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A new state incentive offers money to developers that build solar projects on polluted properties instead of forests or farmland.

A Rhode Island program promoting solar development on polluted properties could help relieve tensions between the state’s fast-growing solar industry and conservationists concerned with preserving green space.

Solar has surged in Rhode Island in recent years on the heels of ambitious new renewable energy goals and state incentives for developers. Gov. Gina Raimondo announced a goal last year to reach 1,000 MW of clean energy and 20,000 clean energy jobs by 2020.

As solar power has expanded, though, so has opposition to it. Several large-scale projects have been built in forests or on undeveloped farmland. In some cases, installation of solar arrays has meant clearing thousands of trees, which has galvanized some environmentalists.

Solar developers find it easier to target forested areas and farms,” said Scott Millar, manager of community technical assistance for Grow Smart RI. “The impacts of that have been pretty severe.”

The state’s new brownfield initiative is meant to be part of a solution for this conflict. The program is the result of conversations among various stakeholders, from environmentalists and municipal planners to farmers and small businesses.

“That process caused us to look at existing programs and ask ourselves what we could do to keep going with siting of solar projects on brownfield sites,” said Carol Grant, commissioner of the Office of Energy Resources. “We knew some were underway already, but we were looking at what we could do to encourage reuse of brownfield sites.”

The state’s Renewable Energy Fund has earmarked $1 million for the initiative, in partnership with the Office of Energy Resources. Codified in 1996, the fund provides loans and grants for renewable energy projects in Rhode Island. Renewable energy projects that are sited on brownfields are eligible for financial incentives through the program.

Across the country, brightfields — a term coined by the U.S. Department of Energy to describe solar development on contaminated or polluted land — present a growing opportunity. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has vetted more than 80,000 brownfields for renewable energy development. During the remediation process, these sites are cleared of any above-ground structures and are typically converted into large, flat, unshaded surfaces perfectly suited for the installation of solar arrays. Plus, they’re typically located in close proximity to power lines which makes connecting to the grid easier.

The EPA has its own brownfields program, which provides grants and technical assistance for redeveloping contaminated property. Like in Rhode Island, some other state governments, including Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey, provide incentives for redeveloping brownfields for renewable purposes.

Rhode Island is pushing to retrofit these untapped spaces to grow the renewable sector and reduce its carbon footprint. Because of brownfields’ former use, the possibilities for reuse are extremely limited, and NIMBY-related opposition is nonexistent.

“People rarely have developed a fondness for their landfill that makes it seem untouchable,” Grant said.

Before the program was announced, there were already a few projects underway on Rhode Island’s contaminated land. The state doesn’t track how many brownfield sites are used for renewables, but Matthew Destefano, deputy chief of waste management with the Department of Environmental Management estimates that seven renewable energy projects on brownfield sites have been completed over the past two years or are under construction.

In October, the city of Warwick cut the ribbon on a 6.3 MW solar array located on 37-acre brownfield site. The site was the former home of Leviton Manufacturing Company but sat idle for the last 20 years despite its convenient location to an airport connector. The solar array, which will feature 16,000 panels, is expected to generate enough energy to power all of Warwick’s municipal buildings. A similar project in North Providence was completed on a 12-acre former landfill the same month.

Redeveloping brownfields is not without its challenges. Cost is a major barrier, which is why government incentives are critical to making it financially viable for developers. Grant said the upfront cost is more than developing on non-contaminated lands. Brownfields need to be assessed and developed in ways that prevent potential contamination. Often that means preventing developers from penetrating the ground so that subsurface contaminants aren’t disturbed.

“Whoever building it [solar farm] might not see the return,” she said. However, there are workarounds when it comes to engineering and construction on these sites, including ballasted racking systems.

The permitting process is also cumbersome. Developers need permits and approval from local, state, and federal agencies not usually involved in renewable development on green spaces. The sites need to be thoroughly tested and inspected, which can make the process longer and more time-consuming.

Still, there’s real value in revitalizing the idle land.

You’re not cutting down 40 acres of trees,” Destefano said “We don’t want to see green space taken up when we have brownfields to use.” For every acre of brownfield developed, he says the state saves 4.5 acres of green space.

The state’s push to repurpose brownfields will continue in the new year. Together with the Office of Energy Resources and the Department of Environmental Management, the REF will launch a grant program next year that’s specific to solar on brownfield sites, in addition to the existing incentive program. In late November, the University of Rhode Island, in partnership with the towns of South Kingstown and Narragansett, announced an ambitious solar power project that would convert 267 acres of former waste and dump sites into solar farms.

“It’s really important that Rhode Island gets this right,” Millar said. “We have limited land resources, and it’s critical to use those limited land areas as efficiently as possible.”

Meg is a freelance journalist and audio producer based in Connecticut who reports on the environment, gender and media. She’s reported and edited for the Columbia Journalism Review, PBS NewsHour, Architectural Digest, MediaShift, Hearst Connecticut newspapers, and more. In addition, her audio work has appeared on WSHU, Marketplace, WBAI, and NPR. Meg covers Connecticut and Rhode Island.