Public Hearing on solar ordinance changes

Thu, 01/21/2021 - 5:45pm
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The Town of New Shoreham will conduct a public hearing on proposed changes to the zoning ordinances on solar energy systems on Monday, Feb.1, at 7 p.m.

Solar technology has evolved in many ways over the years — what was once an oddity on the roof or in the yard of a neighbor is becoming commonplace.

Block Island has slowly but surely embraced solar technologies over the years and the momentum continues with the help of the Block Island Solar Initiative and entrepreneurs like resident Chris Warfel of Entech Engineering.

Realizing the power that comes from their roofs, residents whose solar systems produced more power than they could use were able to get credit on their power bills through a program called net metering. The program is limited by the state of Rhode Island such that connected systems do not exceed three percent of the peak output of the local power utility during any given year. The peak for Block Island currently averages 5,000 kW per year.

On Block Island, the Block Island Power Company bumped up against that limit in 2019. The program was supposed to be for residential installations only but a review by BIPCo revealed that there were some commercial properties included in the equation.

BIPCO and the Board of Commissioners of the Block Island Utility District decided to eliminate the commercial customers from the calculation and opened up the program to new, residential participants in net metering.

BIPCo President Jeffery Wright told The Block Island Times: “When the non-residential systems were removed from the program, we had freed up about one percent. That has since been committed to projects that Warfel and Cool Energy are doing. It literally took like a day to fill back up due to the pent-up demand.”

B.I. Solar Initiative has subsidized many installations since then, especially for affordable housing. In an effort to go beyond the three percent limit, BIPCo, along with the Pascoag Utility District, has lobbied the R.I. General Assembly to pass legislation that would increase the cap. So far, introduced legislation has passed the Senate, but now needs to go through the House, according to Wright.

As the popularity of solar has grown, so have the controversies. On the mainland, and in many communities in Rhode Island, large solar installations are being built for commercial output. Some are on existing farmlands, allowing for struggling farmers to subsidize their incomes. Others seek to construct vast installations that would fell acres of woods abutting residential neighborhoods. Municipalities and residents are questioning what the tradeoff is between cutting down carbon-eating forests with the production of renewable energy, and how they might amend their zoning ordinances to deal with the changes.

In 2019, an amendment to the Rhode Island Energy Resources Act was proposed in the General Assembly. The Senate version of the bill stipulated: “No later than April 30, 2020 all cities and towns shall each have adopted or updated existing comprehensive solar siting ordinances addressing roof, carport and ground mounted solar systems.”

Although that bill failed, the Planning Board has addressed the task, as have other municipalities, on a voluntary basis and with the assistance of model ordinances developed by the Office of Energy Resources. In a legal ad spanning a full page in this and last week’s edition of The Block Island Times, there is an extensive reworking of the zoning ordinances concerning solar siting on the island.

As in all things, there are winners and losers.

Instead of solely addressing “solar energy systems” the new language has separate provisions for ground-mounted solar arrays, roof-mounted arrays, and solar canopies. A canopy is described as a solar energy system that is located on an elevated accessory structure that hosts solar panels and provides shelter to a parking area, driveway or walkway underneath.

Currently, solar energy systems are allowed in all zoning districts as an accessory use “subordinate to the principal use of a parcel.” While that doesn’t change, any ground mounted system greater than 400 square feet will now only be allowed by a special use permit. Under the old language, the dimensions allowed before obtaining a special use permit were 750 square feet. However, the allowable height of a ground mounted system, “as measured from the natural grade to its highest point” is increased from eight to ten feet.

Ground mounted systems need to comply with the minimum side and rear setbacks as required for accessory structures. If the system is to be within a front setback though, a special use permit is required from the Zoning Board of Review, and “such use shall also undergo development plan review by the Planning Board.” The language “Solar panels should not be placed within the front setback of a property, as defined in Section 202, if there is a viable alternative location,” has been stricken from the ordinance, as has language prohibiting placement in a front setback anywhere in the Old Harbor Commercial zone.

There are many other detailed changes to the ordinances that are worth taking a look at, for those interested. Again, the public hearing will be held on Feb.1, at 7 p.m.