Turning point for community solar in Rhode Island
TurningPoint Energy and Nautilus Solar Energy recently completed the largest community solar project in Rhode Island, making good use of land next to a closed landfill site.
By Robin Brunet
The King Community Solar Project in North Smithfield, Rhode Island, is notable on several fronts. As the largest and one of the first community solar projects in the state, the 12.44 megawatts generated by its two solar arrays can be accessed by over 3,000 homes and is a hassle-free way for condo owners or renters to receive solar energy without upfront costs.
The King project was developed by TurningPoint Energy and is owned by Nautilus Solar Energy (the latter of which was responsible for opening Rhode Island's first community solar project, a 3.3 MW array in Burrillville in September 2019). The King project provides the environmental equivalent of planting over 10,500 trees or taking over 1,500 cars off the road for the year, which is especially significant considering Rhode Island is the smallest of all U.S. states at only 1,214 square miles.
Moreover, during its design and installation, the project created over 100 consulting, engineering, construction and other jobs, and the transformed site will generate healthy property tax revenue for the Town of North Smithfield well into the future. If that's not enough, the arrays are on 70 acres of land that was covered in woods and brush and considered tough to develop because it was wedged between a gravel bank and a closed, contaminated landfill.
"King really does combine the benefits of social justice with economic advantages, but as with all solar projects, this one had its share of challenges, starting with the fact the site had several strikes against it environmentally," said Adam Beal, Executive Vice President of Development at Denver-based TurningPoint Energy.
The genesis of the project goes back to 2016, when an amendment was passed to a state law governing net metering, a program that allows electric ratepayers to credit savings from renewable energy systems to their electric bills. The change allowed the systems to be installed away from where the power is being used and also paved the way for multiple ratepayers to benefit from a single system.
"This meant customers of all income classes would benefit, including those who could only afford to rent their homes and other low income earners," Beal says.
The arrays of the King Community Solar Project are on 70 acres of land that was covered in woods and brush, and considered tough to develop because it was wedged between a gravel bank and a closed, contaminated landfill.
In 2017, TurningPoint Energy identified the King site as a viable development, due partly to the ease of interconnection to the larger distribution grid, and despite the environmental concerns.
"The landfill had closed in 1985, and in 2016 the Environmental Protection Agency, which conducted remedial investigation of the site, found contaminated groundwater plumes underneath our site," Beal says.
"This required extensive collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and it continues as we speak," he added. "But fortunately for us, the remediation required for the landfill wouldn't disturb our site. The plumes would move south of where the arrays would be located, and this was the key to us moving forward with the King project."
Following negotiations with three landowners, TurningPoint Energy gained control of the site assemblage in the fall of 2017. As tricky as it may have been to bring the King project to life, Beal and his colleagues enjoyed enormous support from various levels of government. The Ocean State's first major solar policy was passed in 1981, when Solar Easements regulations were implemented.
Then, in 1996, the state's electric-utility restructuring legislation required utilities to create one of the first public benefits funds in the nation. After that came the Renewable Energy Standard (RES) in 2004, a program requiring utilities to supply 38.5 percent of their electricity sales with renewable resources by the end of 2035.
DEPCOM Power began the installation work on the 12. 4 MW King solar project in the spring of 2020, and the technical specs included over 45,000 panels on a ground mount tilt fixed system.
The next significant policy happened in 2011 with the net metering program, which makes solar more financially attractive to residents because it allows them to send surplus net energy to the electric grid and receive compensation for it.
With these and other initiatives in place, Rhode Island performs well above its weight on solar: although in 2018 it ranked 34th in the nation with about 120 megawatts (MW) of installed solar energy capacity, it achieved half of that capacity that year alone. Unsurprisingly, Rhode Island has been an attractive investment proposal for TurningPoint Energy as well as King's owner, Nautilus Solar Energy, which over its 15-year history has focused on acquiring, developing and managing distributed and utility-scale generation solar projects throughout North America.
"Another challenge to making solar work in Rhode Island over the years is that land use restrictions are pretty high," explained Andrew Rice, Director of Business Operations at Nautilus. "You can't just freely develop green or brownfield sites. However, by working with good partners, including the leadership shown by state and local governments, we've managed to finish a number of projects in addition to King, including the 6.82 MW West Greenwich project with TurningPoint, the 3.4 MW Cranston array, and the 3.3 MW Burrillville array."
The Nautilus Burrillville community solar project is a community garden incorporating ground mounted fixed-tilt installations. The system will produce 145 gigawatt hours over 35 years.
Navigating COVID proved to be the biggest challenge on the King solar project—there was a large number of electricians working on site, sometimes over 100 people in total, that contractor DEPCOM had to break down into small groups. Fortunately, work proceeded with limited delay by following all state COVID directives.
King was an ideal addition to the Nautilus portfolio since a specialty of the company is bringing community solar projects to fruition.
"Usually individual community solar arrays are in the 5 to 10 MW size realm, so King was exciting for us, plus it was a great employment opportunity for local tradespeople," Rice says, adding that his organization also agreed to maintain King's long-term performance. "Essentially we took the baton from TurningPoint in late 2019 and, working with our partners, moved the project through site preparation and array construction with DEPCOM, financing, and soon commercial operation."
DEPCOM Power of Arizona began the installation work in the spring of 2020, and the technical specs included over 45,000 panels on a ground mount tilt fixed system. This necessitated a considerable number of workers on site, during a time when governments were scrambling to determine the safest ways for essential services such as DEPCOM to remain operational throughout the pandemic lockdowns. "Navigating COVID proved to be our biggest challenge because there were large amounts of electricians from the local union hall working for us, sometimes over 100 people in total, that we had to break down into small groups," Charlie Roberts, Nautilus Project Manager, says. "Fortunately, work proceeded with limited delay by following all state COVID directives."
When it came to the task of achieving connectivity with the larger distribution grid, a wetlands area stood between the arrays and the hook-up. "So the project employed a directional bore and tunnelled underneath the wetlands, a distance of several hundred feet," Roberts says. "By December the project was mechanically complete, and in the New Year, the final upgrades were tackled."
One of the environmental measures incorporated into the project was a pollinator-friendly seed mix around and underneath the arrays, and Beal says of collaborating with the regulatory stakeholders, "They were fantastic and very supportive. We enjoyed a great working relationship."
As part of Rhode Island's Community Net Metering Pilot Program, the King community solar project is open to all of the state's residents (it had first been marketed specifically to North Smithfield residents, but subscriptions were subsequently opened up statewide)—and more than 3,000 customers are ultimately expected to participate in the program.
While Beal and Rice are excited by King's potential, then-Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, who is now U.S. Secretary of Commerce in the Biden Administration, summarized the significance of the project best when ground broke in 2019 by stating: "Projects like this, which simultaneously clean up our land and make our economy greener, are the future of our state. I hope this legislation and our work will enable more projects of this kind in Rhode Island in the years to come."