Session Winners: Renewable Energy, Composting

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Three big environmental bills were passed during the 2014 General Assembly session despite the abrupt change of House speaker. Renewable energy was the biggest winner in terms of bills passed, but efforts to address climate change also received a major lift.

PASSED

Climate change. The most significant bill from the 2014 session is likely the Resilient Rhode Island Act. The act sets forth a structure for meeting greenhouse gas reduction targets and coordinating climate-change adaptation and mitigation strategies. It replaces the Climate Change Commission, a near-defunct committee headed by House and Senate legislators, with Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s Executive Climate Change Council, or EC3. The council, made up of department heads, has many tasks, including promoting the use of electric vehicles, expanding renewable energy, and working with municipalities to create and fund strategies that address flooding and other climate impacts at the local level.

The EC3 is expected to address its immediate challenge — staff and funding — at its July 16 meeting.

Renewable energy. If the pilot program of the distributed generation (DG) program is any indication then get ready for more solar energy in Rhode Island. Of the 30 contracts awarded during the four years of the program, 28 went to solar projects. Two were awarded for wind turbines.

The new DG program approved by the General Assembly quadruples the amount of electricity National Grid allots to the program. Small hydropower, anaerobic digesters and smaller residential projects also qualify for the fixed-price systems. It’s expected to create about 225 jobs and add about 90 cents a year to the average utility bill.

Two other bills also helped the renewable-energy sector. A change to the electric-metering rules for renewable-energy projects, such as wind turbines and solar arrays, allows state departments and quasi-government agencies to earn credits for excess electricity they generate from renewable-energy projects. Previously, the credit system, called net metering, was only permitted by renewable projects owned by municipalities. The change is expected to attract more renewable-energy investment to the state.

Smaller renewable projects are expected to save time and money thanks to a rule change that allows some electrical and plumbing work — normally done by licensed plumbers and electricians — to be performed by contractors that qualify for a new renewable-energy certificate.

Compost. Rhode Island joins Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont with mandatory recycling of food scrap. Only the biggest institutions that generate organic waste — at least 104 tons of it annually — must comply, such as supermarkets, food makers, banquet halls, hospitals, prisons, casinos, private schools and restaurants.

There are several exclusions in the law: a compost facility or anaerobic digester must be within 15 miles of the institution and willing to accept food scrap. A farm may also accept these organics. Also, the cost to ship food scrap to a compost/anaerobic facility must be less expensive than shipping it to the Central Landfill in Johnston. Public K-12 schools are exempt.

The only commercial compost facility in Rhode Island is Earth Care Farm in Charlestown. An aerobic digester is planned for the Quonset Business Park in North Kingstown. Compliance begins Jan. 1, 2016.

Supporters hope more composting creates news businesses and jobs, extends the life of the Central Landfill beyond 2038, and gets more schools learning and teaching the value of food-scrap diversion.

NOT THIS YEAR

Bag ban. Bans on plastic shopping bags are gaining strength across the United States and Rhode Island seemed poised to pass such a ban this year, especially after Barrington made its ban permanent. But the change in House speaker and the subsequent turnover on the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources, including the seat of the sponsor of the Plastic Waste Reduction Act, quickly dimmed prospects for the ban.   

Cesspools. Environmentalists say eliminating cesspools is one of the quickest ways to reduce beach pollution and improve health in Rhode Island. There are about 25,000 of these covered pits in Rhode Island. They are not to be confused with septic systems. But real-estate agents argued against the cost of getting rid of them connected to the sale of a home. Realtors won the day.

Open space. To the surprise of many, $3 million was stripped from a ballot referendum to protect open space. There will still be money for farmland protection and grants for parks and playgrounds, but not for open lots of land.

GMOs. Three bills that would have required labeling of genetically engineered foods stalled in committee.

Toxic Ammo A bill to eliminate lead and other toxic ammunition for hunting only had one hearing.

Tax credits for residential renewable energy systems, electric vehicles and electric vehicle manufacturers were not adopted.

NOT SURE

Opposition is mounting in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York against proposed pipelines and upgrades that would bring more natural gas through New England. A proposed upgrade at a compressor station in Burrillville is drawing critics who want more public input and studies of the heath risks.

Passage of the Affordable Clean Energy Securities Act facilitates more of these projects as Rhode Island joins the other New England states in an all-of-the-above energy strategy, one that seeks to stabilize energy prices.

The act may lead to more renewable energy. It also may lead to more fossil-fuel burning, perhaps from fracking fields. Preference for the legislation probably depends on whether one considers natural gas a bridge fuel or part of the climate problem.