Valuing Siting options for Commercial-Scale Solar Energy in Rhode Island
An integrated research and extension project supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Agricultural and Food Research Initiative Competitive Program, Critical Agricultural Research and Extension, grant number 2019-68008-29826.
About our Project
The purpose of this project is to infuse new, scientific information into this debate and through extension efforts advance the debate to be a more holistic accounting of benefits and costs of various siting decisions. We hypothesize that part of the reason that the debate is difficult is because there is considerable unknown information about the value of tradeoffs. Currently, trade offs are like apples and oranges. How do you compare the loss of a bucolic view of your neighbor’s farm to receiving payments for energy generation from your solar array? We aim to conduct two non-market valuation studies to provide quantitative values of externalities associated with siting decisions. Through this process, the concerns of opponents can be quantifiably accounted for and integrated into a cost-benefit analysis that we intend to impact policy. For example, if residents value solar being sited on brownfields sufficiently more than forest land, then an efficient solution would be for the state government to offer additional incentives for development on brownfields. Through the new valuation estimates and extension to understand those estimates and the broader context, we aim to advance siting decisions to be socially optimal.
Our Project TeamCorey Lang, PhD (Principal Investigator)
Corey is an associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics. His research focuses on non-market valuation and energy economics. He has previously studied onshore and offshore wind energy, and is excited to add solar to the mix.
Kate Venturini (Co-Principal Investigator)
Kate is a program administrator and educator for URI Cooperative Extension. Her work supports a number of programs and strategic areas of focus, including energy literacy. Kate’s work supports train-the-trainer (e.g. Master Gardener), student experiential learning (e.g. Energy Fellows), and horticultural and landscape restoration education (e.g. Home Horticulture Certificate) programs that seek to provide a bridge between communities, practitioners and consumers and the science-based resources of the land grant university system.
Vasu is a PhD candidate in the Environmental and Natural Resource Economics department at URI, and she expects to receive her degree by July 2021. She is an applied economist, with a strong background in environmental economics and a particular interest in policy relevant issues and non-market valuation.
Clare is an undergraduate in the Ocean Engineering department at URI, in her sophomore year. She is double minoring in sustainability and math, and is currently participating in the 2021 Energy Fellows Program supporting the extension objectives of this project.
The Solar Siting Situation in Rhode Island
In the past couple years, large-scale, ground-mounted solar developments have become more common in New England, and the pace of development is increasing (see Figure 1). This trend has been driven by Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), regulations that require increased energy production from renewable energy sources. In January 2020, Governor Raimondo signed an Executive Order committing Rhode Island to be powered by 100 percent renewable electricity by the end of the decade. The Governor’s goal is one part of a broader state strategy to address the climate change crisis by reducing economy-wide carbon emissions. While a strong majority of New England residents support renewable energy and addressing climate change in general, the siting of large-scale solar developments causes considerable controversy.
One reason for controversy is that large-scale, ground-mounted solar developments are often sited on farm and forest lands because this is where development is cheapest. This results in conversion of farm land and clear cutting of forests. Residents in rural and urban-rural fringe areas complain about the loss of amenities, ecosystem services, and their town’s rural character. They see solar as an industrialization of the landscape. These residents, and really almost everyone, would prefer solar development to occur on brownfields, covered landfills, parking lots, and building tops. Some solar developments do occur in these areas, but it is much more expensive for developers to do so, and thus much less common. Another side of this debate comes from farmers and landowners who see opportunity for financial gain and stability. In many parts of New England, but especially in Rhode Island and Eastern Massachusetts, farm and forest lands are under constant threat of residential and commercial development due to proximity to urban areas, high land values, and high property taxes. For farmers who want to continue to farm and keep the farm in their family, solar development offers a figurative lifeline. They can install solar on a fraction of their land, perhaps even on marginal farmland, and receive significant financial benefits. This enables them to have steady income and keep farming, and thus keep producing local food and maintain the ecosystem services associated with small-scale agriculture that would be lost with residential development. In addition, solar developments can help rural communities stay viable with new income and tax revenue without a population increase.
Based on our discussions with various stakeholders and attendance at multiple zoning and solar siting meetings, it is clear that there are many loud, intransigent voices in the debate over solar siting, there is little progress in finding common ground, and all sides feel they are not being heard. State governments are most interested in maintaining the current pace of solar development in order to meet RPS targets. Many residents of rural and rural-urban fringe towns feel they have enough solar development already. Landowners want to be able to do what they want on their land. Town councils are motivated to approve solar projects because of the large tax payments that accompany development.
In Rhode Island, the RI Office of Energy Resources and the Division of Statewide Planning led the development of siting/zoning guidelines intended to help municipalities understand the complexities of this new issue. In our opinion, the guidelines do not reflect a holistic assessment of the benefits and costs of various options, thus, the impetus for this study.
Reports and findings will be posted here as they are developed. Please check in periodically, and/or join our mailing list to be notified of updates.
- ecoRI News, March 23, 2021 // “Solar Development, Forest Protection Need Better Balance“
- Providence Journal, September 30, 2020 // “Study: Solar projects driving down home values in RI suburbs”
- Providence, Journal, July 9, 2020 // “Raimondo’s 100% renewable energy goal for R.I. a daunting challenge”
- Providence Journal, June 26, 2019 // “General Assembly moves likely to expand solar development in R.I.”
- Westerly Sun, October 31, 2019 // “URI researchers prepare for survey on solar siting preferences
- Brattle Group, January 21, 2021 // “The Road to 100% Renewable Electricity by 2030 in Rhode Island”
- Acadia Center, September 2020 // “Meeting New England’s Solar Needs on Contaminated Sites and Rooftops”
- Synapse Energy, August 18, 2020 // “Solar Siting Opportunities for Rhode Island”
- RI Office of Energy Resources // “Solar Guidance and Model Ordinance Development”
- RI Office of Energy Resources, December 5, 2019 // “RI Distributed Generation Updates”
- UMass Clean Energy Extension // “Solar Planning in Western Massachusetts”
- Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., August 18, 2020 // Solar Siting Opportunities for Rhode Island: An analysis of potentials and costs of rooftop, landfill, gravel pit, brownfield, commercial and industrial ground-mounted and carport solar