By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Rhode Island’s top energy and environmental lawmakers are calling for more renewable energy, and natural gas, in the state’s energy mix.
During an Oct. 3 bill signing ceremony at the historic Slater Mill dam — a symbol of local, renewable hydropower — natural gas, and the expansion of natural-gas pipelines, received broad support.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee maintained his backing for the controversial expansion of the Algonquin natural-gas pipeline in Burrillville, Tiverton and Little Compton. “We just can’t grow the economy without transmission construction,” he said after signing three energy bills into law.
The most controversial bill, the Affordable Clean Energy Securities Act, promotes regional collaboration on energy projects, such as new natural-gas pipelines and new power lines to deliver hydroelectric power from Canada to southern New England — a project of particular interest to Chafee.
“We’ve got to grow the hydropower. That’s what I really want to see,” he said.
Chafee and other elected officials said natural gas is needed to keep energy costs down, especially during the winter when demand increases. Chafee noted that natural gas as a fuel for New England power plants has jumped from 15 percent in 2000 to 45 percent in 2014.
“(Natural gas) is not as bad as coal. It’s not as bad as oil,” he said.
Currently, less than 2 percent of electricity generated in Rhode Island comes from renewable energy. About 8.5 percent of the electricity delivered to Rhode Island electric customers is renewable power, most of it generated out of state.
The hydropower projects backed by Chafee have drawn criticism across New England for threatening open space and driving up costs for electricity customers. The $1.4 billion Northern Pass project consists of 187 miles of new high-voltage transmission lines to deliver electricity from utility giant Hydro-Quebec to southern New England. Opposition groups in New Hampshire want the power buried to protect the landscape, including federal forests.
Environmental groups such as the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) claim the push for more hydropower and natural gas will increase costs, and they say the process lacks transparency. The planning, so far, requires greater study of the existing infrastructure, energy efficiency and renewable energy, according to CLF.
Residents near the proposed expansion of a natural-gas compressor station on 800 acres of mostly forested land in Burrillville worry that dialing up the pressure through the 60-year-old Algonquin pipeline will increase already-growing concerns about noise, harmful emissions and explosions.
During the recent ceremony, Sen. William Walaska, D-Warwick, the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture, repeated the call for more renewable energy and natural gas.
“There is simply not enough pipeline capacity to meet our demands in the region,” he said.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., maintained his belief that natural gas is a bridge fuel to achieving greater use of renewable energy. Whitehouse, however, hasn't taken a position on the Algonquin expansion projects.
Timothy Horan, president of National Grid Rhode Island, said the utility is moving ahead on $1.3 billion to improve its natural-gas distribution system, fix leaky pipes and pay for electric projects and maintenance. Horan also said National Grid supports the expansion of the state’s renewable-energy programs and Deepwater Wind's Block Island project.
None of the supporters of increased natural-gas use mentioned the concerns surrounding hydraulic fracturing — the process of drilling and injecting a chemically laden fluid into the ground at a high pressure to fracture shale rock to release natural gas.
Chafee also signed the Renewable Energy Growth Program, which expands the state’s signature program for funding large solar, wind and anaerobic digesters. The legislation expands the program for five years and quadruples the amount of electricity allotted to the program. It also includes a new category for smaller residential renewable-energy projects to participate.
The third bill, S2692, creates a certificate training program for installers of renewable-energy systems. The program, run through the state Office of Energy Resources and Department of Laboor and Training, is expected to begin this fall.