‘This won’t be free.’ R.I. maps path to 100% renewables

Source: By Miranda Willson, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, January 18, 2021

Rhode Island’s goal of reaching 100% renewable electricity by 2030 is achievable but potentially costly, according to a new report from state officials.

The state’s use of renewable power will need to increase 150% over the next decade to meet the all-renewables target established by Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) last year, said the report from the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources and Boston-based consulting firm the Brattle Group. Rhode Island’s timeline is more ambitious than those of many other states with 100% renewable goals, which typically have targets of 2040 or later.

As of 2019, Rhode Island generated 91% of its electricity from natural gas, a larger share than any other state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The rapid deployment of offshore and onshore wind as well as solar resources could enable Rhode Island to become the first state to reach all-renewable power, but electricity rates will be affected by the shift, the report said. Residential electricity bills in 2030 could increase by an additional $11 to $14 per month if the state uses utility-scale solar and wind to meet its goal, or by an extra $30 per month if retail rooftop solar is used.

“This won’t be free,” said Dean Murphy, a principal at the Brattle Group and a co-author of the report. “But it’s ambitious and entirely doable, and it just takes a state like Rhode Island to step up and do it.”

The report outlines recommendations to meet the goal, including amending the state’s existing renewable portfolio standard of 38.5% renewables by 2035. Currently, Rhode Island’s 2030 target is not codified into law, but lawmakers could move to do so, said Nicholas Ucci, state energy commissioner.

Support of the offshore wind industry is also needed to reach 100% renewables, the report said. Rhode Island is home to the Block Island project — the first offshore wind farm in the nation — and officials last October announced their intent to pursue an additional 600 megawatts of offshore wind energy.

With the anticipated addition of Ørsted’s proposed Revolution Wind offshore project in 2024, the state will be on track to obtaining 40% of its electricity from renewables by 2030, the analysis found.

“Rhode Island will need to add about 4,600 [gigawatt-hours] of additional renewable energy to close the remaining renewable electricity gap to reach 100% by 2030, reflecting a relatively flat outlook for electricity demand,” the report said.

One state utility, the Pascoag Utility District, said it is committed to working toward the 100% clean electricity goal through increased use of battery storage, solar and other resources. The utility provides electricity to 5,000 customers in Providence County.

National Grid, which serves the majority of electric customers in the state, could not be reached for comment but has set a goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

A REC warning

Rhode Island is the smallest state by area in the nation and has few utility-scale renewable energy projects of its own. As the state transitions toward renewable electricity, however, it should avoid an overreliance on purchasing renewable energy credits (RECs) from the New England electricity market, the report said. Doing so could result in more volatile electricity costs for customers, even though it might be cheaper in the short term, it said.

“[Purchasing] market RECs would provide uncertain and potentially limited additional [greenhouse gas] emissions reductions, and may not provide local economic development benefits,” the report said.

Tom Giordano, executive director of the Partnership for Rhode Island, said his group looks forward to helping the state achieve its renewable electricity goals and is confident that businesses will “prosper in the clean energy future.” The group’s members include Brown University and large corporations in the state.

“Today’s report provides a clear roadmap for Rhode Island to achieve our common goal: a decarbonized electricity system,” Giordano said in a statement. “We applaud Governor Raimondo’s leadership in making specific recommendations that will give Rhode Island businesses the flexibility to find least-cost clean energy solutions.”

Although developing an all-renewable electric grid by 2030 is ambitious, maintaining a clean energy system beyond 2030 will also be a challenge and will require careful, coordinated planning, the report said.

That’s because Rhode Island and nearby states are planning to decarbonize other sectors such as transportation and home heating in the near future. Electrifying buildings through the installation of heat pumps and ramping up the use of electric vehicles is projected to double Rhode Island’s electricity demand between 2030 and 2050, the report said.

“If this pace of electrification materializes, Rhode Island would need to continue adding up to 400-500 [gigawatts] per year of new renewables beyond 2030, which is roughly similar to the pace up to 2030,” the report said. “In this longer-term view, achieving 100% renewable electricity by 2030 is more of a milestone along the way to decarbonizing the broader economy, rather than the fulfillment of a significant goal for just the electricity sector.”