New R.I. Power Plan Embraces Renewable Energy

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Offshore wind farms offer the greatest potential to expand renewable energy.

Rhode Island uses too much natural gas.

Up to 29,200 new energy jobs can be created by 2035.

These are some of the conclusions in Rhode Island’s sweeping new energy plan that seeks to manage utility prices, ensure energy longevity and maintain environmental protections, including cutting greenhouse-gas emissions.

For the most part, the draft of the state energy plan, called “Energy 2035,” is a collection of existing energy programs and studies — so it doesn’t throw any curveballs at environmentalists or large electricity users, the two groups most interested in Rhode Island’s new 20-year power plan.

“We’re not opposed to a lot of components to it,” said Douglas Gablinske, of TEC-RI, during one of two public hearings on Aug. 25. TEC-RI is a consortium of the state’s biggest and most price-conscious energy users such as Toray Plastics in North Kingstown and several universities.

Praise for the 156-page energy plan came from several environmental groups, including the New England Clean Energy Council and People’s Power & Light. Abel Collins, environmentalist and president of the South Kingstown Town Council, applauded the plan. Brown University professor Timmons Roberts called the plan bold and visionary.

“This is a great starting point,” Roberts said.

Energy expert and former head of the Office of Energy Resources Kenneth Payne said the plan meets all of the requirements that were mandated by the General Assembly.

“The plan is needed now. Delay in adoption would impair performance of duties established by law,” Payne said. “The current guide plan is seriously out of date and needs to be replaced.”

In order to ensure stable, affordable and cleaner energy, the plan suggests modernizing the local power grid, a wider adoption of renewable energy and greater use of electric vehicles (EV). Cleaner air, water and habitat protection are cited as benefits.

Many of these objectives will be met through existing programs and agreements. EV use is expected to increase through participation in the multi-state plan to put 3.3 million EVs on the road by 2025. Renewable energy and emission-reduction goals will be achieved through ongoing energy-efficiency improvements and programs that gradually add green power to the grid, such as the renewable energy standard.

Rhode Island’s participation in the multi-state, cap-and-trade program, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, will also help achieve double-digit emission reductions. A greater reliance on out-of-state wind and hydropower and the purchase of renewable-energy credits are necessary to meet the higher benchmarks, the report concludes.

“Ability to diversify the fuel mix notwithstanding, Rhode Island possesses many other tools for increasing the energy security of the state: strategic energy resiliency investments in critical infrastructure; grid modernization efforts; energy storage deployment; and most cost-effectively, energy efficiency,” according to the report.

Recent changes in the energy sector, such as the increased use of domestic natural gas, cheaper renewable energy and the closing of coal and nuclear power plants, provide momentum for meeting these energy objectives.

Energy 2035 also acknowledges that 20 years may not be adequate time to curtail the state’s lopsided reliance on natural gas. Although the plan calls for more locally generated offshore wind, wind energy is only expected to represent as little as 5 percent of the overall power portfolio by 2035.

The report also suggests exploring other methods for making the power grid more reliable, such as micro-grids, energy storage and fixing natural-gas leaks. Theses efforts, the plan states, boost economic growth while the status quo creates the highest risk and cost.

“Business as usual is the most expensive path for Rhode Island,” said Danny Musher, chief of program development for the Office of Energy Resources and the plan’s lead author.

The state energy plan was last updated in 2002 and environmentalists in particular have been calling for new energy guidelines to address climate change, energy efficiency and renewable energy. The plan was expected to be released two years ago but was delayed by the state Division of Planning because of concerns about how cities and towns adopt the plan.

Local action steps include setting municipal goals for energy reduction; lending programs to help pay for upfront costs for renewable energy and energy-efficiency programs; improved zoning and siting for renewable-energy projects; and promoting smart-growth principles.

The State Planning Council approved the draft of Energy 2035 on June 11. The public comment period ends Sept.1. The Statewide Planning Council will likely vote on the final version by November.

Once approved, Energy 2035 goals and policies must be included in updates of comprehensive plans adopted by cities and towns.

Here’s more detailed look at the plan by category:

Wind. The report suggests that the state isn’t suited for large, land-based wind farms, like those in the Midwest and West. Single, municipally owned turbines are best for future land-based wind projects, while offshore wind power offers 95 percent of the state’s wind potential. A joint offshore wind farm project in waters between Rhode Island and Massachusetts proposes to generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity. Existing wind projects account for 9 megawatts of power.

Solar. As of December 2013, Rhode Island has 300 solar installations generating up to 13 megawatts of power. At best, solar can account for about 4 percent of the energy mix by 2035.
Transportation. Rhode Island’s transportation sector is the costliest and most environmentally damaging energy sector. Annual expenses run nearly $1.4 billion and carbon dioxide emissions account for 40 percent of the state’s total. A 40 percent reduction in emissions can occur by using more natural gas in the vehicle fuel mix and adhering to new federal fuel-economy standards. To achieve additional reductions, the report suggests reducing vehicle travel by investing in multi-modal transit and promoting sustainable land use and developing smart-growth village centers. Rhode Island could also set stronger fuel-economy standards by following stricter standards set by California.

Depending on the scenarios, residents could save between $290 and $670 annually through energy efficiency and increasing the use of natural gas in the transportation sector.

Emissions. Carbon dioxide emissions have already dropped to the 1990 level and under the most aggressive scenario could be reduced by 80 percent by 2050, which is the goal set by all other Northeast states. Specific state goals and standards will be set by the state Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council.

Natural gas. Since 2001, natural gas has held steady as the main source of Rhode Island’s power generation, at about 98 percent. Across New England, however, gas use has increased from 15 percent to 52 percent since 2000, while coal has dropped from 18 percent to 3 percent. Natural gas accounts for about 60 percent of home heating in Rhode Island. Home heating oil, kerosene and propane account for about 40 percent.

Here is a list of some interesting Rhode Island energy statistics from the plan:

$3.6 billion spent annually on power and fuel.

11 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions released annually.

2,000 megawatts of electricity are produced in state.

Existing wind, solar and hydropower systems produce up to 29 megawatts of power.

The Deepwater Wind Block Island project will generate up to 30 megawatts of electricity.

Between 1 percent and 2 percent of electricity is generated by the landfill gas power plant next to the Central Landfill in Johnston.

Two pipelines that originate in Texas and New Jersey deliver most of the natural gas to the state.

National Grid is the only natural-gas distributor in the state.

Home heating oil, propane and kerosene are imported through six marine terminals in Providence, East Providence and Tiverton.

The ExxonMobil terminal in East Providence runs an oil pipeline to Springfield, Mass.

341 wind, solar and hydropower facilities operate in the state.

7 hydroelectric facilities have combined generating capacity of 6.7 megawatts.

Rhode Island has the lowest per-capita energy use in the country.

$100 million is spent annually on energy-efficiency projects.