Rhode Island Has Some Big Solar Power Projects Under Way

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of ecoRI News. Author credit goes to Tim Faulkner.

A flurry of solar energy projects are underway across Rhode Island. East Providence, Westerly, West Greenwich and the Quonset Business Park have substantial solar fields planned or underway. Here is a look at the two largest:

Quonset Business Park. A solar photovoltaic (PV) system covering 400,000 square feet atop two adjoining industrial warehouses is on track to be the largest of its type in New England. The project, owned by a Boston-based solar developer, expects to break ground in January and is scheduled to be completed in about two months.

The solar field has a 2.34-megawatt-rated capacity, meaning its optimal power produces electricity to power 500 homes. The project is about the size of three and a half football fields, and three times as large as the solar array at Toray Plastics, another tenant at the business park.

image via Shutterstock

The project requires 8,000 polycrystalline panels, a technology that has been in use since the early 1980s.

“It’s a fairly large solar project with a fairly small community impact,” said Palmer Moore of solar energy developer Nexamp, from its Providence office.

Despite its size, the arrays will be unnoticeable to passersby, as the panels lie close to the roof and sit 10 feet from its edge.

The privately funded $7 million project will recoup some of its costs through a 30 percent federal tax credit. The project also will participate in the state’s distributed generation pricing program. Nexamp will make lease payment to the owner of the building, Davisville Realty LLC.

The solar-generated electricity will feed directly into the power grid. National Grid buys the power from Nexamp for $23.699 per kilowatt-hour for 15 years. The contract is one of the first power-purchase agreements derived from Rhode Island’s 2011 renewable energy laws. The legislation requires National Grid to offer power-purchase contracts in order to entice development of renewable energy.

Moore said his company finds the distributed generation program beneficial for financing as well as an incentive to do more business in Rhode Island. “The stability of the Rhode Island program is probably its biggest advantage,” he said.

The popularity of the distributed generation program — 15 solar energy contracts vs. 1 wind contract — has pushed down pricing for new solar contracts. Lower fixed pricing lowers the cost to consumers who subsidize the premium paid for solar and wind projects through their utility bills.

“You’re seeing in real time the market forces in action to bring down pricing,” Moore said.

In recent months, installers of smaller projects, like those for homes and small businesses, have complained that the distributed generation program excludes them. But Moore like others in the industry are optimistic that the incentives for small projects are forthcoming.

East Providence landfill
The distinction of the largest solar array in Rhode Island may not last long. East Providence aims to build a 3.7-megawatt solar array atop a former landfill by this summer. The project is the first of three phases planned for the 227-acre Forbes Street landfill.

The site served as a municipal dump from 1970-’80. The open space has since become a popular spot for dirt bike riders. About a third of the area serves as a compost site for leaves and yard waste. The city considered developing a golf course and soccer fields before embarking on the solar project in 2010.

The $12 million project received guidance from the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and funding from The Rhode Island Foundation. The state’s Renewable Energy Fund awarded $200,310 and the Office of Energy resources committed $100,000.

Experts say solar landfills cost about a third more than traditional solar projects. Typically, the foundation can’t dig into the ground for fear of disturbing the landfill cap. Drainage, venting, raised access roads and space for lawn mowers are required to be part of the design. A prospective landfill must also be closed and the land allowed to settle for at least 15 years before construction begins.

The Forbes Street project has similar issues. Two-thirds of the closed landfill is wetlands, leaving about 70 acres to encompass the entire the solar project.

The city cut costs by acquiring soil worth $1 million from the state Department of Transportation (DOT). The DOT delivered the fill from the I-195 highway redevelopment project. The city’s Department of Public Works helped cut cost by performing work on the site with a bulldozer that the Police Department provided at no cost.

By 2014, the solar site will be enlarged to a 10-megawatt solar field. The first phase was awarded a 15-year power-purchase agreement with National Grid, at a price of $23.90 per kilowatt-hour.

Construction of the first phase is expected to begin by March.

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