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Rhode Island study to identify best land sites for renewable energy

The state is preparing to identify the best areas for renewable-energy projects on land in Rhode Island, much as a recently completed ocean-zoning plan did for wind-power development in waters off the coast.

The intent of the multi-agency project is to come up with a statewide siting plan that would recommend locations for land-based wind power, solar energy and other clean, renewable sources of electricity. The study would not only look at where, say, the wind potential in the state is greatest, but would also consider other issues, such as visual impact and noise.

Although many states, including Rhode Island, have done studies of renewable-energy resources and many have also developed siting guidelines for projects, it is not as common to combine the two to find specific sites for possible projects.

The study in Rhode Island would be modeled after the Ocean Special Area Management Plan, an $8-million project to zone the waters off Rhode Island that was completed last year. That plan, based on research by University of Rhode Island scientists and input from environmental groups, boaters and other stakeholders, recommended two areas for marine wind farms that would cause the least amount of conflict.

Although not everyone is happy with the results, namely commercial fishermen, the Ocean SAMP has drawn national attention as a potential model for siting offshore renewable energy.

The land-based study also aims to take a comprehensive look at resources and weigh comments from stakeholders. It comes after proposals for wind turbines in Charlestown, North Kingstown and other towns have stirred objections, bringing hundreds of residents to meetings with concerns about the effects of the large structures on their communities.

The study is being driven by a desire to find suitable areas for wind farms, solar farms and other utility-scale developments in Rhode Island. So far, only small photovoltaic arrays have been installed on businesses and residences, and single wind turbines have been erected by schools, towns and other groups.

“The larger policy is how do we identify utility-scale, impactful investment opportunities within the state with the resources we have,” Keith Stokes, executive director of the state Economic Development Corporation, said at a board of directors meeting Monday. “I can’t give you the number” of sites, Stokes added. “We don’t know until the data and the research is done.”

Examples of larger projects could include a 25-megawatt wind farm proposed in Tiverton by a group of communities that call themselves the East Bay Energy Consortium or a smaller 10-megawatt solar farm being planned atop a closed landfill in East Providence.

After a news conference at the landfill Tuesday announcing the award of state funding for the solar project, Governor Chafee said Rhode Island is wise to invest in renewable energy as a hedge against the rising prices of fossil fuels. But he said that development must be done right.

“Anytime you do comprehensive planning, that’s good,” he said. “It’s smart to take a comprehensive look before there’s a deluge.”

The EDC and the Office of Energy Resources are working out the details of the study, which would also involve the state Department of Environmental Management, the Division of Planning and URI’s Coastal Resources Center. An agreement is expected within the next 60 days, according to a spokeswoman for the EDC.

The siting plan, which has been informally called a Land SAMP but has no official title yet, would be different from guidelines for installing wind turbines that are being developed by the Division of Planning. The guidelines would take into account factors such as fall zones, light flicker and height restrictions but would not make recommendations about where turbines could be built. The siting plan, on the other hand, aims to find specific locations for turbines and other renewable-energy projects.

At the event in East Providence, Stokes said the research would not take as long as the Ocean SAMP because a lot of data on land use has been collected for other purposes. The study also would not cost as much as the ocean plan, he said. At least partial funding will come from the state Renewable Energy Fund.

In addition, Stokes said the work must involve local officials. He has already contacted the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission and the Washington County Regional Planning Commission. The study would also require public hearings.

“You would need a lot of transparency on this,” Stokes said.

Any controversy over renewable energy in Rhode Island has come up in regard to wind turbines. There are currently five spread throughout the state. Although there were few objections to those turbines, opposition has arisen more recently where larger windmills have been proposed.

Developing land-based wind energy has been a challenge because Rhode Island is a small, densely populated state.

“The great wind tends to be in our coastal areas, which also are shared by our environmental areas, our waterways, our river ways, our residential, our natural habitat,” Stokes said at the EDC meeting. “So for many cases, our concern has been where there’s great wind doesn’t mean that’s the right place to put up a turbine, be it 1 or 100.”