Rhode Island's New Renewable-Energy Laws Address Economy and Climate Change

Gov. Gina Raimondo recently signed six renewable-energy bills into law. Is a carbon tax likely for next year? (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Gov. Gina Raimondo recently signed six renewable-energy bills into law. Is a carbon tax likely for next year? (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Gov. Gina Raimondo recently held a bill-signing ceremony to brag about the unusually high number of renewable-energy bills passed by the General Assembly this year — and to show her commitment to address climate change.

Raimondo explained the the flurry of bills was the result of new thinking and new people at the Office of Energy Resources, Division of Public Utilities and Carriers, Infrastructure Bank and Department of Environmental Management. For about a year, she said, this group focused on overlapping issues related to the environment, energy, the business climate and regulations.

The intent, Raimndo said, is to “try to create a single team on the field across departments so that we could properly attack the challenges of climate change.”

So far, she said, green-sector jobs and energy-reduction goals are ahead of schedule. Raimondo touted her goal of 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy by the end of 2020.

Yet a major hurdle remains for some environmentalists: a carbon tax.

Although a carbon-tax bill (S365, H5369) died in committee this year, Raimondo said, after inking her name to the six bills, that she would likely sign a carbon-fee bill if one reached her desk.

“I do support it. It’s the right way forward,” she said. “I urge the General Assembly to come up with a bill that moves us in that direction because I think it’s the right way to go.”

Nationally, a carbon tax has Republican — or at least center-right GOP — support and the backing from multinationals such as Proctor & Gamble and General Motors. The fee on oil, natural gas, gasoline, diesel and coal is considered the most effective free-market solution to curbing carbon emissions and transitioning to renewable energy. The fee subsidizes incentives for renewable projects while paying an annual dividend to businesses and residents.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., sponsored a revised carbon-tax bill in late July. The legislation kicked off with an event hosted by the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute.

Eight states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, and the District of Columbia are considering carbon-tax programs. Canada intends to implement a nationwide carbon tax in 2018, after British Columbia enacted a fee on carbon in 2008.

A statewide fee in Rhode Island, however, is opposed by powerful business advocacy groups such as affiliates of the Chamber of Commerce, Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council and oil distributors. President Trump and his cabinet reject the notion of anthropogenic climate change and thereby oppose the carbon-fee concept.

For some environmentalists and climate activists a state carbon fee seems like the most likely option in the near future. In July, the Civic Alliance for a Cooler Rhode Island sent Raimondo a letter demanding swifter action on cutting carbon emissions and fossil-fuel use and adopting climate-change mitigation.

National Grid, Rhode Island’s primary electricity distributor, wasn't at the recent bill-signing ceremony, nor was the company mentioned in remarks by elected officials and state energy officials such as Carol Grant, head of the Office of Energy Resources.

Grant said after the Aug. 9 event that National Grid wasn't omitted intentionally. The utility, she said, is an important partner in many of the state’s efforts to advance renewable energy.

National Grid spokesman Ted Kresse said the utility supports the legislation but was unable to attend the ceremony because of a scheduling conflict.

In the past, National Grid has been reluctant to support several of the state’s primary energy incentives, such as the renewable-energy standard and net metering. Three of the renewable-energy bills passed this year were extension of those programs. 

H5274 and S112 extend the state’s successful fixed-term and fixed-pricing RE Growth program for 10 years. National Grid manages the applications for the tariff program, which mandates that the utility dedicate 40 megawatts of power production annually to new wind and solar projects.

National Grid put up a much bigger fight over efforts to determine who pays for connecting large wind and solar projects to the electric grid. Disputes over the so-called interconnection costs delayed the operation of the three turbines at the Narragansett Bay Commission in Providence and several turbines being built by Wind Energy Development of North Kingstown. 

H5483 and S637 addressed those concerns and established deadlines for the interconnection work and related applications.

Renewable-energy development on farms and open space also had a breakthrough. H6095 and S570 establish that 20 percent of protected land can be used for renewable-energy projects while still keeping its property-tax status. A bill establishing siting rules for wind and solar projects died in committee, after opposition from some farmers and communities such as South Kingstown that are leery of wind turbines.

Raimondo insisted that the bill she signed doesn't preempt local siting regulations. “Local issues have to be dealt with at the local level," she said. "So I am not going to tell any locality what to do."

Another of the new bills, however, makes it easier for solar developers to do get their projects going. H5575 and S562 instruct the Office of Energy Resources to establish a statewide solar application and permit that all municipalities use for new projects.

The final bill, H5618, adds school, hospitals and all other nonprofits to the list of institutions that can qualify for the virtual-net-metering program. Often referred to as shared solar, virtual net metering allows institutions and groups to fund renewable-energy projects by selling portions of a renewable-energy system. The ownership structure allows property owners and renters with limited funds or no roof to buy into and receive the benefits of renewable energy. Low- and moderate-income housing developments are expected to benefit from the expansion of the net-metering rules.

Raimondo said the six bills aren't symbolic but concrete steps that make renewable energy easier to build and less expensive while creating jobs.

“This will guarantee that we will walk the walk in making Rhode Island a greener place,” the governor said.