of trees and threaten our prime farm land in pursuit of this goal is unacceptable and unnecessary. We can and must do better.
To end the current destructive “Wild West” approach to renewable energy siting in Rhode Island, we believe that the state should immediately place a moratorium on state incentives for utility-scale renewable-energy development on forested land and prime agricultural soils. The moratorium should continue until the state establishes economic incentives to encourage the siting of utility-scale renewable energy on developed and disturbed locations, such as landfills, brownfields, rooftops, parking lot canopies, and gravel banks, and disincentives to prevent the continued loss of our forests and prime agricultural soils.
Massachusetts and Vermont have already established such economic incentives and disincentives, and Connecticut is in the process of developing its own siting reforms.
The moratorium is also needed to develop peer-reviewed guidance for the best management practices for effective siting of renewable energy. This guidance can greatly improve municipal siting ordinances. As the smallest and second-most-densely-populated state in the country, Rhode Island must use its existing developed and disturbed locations as efficiently as possible to reduce the development pressure on our farms and forests.
Protecting Rhode Island’s forests is important both economically and environmentally. Rhode Island-grown wood products contribute over $700 million annually to the state’s economy and support over 3,000 jobs. Rhode Island forests also provide safe drinking water, clean air, flood prevention, and wildlife habitat. In addition, our forests play a valuable role in mitigating climate change.
The Nature Conservancy recently concluded that forests are the most economical means to mitigate climate change because of their ability to absorb and store carbon. Based on our analysis of a variety of studies, Rhode Island forests can attenuate the annual carbon emissions of approximately 7 million automobiles. The state Department of Environmental Management estimates the carbon storage value of Rhode Island forests to be $39 million annually.
The 2014 Resilient R.I. Act requires achieving greenhouse gas reduction levels that can only be reached by no further loss of forest, according to the Rhode Island Greenhouse Reduction Plan. Therefore, Rhode Island must prevent the further loss of forest and make a greater investment in purchasing development rights to preserve forests for future generations.
Our proposed R.I. Forest Preservation Act would require the state to lead by example and not fund or provide any incentives to encourage renewable energy development on forested tracts of 250 acres or more. These forested areas have been determined by the DEM to have the best forest values.
However, there are also valuable forested lands and prime agricultural soils that are smaller than 250 acres. That is why it is essential to follow the lead of New Jersey, the only state more densely populated than Rhode Island, by identifying where renewable energy development should be encouraged to protect our environment, maximize the efficiency of existing development, and help our economy by lowering the energy costs for businesses.
This approach could help to achieve our renewable energy goals faster than the current process, which has been bogged down by understandably contentious municipal hearings. We should also map important natural assets, such as forests and drinking water supplies, and then follow the lead of several of our New England neighbors in establishing economic disincentives to direct future renewable energy development away from these areas.
By implementing these changes, Rhode Island can achieve greenhouse-gas reduction and renewable-energy development goals while avoiding damage to our natural resources and community character. This is the kind of “win-win” for our environment and quality of place that should be a state priority.
Scott Wolf is executive director of Grow Smart Rhode Island.