By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
Rhode Island has plenty of options for mitigating the climate crisis and reaching its goal of 100 percent renewable energy in nine years. And it can do so, according to a new report, while addressing systemic racism and historic inequities.
The Road to 100% Renewable Electricity by 2030 in Rhode Island outlines how established incentives and power mandates can achieve the target through a mix of programs and energy sources, such as offshore wind and small solar arrays. The report notes that sharing out the power production creates equilibrium between costs, economic growth, emission reductions, and environment justice.
Single solutions, like maxing out the Renewable Energy Standard (RES), can meet the target, but the 99-page report points out the drawbacks of going all in on one approach.
Since it was established in 2004, RES has quietly increased the state’s amount of so-called green energy, at least on paper. It’s one of the few renewable-energy programs mandated by the General Assembly, and it works by requiring National Grid to buy renewable-energy credits (RECs) from commercial solar, wind, and other types of renewable sources. Through the program, National Grid increases Rhode Island’s renewable electricity pool 1.5 percent annually. This year, 17.5 percent of the state’s energy supply is expected to come from renewables. The renewable mandate caps out at 38.5 percent in 2035.
The report, released in December, calls for increasing the RES mandate to 100 percent by 2030, which can be done by state lawmakers. National Grid has expressed a willingness to go along. But this renewable-energy expansion alone won’t achieve the mission. RES isn’t perfect. It uses power from high-carbon-emitting energy producers that run on wood. RES is an accounting system that assigns renewable energy to the state from power entities located across New England and New York. So it doesn’t favor development of Rhode Island-based renewable-energy systems. It, therefore, omits some of the local economic benefits and reductions in pollution and emissions that local renewables deliver.
The report notes that an oversupply of RECs in the market reduces their price and may ultimately lower demand for green power from states with such programs. A flood of RECs blunts the goal of offering a financial incentive to build and run renewable-energy systems. Therefore, it may not always meet its goal of displacing fossil-fuel power plants.
Renewable power from all sources will be called upon as Rhode Island and southern New England increase their electricity usage beyond 2030, as the transportation and heating sectors ramp up electrification. According to estimates by The Brattle Group, the Boston-based consultants who wrote the recent report, electricity demand more than doubles from current usage by 2050.
RES and other incentives also don’t pay attention to equity for communities of color or environmental-justice communities.
For that, the report recommends shifting the narrative on equity from focusing solely on income, “which fails to provide a full accounting of those in need,” and instead emphasizes demographics, income, renter status, “and other metrics that provide more of an intersectional approach to the problem.”
The equity recommendations are short on details but suggest listening, discussions, and outreach spearheaded by existing groups like the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council. Community groups should be relied on to decide which solutions to adopt to address technological access and housing and health issues, according to the report.
The Brattle Group recommends borrowing best practices from jobs programs in other states to establish community-based training programs for employment in the renewable-energy sector. The report also notes that new renewable-energy programs should include consumer protections for frontline communities and aid to low- and moderate-income households that go beyond installing technology to include plans for helping with upkeep and services.
“We must ultimately strive to prioritize the concerns of the community and address systemic inequities from our position of power as best we can,” according to the report.
A recent press release from the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources (OER) applauds Gov. Gina Raimondo for having the study done. Now that Raimondo is leaving for a job in the Biden administration, the fate of this project and other climate-related initiatives is unclear.
Even though the Jan. 13 press release says the new report “details analysis and pathways to reach that bold, but achievable goal” — meeting 100 percent of Rhode Island’s electricity demand with renewables by 2030 — there are no immediate plans to advance the recommendations in The Brattle Group report.
OER director Nicholas Ucci said the information is public and available to policymakers and stakeholders to use. Some efforts are already underway, he noted, such as a draft request for proposal for up to 600 megawatts of offshore wind energy.
The Brattle Group report cost $355,000 and was paid for by OER. The 11-member agency is funded by the system benefits charge paid by electricity ratepayers.
When asked how the change of leadership in the governor’s office might influence the plan, OER spokesperson Robert Beadle said, “We are not at liberty to comment on the governor’s transition at this time.”
The Brattle Group report contrasts costs of each portfolio with economic benefits. Energy prices, according to the report, can be controlled by procuring power directly from competitive bidding. Costs can be reduced through regional sharing of expenses, and by adopting demand-management systems and expanding energy storage.
National Grid has suggested that the report pay more attention to the implications of having too much renewable energy in the region. A Nov. 6, 2020 letter noted that renewable-energy projections by the regional grid operator, ISO New England, have consistently underestimated the amount of renewable power coming to the grid, a surge that may get much worse with the influx of offshore wind energy. This creates two problems: excess unused energy that forces temporary usage of fossil-fuel power and higher costs for expanding the transmission system and expenses for interconnecting renewable sources to the power grid.
The Brattle Group responds in the report by noting that the state should work through a 2017 directive by Raimondo asking state energy offices to collaborate to control the long-term costs of the power sector transformation. This included offering more energy options and building a flexible grid to integrate more renewables.
“These investments can reduce the cost of maintaining the electric grid and can allow more distributed energy resources to connect to the grid with less-expensive system upgrades,” according to The Brattle Group.
Environmental groups support the recommendations outlined in last month’s report but worry that the ideas will collect dust like last year’s report on heating sector transformation, also done by The Brattle Group.
“The Road to 2030 could be an exciting initiative — if this study is accompanied by a detailed plan of immediate action from (OER),” according to a letter signed by the Acadia Center, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, the Green Energy Consumers Alliance, and The Nature Conservancy. “Making a commitment to decarbonization is not the same as doing the work and passing the necessary policies to make it happen.”
The renewable-energy advocacy group Northeast Clean Energy Council (NECEC) advocates for planning beyond 2030, when energy demand will be much greater, with an increased emphasis on energy storage to address the intermittency of wind and solar power.
“Driving in-state deployment will give Rhode Island greater control over its clean-energy destiny and will be especially crucial in delivering local benefits to environmental-justice populations that all too often bear a greater burden from local pollution and lack access to the economic benefits of clean energy,” according to NECEC.