Unlike Western Cranston, Exeter and West Greenwich as well as other rural areas in the state, Warwick does not have extensive woodlands and fields that could become sites for solar farms.
But that doesn’t mean Warwick doesn’t offer locations for solar arrays in addition to the two major sites it has now, the former Leviton property off the Airport Connector and a smaller one on West Shore Road just to the northeast of the Apponaug underpass.
Chief of Staff and City Planner William DePasquale recently offered views on regulations being considered for solar development starting with residential installation of solar as a right. This would mean that homeowners would not need zoning to install solar panels other than those permits required by the building department.
Depasquale’s comments were made in an interview preceding the 20th annual Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns convention Thursday at the Crowne Plaza. The daylong event included workshops on a cross section of timely topics including solar energy.
Mayor Joseph Solomon did not attend the convention. However, his office responded to questions about renewal energy.
“I am very excited about the possibilities solar power has to offer. We need to evaluate long-term solutions to protect our environment and conserve resources, and the utilization of renewable energy is a great option. With the green industry rapidly growing, the solar power industry is creating jobs while helping to preserve our environment – a win-win,” Solomon said in a statement.
On Thursday, Executive Director of Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns Brian Daniels described the convention as an annual opportunity to share best practices.
“A lot of the ideas that the panels are focused on today [answer] ‘What does municipal government look like in the future?, so we’re trying to find new trends, new technologies,” Daniels said. “So there is a lot of focus on technology.”
In the solar power workshop, three presenters shared their findings for a new wave of energy. Scott Millar, manager of Community Technical Assistance for Grow Smart Rhode Island, said that 20 percent of land in the state is core forest, meaning undeveloped land. This leaves 80 percent of land where solar sites could be installed. However, as land becomes more occupied, it will become more expensive.
“Think of it sort of like the beginning of the end, the more fragmented it becomes,” Millar said.
Millar also said there are big challenges ahead for Rhode Island, but the town of Glocester showed signs of progress in passing an ordinance that says no more than 30 percent of a lot can be cleared. And if the demolition exceeds 40,000 square feet, there must be an assessment of the land. That assessment includes water quality, impact of carbon, input from adjacent landowners as well as habitat evaluation.
A suggestion from Paul Raducha, senior developer for Kearsarge Energy, was to look at dual use for solar projects. He said that one way to get multiple uses from a solar energy project is to farm in between the panels. In some locations in Massachusetts, Raducha said, farmers use the land to let sheep graze around the rows of panels, which also eliminated any need to fill the neighborhood with the sound of lawnmowers.
Ashley Sweet, Weston & Sampson senior planner and Exeter’s town planner, said that drafting an ordinance for solar energy needs to be done carefully. In her community, she said, the ordinance they drafted for a project was inadequate. She added that they based a new ordinance off a few prior projects on commercial land, then realized that they had made a mistake in doing so.
“I think it’s important that the community has a conversation with what they want their community to look like, where they feel it’s appropriate for these things to go,” Sweet said. “You’re better off having that conversation and drafting the ordinance for that as opposed to a knee-jerk reaction to a project.”
For Warwick’s future, Mayor Solomon said that solar energy is already a topic of discussion.
“Recently, I asked my Planning Department to draft legislation that would support responsible, sustainable solar energy systems – both large and small – in suitable locations that are currently underutilized or in constrained lands, such as former landfills.”
DePasquale said the city needs to “up its game when it comes to renewables. As Warwick does not have a lot of open space that would be appropriate for solar, he is looking to developed property, especially along the Route 2 retail corridor and the large parking lots of plazas and big box stores as sites for solar development. In addition to roof panels, DePasquale is thinking of elevated panels that would provide sheltered parking while generating added revenue for retailers that are feeling the pinch from Internet sales. Aspects of the legislation could include tax assessment incentives as well as provisions if a developer were to clear trees for solar array requirements setting standards on percentages of property cleared and that an offsetting number of trees be planted elsewhere.
As DePasquale put it, the ordinance would be written to direct solar development “to compromised properties” as opposed to forests. DePasquale is also looking at wind power and regulations on the location of wind turbines.