Rhode Island Officials Embrace Fossil-Fuel Power Plant, But Say They Want More Renewable Energy

Frank Epps of Energy Development Partners is building more solar arrays in Rhode island (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Frank Epps of Energy Development Partners is building more solar arrays in Rhode island (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Rhode Island’s renewable-energy sector has so far produced 138 megawatts of energy and nearly 14,000 jobs, according to state officials. Gov. Gina Raimondo now wants to sharply increase the Ocean State’s renewable-energy output to 1,000 megawatts and reach 20,000 new jobs — both in less than four years.

State officials have a goal of doubling the number of people working in the ‘green economy’ by the end of 2020, but no concrete plans on how to get there.

State officials have a goal of doubling the number of people working in the ‘green economy’ by the end of 2020, but no concrete plans on how to get there.

How that will happen is not entirely clear. But any major growth in renewable-energy projects will likely rely on offshore wind farms, land-based wind power, solar and hydropower from states across the Northeast and Canada.

One thing this renewable challenge won’t replace is the proposed Burrillville fossil-fuel power plant. Although the governor’s renewable-energy goal matches the electrical capacity of the proposed 850- to 1,000-megawatt Clear River Energy Center, it will not supplant plans to build the controversial facility in the woods.

“I see it as unrelated,” Raimondo told ecoRI News during a March 1 press event for her renewable-energy challenge. “The thought behind this is we need more clean energy and more affordable clean energy.”

A key argument against the Burrillville power plant is the belief that there is adequate electricity being generated now and in the future, especially as new renewable-energy projects multiply and energy-efficiency programs curtail demand for fossil fuel-generated power. If built, the Burrillville power plant would be the largest emitter of carbon emissions in the state.

Raimondo said she expects Rhode Island to reach its goals for mitigating climate change. “We can meet the challenge and we can create ten of thousands of good-paying jobs for the people of Rhode Island in the process.”

Some of the state's new "green" energy is expected to spring from Rhode Island’s collection of renewable-energy development enticements that have made the state one of the most attractive for new wind and solar developers.

Rhode Island is experiencing rapid growth in renewable-energy development thanks to incentives that offer fixed-rate power-purchase agreements and cash rebates. Popular federal tax credits also remain in place, at least until 2020. Prices for renewable-energy systems have dropped about 50 percent in five years, and the overall payback on a residential solar array is now four years.

There’s also room for job growth in the state’s renewable-energy sector. According to a 2016 report, most of Rhode Island’s green-energy jobs are in energy efficiency (59 percent) and renewable heating and cooling (25 percent). Wind and solar development only account for 14 percent of these jobs.

Large renewable-energy projects will be needed to reach the governor's 1,000-meagwatt target. Rhode Island will likely have to look to projects outside its borders to boost its renewable-energy use. The three-state New England Clean Energy RFP program encourages developers of utility-scale wind, solar and hydroelectric projects to submit bids to local utilities such as National Grid to buy their renewable power. By doing so, the utilities meet their renewable-energy mandates for Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The renewable power can come from across New England, New York and even Canada. It’s not known yet which out-of-state projects will qualify for the Rhode Island 1,000-megawatt challenge. But large Canadian hydro-energy projects using the controversial Northern Pass power-line project have submitted bids to the New England Clean Energy RFP.

Rhode Island has 138 megawatts of in-state renewable power. State officials want to reach 1,000 megawatts by 2020. (Office of Energy Resources)

Rhode Island has 138 megawatts of in-state renewable power. State officials want to reach 1,000 megawatts by 2020. (Office of Energy Resources)

Solar energy developers, nevertheless, are embracing the renewable challenge and intend to build new arrays in Rhode Island. The launch of the renewable target was made at the Quonset Business Park, where the governor announced that the business campus will soon have all of its infrastructure powered by solar energy.

Frank Epps, managing director of Providence-based Energy Development Partners, said the state’s renewable-energy incentives made it possible for his company to build a second utility-scale solar array at Quonset.

“The foundation of this new industry was created based on these new building blocks,” Epps said of the state incentives.

Other quasi-state agencies such as the Narragansett Bay Commission in Providence are also expected to fully offset their electricity use with renewable energy. State buildings that house the Department of Transportation and Department of Health, and the William Powers building next to the Statehouse, are also expected to install rooftop solar arrays.

Raimondo said she likes to set big goals. The renewable challenge is one of her top objectives, along with her free-tuition plan.

“We’re absolutely on a path to do it. It’s aggressive but we’re going to make it happen,” the governor said.