Rhode Island has embarked on its goal of achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. Getting there is a work in progress, but the target will likely be reached without doing much outside of existing renewable-energy initiatives and hoping that offshore wind development reaches critical mass.
Based on an Office of Energy Resources PowerPoint presentation given at a July 9 online public workshop, the state has a fairly simple math problem to solve. Rhode Island consumes about 7,200 gigawatts of electricity annually. The offshore Revolution Wind project will deliver about 1,300 gigawatts once it goes online, which is expected in 2024. Other long-term contracts the state has with power producers, such as the the Gravel Pit Solar II project in East Windsor, Conn., will account for about 400 gigawatts. Net metering and the state’s fixed-price contract program deliver some 1,200 gigawatts. That leaves about 4,300 gigawatts, or about 40 percent, of Rhode Island’s annual electricity consumption to be filled for the state’s renewable-energy goal to be achieved.
The solutions under consideration by the Office of Energy Resources (OER) are expected to rely on renewable-energy programs like the Renewable Energy Standard (RES). The state mandate requires National Grid to make annual increases in the amount of renewable energy it delivers to ratepayers. It does so by buying renewable-energy credits (RECs) from wind turbines, solar facilities, and other qualified power systems in New England and New York.
The RES program requires that 16 percent of National Grid’s power comes from renewable sources this year. The target climbs about 1.5 percent annually until 2035. Increasing the RES to 100 percent by 2030 requires approval from the General Assembly. But National Grid, which holds immense influence at the Statehouse, has resisted previous efforts to raise the cap. After unsuccessful attempts over several legislative sessions, National Grid agreed in 2016 to raise the limit to the current goal of 38.5 percent.
The massive arsenal of offshore wind energy planned for off the coast southern New England will likely offer an abundance of RECs. Yet, some 22 gigawatts of offshore wind projects have been in a holding pattern because of a delayed federal environmental review of Vineyard Wind. The project is behind schedule and other wind proposals are waiting on the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to set the standard for the layout of turbines and other construction and operational elements before they seek permits of their own. BOEM’s final environmental report on Vineyard Wind is expected in November.
There is also the risk of an oversupply of RECs stemming from the wave of new offshore wind power. If there are more RECs than needed to meet RES compliance in Rhode Island and other states, then there is less of an economic incentive to build new renewable-energy projects that would further reduce climate emissions.
The Brattle Group, a Cambridge, Mass.-based energy consultant, is putting together energy portfolio options Rhode Island could adopt to fill its renewable-energy gap.
At the July 9 kickoff for the initiative, Jürgen Weiss, a principal consultant with The Brattle Group, outlined the importance of addressing the use of RECs. So-called “cheap RECs” that come from a surge of local renewable energy, or even from outside the region, he said, may hinder ”this concept of making sure that we’re incentivizing additional renewable-energy resources.”
Ten years isn’t a lot of time to develop new renewable programs, Weiss noted. Therefore, existing incentives like the RES and fixed-price power-purchase contracts will likely be the primary tools to meet the state’s 100 percent by 2030 goal.
Meanwhile, environmental equity, siting, and land-use rules, such as the protection of forestland, will be part of The Brattle Group’s report.
“We need to consider the feasibility and the practicality of implementing any of these action plan items,” Weiss said.
Other elements of the report will address the cost of expanding the electricity transmission system, battery storage, and changes to the regional power grid after 2030 caused by an expected increase in electricity use.
Nuclear power isn’t a likely option because of the time needed to approve, site, and build a facility by 2030. Weiss also noted that nuclear is technically not considered a renewable source of power.
“There are no plans to consider additional nuclear as part of this study and I don’t think that would be a solution for Rhode Island either, certainly at least over the next decade,” OER commissioner Nicholas Ucci said.
Woody biomass, however, will be allowed, at least as an eligible form of electricity within the RES. Massachusetts and Connecticut have restrictions on burning trees and wood byproducts by power plants because of elevated pollution content and carbon emissions.
The report will consider the costs of expanding renewable electricity for frontline and low-income communities, while balancing those costs with economic benefits such as new jobs that may improve incomes within vulnerable populations.
It’s not likely that existing fossil-fuel power plants and infrastructure such as compressor stations will be shutting shut down by 2030. It’s expected that natural-gas facilities will be relied on in the years ahead to serve as standby “peaker” plants that deliver electricity when wind, solar, and storage can’t meet periods of high electricity demand, such as heat waves.
“There will be less (fossil-fuel power) than now, and it will be utilized less than now, but there still will be fossil fuels,” said Dean Murphy, a principal with The Brattle Group.
Another issue the report will examine is whether fossil-fuel power plants will still be allowed to pay for emitting carbon emissions through alternative compliance payments (ACP). The allowances go into the state Renewable Energy Fund, which supports new renewable projects, but ACP doesn’t lower carbon emissions of the original polluter.
Murphy noted that the 100 percent renewable-energy initiative would certainly speed up the electrification of the power grid, as consumers are offered incentives to embrace electric vehicles and electric heat pumps.
“You haven’t decarbonized the heating sector unless you’ve also decarbonized the electric sector,” Murphy said.
Commenters in the online meeting called for more aggressive incentives for installing battery-storage systems and solar arrays on rooftops, carports, and brownfields. They also urged for stronger policies to protect woodlands.
“No renewable-energy technology can remove existing high levels of carbon from the atmosphere,” said Scott Millar, technical assistance manager for GrowSmart Rhode Island. “It’s clear we need both the forest and renewable energy to achieve our climate-change goals.”
The new study comes on the heels of Gov. Gina Raimondo nearing her goal of adding 1,000 megawatts of renewable power to the grid by the end of this year. As of March 31, the state had secured 920 megawatts of renewable energy, much of which was achieved through securing a price contract for the Revolution Wind project.
Raimondo canceled her visit to the online meeting at the last minute, but her deputy chief of staff, Nicole Verdi, expressed the importance of the initiative. She noted that Rhode Island is the fastest-warming state and that 10 feet of sea-level rise is possible by 2100.
“We’re rapidly reaching the point of no return,” Verdi said.
The 100 Percent by 2030 energy plan is expected to be published by the end of the year. Public meetings are expected in early September and early November. Public comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Updates and meeting materials can be found here.