R.I. Selects Model to Measure State's Climate Emissions

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Before Rhode Island comes up with a plan to curb its greenhouse-gas emissions it first has to figure out how to measure them.

To make that happen, the state climate-change council, the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4), on May 11 approved what is called the consumption-based emission-tracking model. This accounting method was selected over a generation-based model. Consumption-based modeling measures emissions from the burning of fossil fuels to create electricity for homes and businesses. The generation-based model primarily would track emissions from power plants within Rhode Island.

Critics of the consumption-based model say it excludes new power plants, such as the proposed Clear River Energy Center in Burrillville, and existing in-state power plants, whose emissions may cause the state to exceed its greenhouse gas-reduction targets.

Rhode Island has seen its greenhouse-gas emissions increase with the construction of several new natural-gas power plants. Electricity generation tripled between 1990 and 2010. In 1990, the state imported most of its electricity. The construction of two major power plants and the re-powering of two others resulted in the production of more electricity than Rhode Island uses. The state now exports excess energy to the New England power grid.

Neither accounting method takes into account the full life cycle of the fossil fuel used to generate electricity and therefore omits emissions such as methane leakage from the natural gas-extraction process known as fracking.

Criticism of consumption-based accounting has ebbed somewhat with the reality that electricity generation is managed on a regional level through ISO New England. The power-grid operator for six states turns on and off electricity production from power plants that supply power to all users in New England. The output is based on price and demand, and has little to do with state borders.

The generation-based tracking model includes locally produced emissions, which can be created by demand in other states. This model makes it difficult to gauge the impacts of renewable energy from out-of state sources and local energy-efficiency efforts.

The consumption-based model is the model of choice for state energy planners and policymakers. This tracking model is also the method used by Massachusetts and Connecticut to track climate emissions. Therefore, having Rhode Island use the same model is expected to make it easier to track regional emissions and electricity use.

The consumption-based model also corresponds with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the nine-state cap-and-trade program that incentivizes power plants to reduce pollution while helping fund renewable-energy projects.

Burrillville update
There will at least one more public meeting for the proposed natural-gas power plant in Burrillville. The EC4 has agreed to participate in a hearing this summer led by the Office of Energy Resources (OER). The OER is one of several state government entities asked by the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) to issue an advisory opinion on the 1-gigawatt Clear River Energy Center.

The OER will analyze the impacts of the power plant on greenhouse-gas emissions over the expected life of the facility. It also will determine whether the facility will comply with the provisions of the Resilient Rhode Island Act and state energy policies. Those goals include emissions reduction targets of 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Advisory reports from OER, the Department of Environmental Management and the Department of Health are due to the EFSB by Sept. 10. These state agencies are expected to participate in the hearing. The EC4 will hear aspects of those advisory opinions and a report on the public hearing at its Aug. 10 meeting.

Other public hearings include an EFSB meeting May 23 at Burrillville High School.

Parag Agrwal is the new head of the R.I. Division of Planning. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Parag Agrwal is the new head of the R.I. Division of Planning. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Members recuse themselves
DEM director Janet Coit and Parag Agrawal, the new head of the Division of Planning, recused themselves from the EC4 votes on the emission-accounting methods and the public hearing. Both serve on the three-member EFSB, which will determine the fate of the proposed Burrillville power plant.

Until the EFSB issues its ruling, Coit will step away from any energy-related responsibilities at DEM. In her place, Terrence Gray, DEM’s associate director of environmental protection, will oversee energy-related permitting and EFSB requests for advisory opinions on the power plant’s compliance with the federal Clean Water and Clean Air acts.

Climate inaction
At the start of the May 11 EC4 meeting, Coit remarked on a recent public presentation by climate expert Michael Oppenheimer. She was struck by the increase in sea level-rise projections during the past 10 years and the how much sooner climate impacts will confront Rhode Island’s coast. She expressed the need for urgency to address the current and projected risks and the need for adaptation planning. She also noted the lack of legislators and business leaders at the May 3 event.

“It made me also think, no matter how much (climate change is) in the news and we’re aware of it, it definitely seems difficult to galvanize action because it requires making difficult decisions and policy choices," she said.