By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Businesses came out in a big way to support increasing the amount of renewable energy that comes out of their electrical sockets. This level of green power, called the renewable energy standard (RES), is mandated by the state to increase slightly annually in order to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, which power about 90 percent of the electricity used in Rhode Island.
There are a number of environmental benefits provided by RES, such as cutting carbon emissions and giving a boost to local and regional renewable-energy sources — wind, solar, hydropower and anaerobic digestion. Large-scale renewable projects are often built when developers know that a utility company, such as National Grid, will buy the green electricity in order to meet the RES.
As of last October, the RES was 8.5 percent for National Grid customers.
In 2004, Rhode Island was one of the first states to develop an RES. Back then, a goal was set of 16 percent renewable power by 2019. National Grid says it’s on track to meet that goal, which was reduced to 14.5 percent due to an exemption. But a growing green industry wants to extend the annual RES increases until 2035, when the amount of renewable power would reach 38.5 percent.
Extending the RES, said Francis Pullaro executive director of the renewable-energy trade association RENEW Northeast, “sends a signal to renewable-energy developers that in the decades ahead this is where the demand for renewable energy is going to be. And it will get them here in New England, here in Rhode Island, looking for sites, looking for ways to build in Rhode Island and create jobs.”
Pullaro made these remarks during a Jan. 29 House hearing for the new RES legislation.
Energy Management Inc. (EMI), the developer of the Cape Wind offshore wind farm, endorsed the proposal. EMI also has developed several natural gas-fired power plants, including those in Tiverton and Pawtucket.
“We are now very actively looking for at sites in Rhode Island. We’d love to do business here. And it’s a great environment for solar,” said Dennis Duffy, EMI’s vice president of regulatory affairs.
National Grid has yet to take a stance on the legislation, but spokesman David Graves said, “We are proponents of the current law, which we believe is working to the benefit of Rhode Island.”
TEC-RI, a nonprofit that represents large users of electricity in Rhode Island, opposes the legislation.
Environmentalists support the legislation. Jerry Elmer, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said electricity from renewable-energy projects are purchased by utilities through long-term fixed price agreements. This fixed pricing, he said, reduces the price swings from fossil fuel-generated electricity. The state Public Utilities Commission has admitted that the recent 23 percent electricity rate spike granted to National Grid was slightly lower “because of the presence of renewable energy on the grid,” Elmer said.
Some environmentalists, however, believe the proposed 1.5 percent annual increase to the RES isn’t sufficient to curb carbon dioxide emissions and address climate change. Climate activist and University of Rhode Island physics professor Peter Nightingale said recent climate research indicates that global climate emissions must be reduced by 7 percent annually in order to reverse the predicted climb in global temperatures and significant environmental damage.
“I do not know how I will be able to explain to my grandchildren — the youngest one is barely two days old — our failure to leave behind a livable Earth,” Nightingale said.
Peter Galvin, of the Sierra Club of Rhode Island, supported the legislation but urged a greater increase in renewable energy in order to meet a growing consensus among climate scientists that global carbon emissions must be nearly eliminated by 2035.
The transition to renewable energy has a big benefit, according to Galvin. “Jobs, jobs, jobs. Jobs for people putting stuff on roofs. Jobs for people wiring it. Businesses are coming in. (But) we’re losing an opportunity,” he said.
Rhode Island is one of 29 states to have an RES mandate. “If this law passed through 2035,” Elmer said, “Rhode Island would have one of the most aggressive, one of the strongest renewable-energy standards in the country.”
Anthony Baro, co-founder of renewable-energy developer E2SOL, said the RES offers consumers price stability through diversification. It also helps the economy and will grow his company from a small to a medium-size business.
“And doing that in Rhode Island, we can hire people, train our workforce in educational institutions,” Baro said. “So the byproduct of (extending the RES) is jobs, education and a better standard and quality of life in Rhode Island.”
The bill was held for further study.