For close to a year, Cranston citizens have spoken clearly and intelligently on the topic of renewable energy in our city. They have engaged in thoughtful, patient dialogue about an ill-devised change to zoning that declared open season on Western Cranston and its valuable green, forested and environmentally significant land. They have educated themselves and offered their new knowledge to our Planning Department, Planning Commission and City Council. They have spoken out on these pages.
These citizens, far from being naysayers, embrace renewable energy. They simply want it in the right place – brownfields, rooftops and disturbed areas-a preference that is shared by many communities across our small state. Their acts of conscience around this issue supported the development of a moratorium with the express purpose of rewriting the existing solar ordinance into one reflecting the desires of our citizens, addressing the built outcomes of the solar manufacturing sites already operating in Western Cranston and proactively addressing our opportunity to address climate change.
The Planning Department’s new ordinance has done much to codify community concerns and address the dismal performance of the current projects’ developers. But on one aspect of the proposed ordinance the Department and the Planning Commission remain at direct odds with community will – allowing solar manufacturing in A-80. In short, as presented, this otherwise well-vetted ordinance will continue to allow large-scale solar manufacturing, albeit with a more rigorous approval process, in our city’s remaining natural places.
This is simply unacceptable. To understand why, we need to understand how we got here.
The Planning Department will have us believe that the original zoning change was a planning tool – an intentional, outcomes-based decision to protect our community from suburban sprawl. They call this tool “land banking,” suggesting that the simple act of not developing housing right now will prevent any such future development. There are some problems with this revisionist history beyond the simple fact that it was not presented as such a tool at the time of its passage.
At present, the city has no means to secure these lands’ futures. Solar manufacturing installations are, for the most part, occurring on leased land owned by private citizens. They have a minimum life of 25 years with extension options of an additional decade. There is no concomitant contract that secures this land from becoming housing at the termination of the lease. There certainly could be, but at present there is not, nor is there any viable municipal structure being proposed to make it so.
To that end, solar manufacturing is also being presented as a better current use for the land than housing. Indeed, with the Natick Avenue project, the solar developers presented a completely unrealistic plan of housing that could occur if the solar did not. This threatened alternative was neither proposed nor approved and ignored the fact that the land is largely unbuildable slope and ledge that abuts wetlands. The site will prove extremely challenging to develop in any form, let alone to cram with houses as was presented.
This specter of housing continues to be raised in defense of large-scale solar in A-80 generally. According to our Planning Department, it’s solar or housing – the traffic, the strain on schools, the utter catastrophe! This live-or-die scenario would suggest that our Planning Department and its volunteer commission are incapable of addressing suburban sprawl in other ways-specifically by addressing it through intelligent, forward-thinking (dare I say modern?) planning policy; policy that could be codified if we actually updated our Comprehensive Plan, which has been expired for years now.
Solar arrays are also presented as not being development. This is simply false. The sites already built and the Natick project – now approved but tied up in a court challenge – are clearly development. They have all involved, or will involve, clear-cutting, blasting or drilling, and disturbance of the soil web. This is not a temporary condition. The land’s capacity for water management, plant support and carbon sequestration is permanently altered through these actions. On sites where trees are cleared, the loss is multi-fold. Forests are increasingly recognized as one of our best local means of combating climate change. Even the most egregious housing development, under current zoning, would not wreak as much havoc on the land and our climate as these installations have already and may yet do.
Despite this as backdrop, the Planning Department is representing the new ordinance as the means to meeting our city’s renewable energy goal. There is just one problem with that – we don’t have an energy goal. Undoubtedly, we should – indeed, we must – but at present, we do not. At the last Planning Commission meeting, staff held forth their own goal as being of a size to meet the entire city’s citizens’ electric needs – using our obvious inability to meet that goal locally as justification for continued solar manufacturing on A-80.
Cranston is not unique in being unable to meet 100 percent of its electric needs locally. Few communities in our region, which is not a strong solar energy region to begin with, could do so. Cities across the country meet their goals – of which, I remind us, Cranston has none – with a combination of regional production purchase and power credits purchased from elsewhere. Developing an energy plan is how we might address this sourcing while also addressing our response to climate change generally-a response that should, at minimum, include a strategy to reduce our reliance on energy rather than simply producing or net-metering to meet it.
As of this writing and despite admirable new restrictions to solar manufacturing in A-80 (tree disturbance limits, parcel setbacks, no “tree-topping”), the city’s new solar ordinance appears to be hell-bent on allowing solar developers to continue to target Cranston – specifically our western neighbors for their lucrative energy trading.
It seems that we, as citizens, should have a say in how our natural resources are employed and in how our city will respond to climate change.
The sun needs to shine – not on arrays of non-recyclable, toxic-when-broken panels, but on the contents of this ordinance and the forces that are driving it. “Green energy” is still big energy, and big energy is a commodity – a money-rich commodity. Why else would the recently presented no-bid, 35-year contract for renewable power with one local solar developer cause such a stir, let alone defensiveness on the part of the administration?
We and our elected and appointed leaders have become students of a new technology and a new for-profit industry sector that is moving with speed and intent into communities across our small state. We are all getting our learners permits together. So, missteps and mistakes are to be expected and are understandable. Still, blatant disregard for the will of our citizens, refusal to attend to the evidence now at hand as to the impacts of these projects on our community and ignoring the science around carbon sequestration is not.
As of this writing, the Ordinance Committee and the full City Council will be reviewing both an extension of the moratorium and its work product – a new solar ordinance for our city – on Oct. 17 and Oct. 28, respectively.
I encourage the committee and the council to hear the community on this matter and to take decisive action to ban solar manufacturing in A-80. Then, let’s employ our citizens’ enthusiasm for this topic and roll up our sleeves in public/private collaboration to craft a model energy policy for Cranston.
Drake Patten is the owner of cluck! and resides at Hurricane Hill Farm on Natick Avenue in Cranston.