Report Knocks Rhode Island for Dirty Renewables

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

A national study draws attention to Rhode Island’s use of highly polluting wood and other questionable “clean energy” sources the state considers renewable energy.

The recent report by the environmental advocacy group Food & Water Watch, based in Washington, D.C., grades 29 states and Washington, D.C., on their renewable-energy programs. Some are criticized for their use of polluting fuels such as wood and landfill gas, both of which are used in Rhode Island's renewable programs.

Rhode Island received an overall grade of a D. Connecticut also received a D and Massachusetts earned an F. Vermont received a C+ and Hawaii earned the highest grade of A.

The 24-page report focuses on the renewable portfolio standard (RPS), which Rhode Island refers to as Renewable Energy Standard (RES). The program incrementally increases the amount of renewable energy that a utility, such as National Grid, buys for its customers.

Under the RES, about 13 percent of Rhode Island’s electricity comes from sources it classifies as renewable. The RES portfolio grows 1.5 percent annually and has goal of 38.5 percent renewable power by 2035.

However, Rhode Island’s RES includes electricity from power facilities that use dubious fuels such as woody biomass and landfill gas.

The landfill gas power plant in Johnston is the state’s largest source of renewable energy and largest single RPS power source. But the 33-megawatt Broadrock Renewables facility, like other biogas plants, is fueled primarily by methane. Methane is the main element in natural gas. Landfill-gas power plants also emit the greenhouse-gas pollutant nitrogen oxide.

According to the most recent report by the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission, Johnston's landfill-gas facility accounts for 35 percent of the state’s RES portfolio. The portfolio also includes electricity from energy facilities across New England and New York. Wood-fueled power plants in Maine and New Hampshire account for 29 percent of Rhode Island's RES. Also known as woody biomass, it's accused of emitting as much carbon dioxide as coal per kilowatt of energy. The fuel is a mix of junk lumber and whole trees. Critics say it take decades, or longer, for new trees to recapture the carbon emissions generated from woody biomass.

Rhode Island began its RES program in 2004. Proponents of the bill said they had to include woody biomass as an eligible power source as a compromise with utility companies in order for the bill to pass.

A bill in the General Assembly this year that allowed wood-burning boilers to qualify for net metering was defeated after public opposition.

Massachusetts and Connecticut both have reduced their use of woody biomass in recent years, but unlike Rhode Island, both states permit energy from trash incinerators in their RPS programs.

Energy from all of the energy facilities in the RES portfolio are purchased using renewable-energy credits (RECs). RECs are criticized because they inhibit local renewable-energy development while allowing local fossil-fuel power plants to endure.

“A state can continue to burn polluting fuels while sourcing renewable energy credits from elsewhere,” according to the Food & Water Watch report.

The report projects each state’s expected adoption of wind, solar, and geothermal energy in 20 years. Rhode Island received an F for having 2 percent wind, solar, and geothermal use by 2038. Massachusetts also received an F with a 15 percent target. Connecticut also earned an F with a 2 percent target.

The report says states can improve their RPS programs by eliminating the use of high-polluting power sources such as landfill gas and woody biomass. It also encourages states to accelerate the inclusion of renewables and to adopt a 100 percent renewable RPS target.