By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island seems to have a thing against trees. Although preserving trees is considered one of the most effective methods for sequestering carbon and mitigating climate change, state laws and incentives continue to favor cutting them down. As a result, trees are being clear-cut in Rhode Island to build an office park, a casino and large solar energy farms.
Now the state's Renewable Energy Standard (RES) may increase the loss of trees. The RES is annual increase in the amount of renewable energy that flows into electric sockets. The program was created by the General Assembly in 2004 and is managed by National Grid. Eligible renewable-energy power is bought from specific types of projects that operate across New England and New York.
However, the biggest contributor to the RES portfolio is not wind or solar, but woody-biomass power plants in New Hampshire and Maine. Woody biomass is principally the burning of wood and wood residue from logging to create electricity. But reports show it’s unlikely that planting new trees keeps up with the sequestered carbon dioxide lost to cutting, transporting and burning existing trees.
A new bill in the General Assembly (S2652) adds biomass to the list of eligible energy sources that qualify for net metering. Net metering allows Rhode Island-based residential and commercial renewable-energy projects to connect to the electric grid and get compensated for their electricity. The bill expands the list of eligible power generators to include woody biomass.
Jerry Elmer, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), sent an e-mail to the environmental community warning that the bill allows “all manner of dirty biomass fuels to qualify for net metering.”
Elmer noted that the bill is sponsored by Sen. Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, and Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston. All are considered allies of the environmental movement, but they may not be aware of the harmful consequence of woody biomass, he said.
Elmer said the bill “is clearly the work of one or more companies that would directly benefit from this change.” He intends to alert the sponsors of the risks and urged the environmental community to oppose the bill at a Senate hearing scheduled for March 28.
Other key environmental bills are also scheduled to be heard by the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture on March 28:
Carbon tax S2188: Establishes a state and regional fee on carbon fuels that enter the state. The Energize Rhode Island: Clean Energy Investment and Carbon Pricing Act is in its third year.
Adaptation S2355: Creates the Coastal Adaptation Trust Fund to award grants for fortifying public infrastructure against climate change. The fund would be overseen by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and funded through public and private grants and money allocated by the General Assembly.
Offshore drilling S2116: Designed to deter oil and gas drilling off the coast of Rhode Island. The bills is intended to mute federal plans to open the outer continental shelf to offshore exploration and drilling. S2360 is a resolution stating that the state Senate opposes the offshore drilling proposal.
Carbon capture S2356: Creates a study commission to explore the economic benefits of adopting carbon-capture technologies in Rhode Island.
Fossil-fuel power plants S2508 and S2054: Address the proposed Clear River Energy Center in Burrillville and any future fossil-fuel power plant proposals. S2508 requires developers to build renewable-energy facilities in addition to their fossil-fuel projects. S2054 requires the state Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) to deny any proposed power plant that interferes with state greenhouse-gas reduction goals.
The state Office of Energy Resource recently released a supplemental advisory opinion declaring that the 1,000-megawatt natural-gas/diesel power plant proposed for the woods of Burrillville wouldn't prevent the state from achieving its greenhouse-gas reduction goals.
The EFSB is scheduled to host the final phase of hearings for the proposed Clear River Energy Center on April 11 at 9:30 a.m. at 89 Jefferson Blvd. in Warwick. The hearings will run intermittently through the summer. The public meetings are structured for questioning and cross examination of expert witnesses who provided written testimony on behalf of state agencies, the developer, and opponents of the power plant, such as CLF and the town of Burrillville. Public comments will not be permitted. The hearings will be broadcast live online.
Provided there are no further delays, a ruling from the EFSB isn't likely until early fall.
Change of plans
The Scituate Town Council planned to vote on rescinding its objection to the Burrillville power plant on March 15, but public opposition prompted the council to table the idea while it studies the new resolution.
Thirty-one cities and towns in Rhode Island, two in Massachusetts and one in Connecticut passed resolutions opposing the Clear River Energy Center.
Scituate approved its resolution in 2016 after Election Day but before a majority of new members, known as the Independent Men, were seated on the seven-member council. The group of registered Independents, sworn in in January 2017, are council president John Mahoney, vice president Mike Payette, and members Scott Amaral and Nick Izzi.
In the new resolution, the Independent Men referred to the vote to oppose the power plant as a “lame duck decision” and wanted to rescind it out of fear that the town would be sued by Invenergy for opposing the 1,000-megawatt project.
No date has been set to revisit the resolution.