Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
MIDDLETOWN, R.I. — Ahead of a July 18 public meeting with Burrillville residents, Gov. Gina Raimondo recently reiterated her support for the proposed Clear River Energy Center.
In a seemingly contradictory defense of the nearly 1,000-megwatt project, she said Rhode Island's overwhelming reliance on natural-gas-generated electricity justifies building another natural-gas power plant.
“As a bridge to renewables, I do support natural gas. It’s where we get 98 percent of energy in Rhode Island,” Raimondo said July 7, after signing two bills that expand renewable-energy development incentives in Rhode Island.
The upcoming public meeting at Burrillville High School, she explained, will allow residents to state their concerns about having a second power plant in their town. But Raimondo emphasized that the fate of the $700 million energy facility, proposed by Invenergy Thermal Development LLC of Chicago, isn't in her in hands but rests with the Rhode Island Energy Facilities Siting Board.
“The purpose of that committee is to look very seriously at health concerns, environmental concerns, water-quality concerns," she said. "And if there are issues then the plant won’t go forward."
The state's new renewable-energy incentives were praised by the nation’s largest solar installer, SolarCity. At the July 7 bill-signing ceremony at Newport Vineyards, the San Mateo, Calif., company announced plans to bring 50 new jobs to its Coventry office. Raimondo said she phoned SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive to remind him to make good on his promise for the jobs now that legislation allows leasing solar panels in Rhode Island.
The renewable-energy incentive was one of several expanded or created this year by the General Assembly. Virtual net metering is another key program sought by local renewable-energy developers. Also known as community solar or solar gardens, virtual net metering allows residential electric costumers to buy into solar projects and receive renewable energy as well as renewable-energy credits.
Virtual net metering gives renters, occupants of multi-unit buildings, and those without adequate sunlight, rooftops or real estate to receive the benefits from renewable-energy projects such as solar arrays. Only about 25 percent of residential buildings are suitable for solar panels. The Rhode Island law also allows low- and moderate-income housing to adopt virtual net metering.
Virtual net metering has seen steady growth in Massachusetts since it was established in 2008.
“Community solar can do away with many of the hassles of rooftop solar,” said Allen McGonagill, CEO of Relay Power, a community solar advocacy group based in Holliston, Mass.
Limits on virtual net metering, however, have been a big impediment to satisfying demand for the incentive. Massachusetts has been struggling with electric utilities, the Legislature and the Department of Energy Resources for more than two years over limits on increasing the amount of electricity allotted to virtual net metering.
“Given community solar’s advantages of accessibility and affordability for consumers, it is unclear why community solar stands to lose under the current political framework,” McGonagill said.
The cap for Rhode Island is set at 30 megawatts — a modest limit considering the expected demand and urgent need to meet state greenhouse-gas-emission-reduction goals.
Rep. Aaron Regunberg, D-Providence, was applauded at the bill-signing ceremony for preserving many of the renewable incentives, such as virtual net metering, after they were unexpectedly stripped from the state budget.
Regunberg said many of the incentives are victories, especially given opposition from interest groups “that continue to make their profits from our unsustainable, fossil-fuel-based grid infrastructure.”
There is considerable work to be done, Regunberg added, especially in meeting the state's goal of cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.
“Despite a lot of positive steps won by a lot of people, we still get a tiny, tiny fraction of our load from local renewable-energy generation. For that to change, we need to bring renewable energy to scale, and that is going to take a lot more bold action and a lot more willingness to buck those special interests. The goal must be a 100 percent clean energy economy in the NEAR future. That is the bar — anything else is a betrayal of our children,” Regunberg wrote in a statement to ecoRI News.
From an economic perspective, Rhode Island has seen big gains in its renewable-energy sector. "Green" economy jobs increased 40 percent in 2015 and the sector now employs 14,000 workers, according to a recent report issued by the state Office of Energy Resources.
Here are the bills and other renewable-energy incentives passed this year:
Senate and House bills (S2450 and H8354) extend the Renewable Energy Fund, which provides grants and loans to small- and medium-size solar projects. The program is funded through a surcharge on electricity bills.
Virtual net metering offers 30 megawatts for offsite net metering and community solar projects. It allows three or more customers to join a renewable-energy project and share the credit for energy it generates. It also enables third-party financing for loans or leases.
Additional renewable projects are eligible for long-term, fixed-rate pricing under the RE Growth Program. The legislation exempts residential renewable-energy systems and those used in manufacturing from property taxes. It also establishes a statewide tax rate for commercial renewable-energy systems.
Bills (S2185 and H7413) extend the state Renewable Energy Standard until 2035. The program requires a 1.5 percent annual increase in the percentage of electricity from renewable sources that National Grid delivers to Rhode Island customers. The state is on target for 14.5 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2019. By the end of the extension, Rhode Islanders will receive 40 percent of their electricity from renewable sources.