R.I. faces daunting challenge meeting Raimondo’s 100% renewable energy goal

Source: By Alex Kuffner, Providence Journal • Posted: Sunday, July 12, 2020

PROVIDENCE — Even if Rhode Island is able to reach Gov. Gina Raimondo’s goal of meeting all of its electric demand with renewable energy by the end of the decade, it won’t mean the end of the state’s work to develop more solar, offshore wind and other power sources that don’t produce carbon emissions.

That’s because the goal — which is aimed at reducing the greenhouse gases that cause climate change — is a moving target.

While demand in the state is expected to remain fairly steady between now and 2030, energy consultants hired by the Raimondo administration estimate that it could more than double in the two decades afterward as more Rhode Islanders switch over to electric cars and replace their oil- or gas-burning home heating systems with electric pumps.

Getting to even the 2030 goal represents a daunting task.

“This is a very aggressive goal, more so than other U.S. states have put in place,” Dean Murphy, principal with the Boston-based Brattle Group, said Thursday of the executive order signed by Raimondo in January.

But it is the first, critical step if the entire energy system in Rhode Island is to be weaned off fossil fuels. Broad change is needed to meet the state’s climate goals, as electricity accounts for only 26% of greenhouse gas emissions in Rhode Island, while the numbers for transportation and heating are 36% and 35% respectively.

If there was good news revealed by Murphy and others during the kickoff online workshop on Thursday for the governor’s initiative, it was that the state has already developed, signed contracts for, or has programs in place to reach 60% of the governor’s goal.

Much of that supply would come from the 400-megawatt Revolution Wind Farm, an offshore project proposed by developer Ørsted that National Grid has contracted with to supply power to Rhode Island. The wind farm, which would be built in Rhode Island Sound, would by itself be able to meet 25% of the state’s usage.

And with that renewable energy project and other smaller ones expected to be developed through existing state programs, Rhode Island would be just about halfway to Raimondo’s target by 2024.

But there is still uncertainty surrounding the Revolution project — it hasn’t secured a key federal approval yet and offshore wind in general is plagued by concerns over impacts on the fishing industry — and even seemingly more-benign solar development in Rhode Island has been surrounded by questions over losses of forestland and open space.

That leaves the state right now in a place where the actual production of renewable energy is meeting only 13% of overall demand. That’s 930 gigawatt hours of a load that stood at 7,250 gigawatt hours as of 2019.

As things stand, Rhode Island would have to add another 360 gigawatt hours a year on average from now until 2030 on top of what existing state programs would create.

And as decarbonization of the transportation and heating sectors continues, overall electricity use will rise, meaning that from 2030 to 2050 the state will have to add 440 gigawatt hours per year just to stay at the 100% renewables goal.

The Brattle Group is working with the Office of Energy Resources, the Department of Environmental Management and state utilities regulators on a plan that is due to be finished by the end of the year.

Under the parameters they set, the initiative will consider developing new sources of renewable energy, not purchasing credits or other offsets that support existing installations. The potential sources will include solar, offshore wind and small hydro; but not large hydro from Canada, which has faced transmission difficulties, or new nuclear, which isn’t renewable and would require a lengthy permitting process that would go beyond the 2030 target date.

More than 250 people registered for the virtual workshop. They asked questions about the role of carbon pricing and other decarbonization programs, including the regional Transportation Climate Initiative. They also asked about land-use issues involving solar power.

“The minimization of continued forest loss should be included in the guiding principles of this study,” Scott Millar, of Grow Smart Rhode Island, said in a written comment. “It’s clear we need both the forest and renewable energy to achieve our climate change goals.”

“We too are concerned,” responded Nicholas Ucci, state energy commissioner.

Brattle Group principal Jurgen Weiss said that any proposal to increase renewables must keep in mind bill impacts on consumers, particularly for low-income users and vulnerable businesses.

“The key component is how to do that in a cost-effective manner,” he said. “We have to be really careful about the cost impact.”

akuffner@providencejournal.com