New Energy Outlook for R.I. Being Planned

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A new energy advisory council is attempting to reshape the future of fuel use in Rhode Island.

The council, representing fossil-fuel and renewable-energy sectors, is devising a sustainable energy supply strategy for homes, vehicles, businesses and power plants. The goal is to create local jobs and manage price volatility while reducing carbon emissions and cutting air pollution.

“This is a very challenging task,” said Marion Gold, director of the Office of Energy (OER), one of the state divisions overseeing the project.

The project received an endorsement from Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who rarely publicly backs specific energy programs involving renewable energy. “The planning process will address energy security, renewable-energy procurement and energy efficiency, as well as natural gas, heating oil and the transportation system, including electric vehicles and charging stations. There are promising economic opportunities in each of these areas,” Chafee stated in a press release.

Rather than call for a switch to renewable energy, the initial vision of the project includes a vague “environmentally sound” approach included with goals of safety, reliability, affordability and sustainability.

Project manager Danny Musher downplayed any expectations for a wholesale switch to renewable energy. “I don’t think we want to pave the roads with solar panels immediately,” he said.

Council members discussed the merits and limitations of natural gas, transmission lines and wind energy. They addressed climate change. “From what we are seeing in New Jersey and New York, we should address climate change too,” said council member Bob Chew, an energy consultant, at the group's meeting this week.

Climate change was a touchy subject. “What I’m baffled by,” said Julie Gill, CEO of the Oil Heat Institute of Rhode Island. "with all this discussion about carbon emissions, why is methane off the table?”

Policy options will look to influence renewable-energy programs, funding programs, land development and business development. Gold said the state’s recently adopted renewable-energy programs will benefit this new energy program.

The plan emulates those created in Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey, Washington and New York. The new Vermont energy plan aims for 90 percent renewable energy by 2050.

New York spent $20 million on its plan. State planners expect the Rhode Island project to cost much less. Federal economic stimulus money is expected to fund the project. The University of Rhode Island, the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), and energy groups and state agencies will advise.

A final draft of the Rhode Island plan containing goals for 2015 and 2035 is due by March 2014. The council will refer its prpopsal to a technical committee at the State Planning Council, followed by public hearings and public comment. After the plan is adopted, all municipalities will be obligated to add it to their comprehensive plans.  

Gold said the energy plan won’t simply sit on a shelf. “We want to make sure this is an actionable plan, but also something we can revisit year by year," she said.