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Survey: Rhode Islanders willing to pay to keep large solar arrays farther from their homes


By Cynthia Drummond for the BRVCA


KINGSTON — Rhode Islanders polled on their preferences for the siting of commercial solar arrays said they viewed forests and farms as the worst locations for commercial solar projects. Participants in the three-year study were also willing to pay more for electricity to ensure that large solar arrays are kept out of open spaces.

Conducted by researchers at the University of Rhode Island, the study is a collaborative project involving URI’s Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics and the College of the Environment and Life Sciences.

Entitled “Here Comes the Sun: Incorporating Resident Preferences into Solar Siting Policy Recommendations for Rhode Island,” the project was funded by a $300,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Participants were chosen from a random sample pulled from the state’s voter registration records. Of the 3,000 people invited to participate, 510 responded online and 159 responded to the paper version.

Corey Lang, an associate professor in the Department of Natural and Resource Economics, presented the findings in an April 27 webinar co- hosted by Kate Venturini, program administrator at URI Cooperative Extension.

Rhode Island has ambitious renewable energy goals, Lang said, which in some cases, have encouraged what is known as solar sprawl.

“Starting about five-ish years ago, we started to see a real ramp-up in utility scale solar arrays being built, and it started small and then just really escalated,” he said. “A lot of arrays are being proposed, and a lot are being built and that is going to help us meet those ambitious targets, but people are not always happy with the siting of these.”

Lang described an issue familiar to residents of rural towns such as Richmond and Hopkinton: the clear-cutting of hundreds of acres of forest for solar energy projects.

“That strikes a lot of people as antithetical to environmental goals,” Lang said. “Sometimes, they’re sited on farmland and that can be beneficial to a farmer, but maybe it’s inconsistent with the type of landscapes that people want.”

Landfills and carports are also potential sites for solar panels, but those sites are more expensive to develop than forests and farmers’ fields. It is on those already built or environmentally-compromised sites, however, that survey participants said they preferred to see solar projects.

The goal of the survey, Lang explained, was not to advocate for or against solar energy projects but to measure people’s preferences for different aspects of commercial scale solar development and then incorporate those preferences in siting decisions.

“Ordinary residents are often excluded or they’re being minimized in a siting decision because they’re not a central part of the transaction,” he said. “The central actors in a transaction are the developer and the landowner and then there’s the state, which is pushing for the development; it’s setting incentives. So those are the parties that are involved, but there are a lot of parties who are outside of that transaction who are still affected by some of the solar developments.”

The study also determined the values of non-monetary qualities such as rural character. One way natural resource economists measure this is by finding out how much people are willing to pay for certain amenities.

“Things like your views as you drive by, or from your house. Your preferences for open space,” Lang said. “These are not things that are bought and sold, but people still care a lot about them, and so their innovative approach is to try and understand what those preferences are and put monetary values on them so that they can be brought in to the same playing fields as those other monetary benefits and costs that the developer and the landowner are talking about.”

Lang described a sample survey question in which the respondent’s monthly electric bill would be reduced by $10 and the commercial solar array would not be visible, but it would be built on farmland.

“By asking people to make these tradeoffs and having a lot of different people do them, then we can understand the preferences for each of these attributes,” he said.

Of all the renewable energy choices, 87% of survey respondents preferred solar, but siting was a major issue. Lang’s team set out to determine people’s willingness to pay higher electric bills to avoid certain siting scenarios.

 “There’s a pretty strong willingness to pay to avoid full visibility,” Lang said. “…the average household is wiling to pay $7.30 [more] per month to avoid a fully visible solar array.”

In addition to asking people to choose between different siting and project size options, the survey attempted to gauge respondents’ feelings regarding residential development on those sites.

“We’re making the choices difficult,” Lang said. “We’re forcing people to make tradeoffs between multiple things that they like or multiple things that they don’t like.”

Asked to rank their feelings about residential development instead of solar,

people were willing to pay more to reduce the chance of solar development, but they were more likely to prefer solar when residential development was a possibility.

Finally, survey participants were asked how much more they would be wiling to pay to prevent or encourage solar development on various sites.

Four types of land were considered: farmland, commercial land, forested land and brownfields.

“People are willing to pay to avoid solar development on farm and forest land - and a lot, particularly forest land.” Lang said. “… $40 per month people are willing to pay to avoid that development happening on forested land.”

Respondents were also willing to pay more to encourage the building of solar arrays on commercial land and contaminated sites.

Now that the study has documented Rhode Islanders’ preferences, Lang said he hoped a way would be found to include that information in Rhode Island’s energy policy.

“What we have is a set of incentives, per kilowatt hour, that are justified by people’s preferences, and so, as we think about how we incorporate people’s preferences, this is it,” Lang said. “This is offering incentives to the developers to move development from forest to commercial.”

Venturini said the survey results would be shared with state and municipal policy-makers.

“Get it into the hands of the people who are, bless them, tasked with making these decisions that have a 25 year or more impact on environmental function and land use and tax revenue,” she said.



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