Rhode Island Considering Legislation to Streamline Process of Developing Renewable Energy Projects

The Rhode Island General Assembly is considering several bills designed to streamline the local permitting process statewide and make it easier and cheaper for developers of renewable energy projects to do business in the state. This legislation would support the governor’s stated goal of increasing the use of solar and other renewable energy in the state, and conveys an overall message that Rhode Island’s legislature is interested in streamlining the process of building renewable energy projects. 

Below we highlight the primary purpose of the bills and provide a rough estimate regarding their ongoing status.  

First, the Rhode Island Senate and House passed and sent S-0562: Statewide Municipal Solar Permit to the governor for signature. This bill creates a study commission to create a “predictable and universal” statewide application for building and electrical code compliance that municipalities will be required to use beginning January 1, 2018. Given the governor’s support for renewable energy, she is likely to sign it. If this legislation were to pass it would be the first step toward significantly reducing the complexity of permitting new solar projects in Rhode Island.   

Second, a new bill, S-0943: Solar Energy Permitting was introduced on June 8, 2017 and sent to the Senate Environment & Agriculture Committee for review. Although not entirely clear at this stage, the draft bill appears to apply to all solar projects, “the primary purpose of which is to provide for the collection, storage, and distributions of solar energy….”  It would prohibit and void restrictions on solar projects contained in deeds, covenants, restrictions, or other documents of record.  More importantly, Section 3 of the bill contains broad language that appears to ban all municipal ordinances that “create unreasonable barriers” to the installation of solar systems, including ordinances related to aesthetics and make the permitting process largely an administrative, nondiscretionary process.  Accordingly, municipalities would be barred from regulating projects based on any impact other than “health and safety.”  

If passed, this bill would make it significantly easier for developers to gain municipal approval for solar projects. Conversely, it would have a major limiting impact on municipalities’ ability to regulate solar projects.  At this early stage, it is difficult to forecast whether this bill will ultimately be enacted and in what final form.  We will continue to track this important legislation during the next legislative session. 

Also worth noting, S-0703: Farm Based Renewable Energy would allow renewable energy (wind and solar) on farms larger than 15 acres that have not been protected previously. Projects meeting this definition would be approved as a matter of right with some restrictions such as percentage of lot coverage and continued usability of underlying land.  

This bill is listed as “held for further study” as of April 26, 2017. This is typically a sign that the bill will not be acted on in the current legislative session. It is difficult, however, to predict with certainty as legislation thought to be inactive can sometimes receive approval at the last moment with little advanced notice. 

Finally, H-5123: Solar Economic Investment Act, also “held for further study” as of May 17, 2017, would not significantly change the current regulatory environment  but would create a tax credit for companies engaged in solar energy research and development, manufacturing, or sale of solar energy products meeting certain wage requirements for their employees. The bill also creates a revolving loan fund and grants to support rooftop solar installations on small businesses.  

We will continue monitoring this and future legislation related to renewable energy projects in Rhode Island. If you have questions or concerns about the legislation or need further clarification, please contact Pierce Atwood partner Steve MacGillivray at 401.490.3430 or smacgillivray@pierceatwood.com.