Rhode Island Needs to Diversify Its Electric Load with Renewables

By SETH HANDY

Our newly approved state energy plan calls for diversification of Rhode Island’s electric supply for energy security and economic and environmental benefit. Natural gas fuels almost all of our in-state electric generation capacity and half of our region’s capacity, while also supplying thermal energy to 60 percent of our homes and businesses.

After research and input from many energy stakeholders, including National Grid and The Energy Council of Rhode Island, our experts concluded that over reliance on natural gas threatens our security. The business-as-usual scenario of increasing demand on restricted generation supplies hasn’t served Rhode Island well, generating high and rapidly inflating energy costs based on inflexible rules of supply and demand. Rhode Island needs to diversify on electricity, quickly.

Energy efficiency is one solution. The Rhode Island Energy Efficiency Resource Management Council (EERMC) has conclude that the state can achieve 26 percent efficiency enhancements by 2020, reducing our electrical demand by 392 megawatts. As just one example, recent reforms allow municipalities to control their streetlights and are projected to save more than 40 megawatts of electricity and 40 percent of their operating costs — $8 million to $12 million annually — through efficient lighting and management.

The EERMC also has reported that efficiency investments netted the state $375 million in profit, generated 619 full-time equivalent jobs in 2014, will boost our gross domestic product by $1.2 billion and contribute $1 billion in benefits to our electrical system.

Renewables also diversify our electric load. An April 2014 study commissioned by the Office of Energy Resources concluded that investments in renewables pay great returns — and the more the better.

Adding 200 megawatts of renewables would generate $36 million in economic output, 293 full-time equivalent jobs and $136 million in savings from avoided emissions. Rhode Island can and should aim even higher.

We have the development capacity and appetite to deliver more than twice that by 2020, especially if teamed up with a focused and engaged public sector. Federal facilities are committed to 25 percent renewables by 2025; the Naval War College in Newport seeks 27 megawatts for its load alone.

State law requires that 16 percent of our energy come from renewables by 2019. The energy plan ups that to 40 percent by 2035 and commits government to lead by example. Rhode Island’s cities and towns can integrate renewables through their existing, cooperative energy-procurement program.

Rhode Island leads the way with 30 megawatts of offshore wind in development and a cutting-edge renewable-energy growth program designed to generate 160 megawatts of locally sourced renewables by 2019. It’s also now clear that renewables are cost competitive. The Narragansett Bay Commission gets half the energy for its Fields Point facility from three wind turbines, saving more than $1 million annually, and now seeks more economic and environmental benefit from more renewables.

West Warwick just bought three wind turbines to produce the town’s power, and projects to save between $25 million and $40 million from that investment. Cost is no longer a reason to delay diversification, especially since reduction in our reliance on natural gas relieves the transmission constraints that have driven inflated electricity prices.

Rhode Island just released its 2015 jobs report for the renewable-energy sector. This new energy economy supports 9,832 jobs and grew by 6.6 percent in 2014, adding 613 new jobs, while the rest of our economy saw less than 1 percent growth over the same period. Renewable-energy employers expect to add an additional 1,600 new workers, a nearly 17 percent increase, by 2016.

It’s time to team up, take stock of the diversification challenge and opportunity that is before us, and deliver the future we want and need for Rhode Island. The state energy plan cites a historic peak demand of 1,967 megawatts in Rhode Island — let’s attack that peak and drive down the costs of our electricity by diversifying 1,000 megawatts through efficiency and renewables by 2020. Once we set our target, we can challenge neighboring states to do the same and relieve the pressures of our region’s over reliance on natural gas.

Seth Handy is a Providence-based attorney.