If one tree is cut in the state of Rhode Island, do its residents make a sound? Probably not. However, when roughly 50 percent of solar farms were built on cleared forest land to make it accessible for solar installations, you can expect residents to make some noise.
This past year, geography Professor John Rogan, Anika Berger ’18, Anthony Himmelberger ’19, Emily Evenden ’21, Max Enger ’21, and doctoral candidate Shiqi Tao have been working with Rhode Island state and local organizations to help document the amount of valuable forest habitat that is being lost to rampant solar field development in what Rogan says is “a relatively unregulated land grab.” The team’s findings will help amplify the voices of concerned residents who want to protect the state’s forests.
“The numbers are staggering,” Rogan says of the students’ research findings. “Solar now covers land equivalent to a third of Worcester.”
The students used free or open-source data and software, including Google Earth Engine, QGIS, RStudio, ArcGIS, and Github to create an interactive map of the large solar arrays in Rhode Island and a storymap that explains the scope of the problem and details their methodology. Their final utility-scale map can be found online.
Evenden and Enger presented their research via Zoom in December to more than a dozen representatives at Mass Audubon.
“It was a great opportunity to apply classroom theory to the complex issue of conservation and sustainable development in New England,” wrote Evenden, who is working toward her master’s degree in GIS. Evenden added that she learned a lot working directly with a client, adjusting the data product to suit their needs. She presented her work during a job interview and was offered a position as an entry-level remote sensing consultant.
“Everyone agreed that the work was the first of its kind for Rhode Island,” Rogan said after the presentation.
The accolades and appreciation continued to pour in after Rogan presented the research last month to an audience of 500 people at an event organized by Mass Audubon. Following his presentation, Rogan received an email from Scott Millar, director of Community Assistance and Conservation at Grow Smart Rhode Island.
“Your analysis is very important information that we will use to make decision-makers fully aware of how solar programs are negatively impacting R.I.,” Millar wrote. At a public hearing a year ago, Millar continued, the chair of a Senate legislative committee told him she “didn’t think solar siting reform was needed” and that she “wouldn’t support any effort to amend R.I. programs.”
“Your study gives us credible proof of the problem that needs to be fixed,” wrote Millar.
Doctoral student Shiqi Tao helped map solar installations in Massachusetts; she and others presented their research in a webinar organized by Mass Audubon as well as at the recent American Association of Geographers conference. Tao said she was excited to find many researchers, companies, and conservation agencies shared an interest in this topic, and said she thinks their work “has far-reaching implications both in method and practice, enriching automatic classification algorithms for processing satellite observations and elucidating conflicts between clean energy promotion and environmental conservation.”
Enger described the opportunity to work on the project as “a privilege.”
“I hope this work can continue across the other New England states so researchers and policymakers can further identify how solar fields have altered the landscape,” he wrote.
The team expects their research will be published soon in Remote Sensing Letters.
Rogan is a professor in the Graduate School of Geography. He also serves as director of the Human-Environment Regional Observatory (HERO) program at Clark. Under his direction, student researchers have examined Urban Heat Island, changes to land surface temperature following the removal of trees after the Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation, the 1953 Tornado, ice storm events and the impact of tree cover loss on stormwater runoff.