Gov.'s Latest Renewable-Energy Goal Promises Jobs, and Draws Skeptics

Date: January 22, 2020

PROVIDENCE — Gov. Gina Raimondo’s latest renewable-energy goal again lacks details, and brings with it plenty of controversy and questions.

The executive order, signed Jan. 17, calls for an ambitious yet somewhat vague “100 percent renewable energy future for Rhode Island by 2030.” By the governor’s account, it’s the most aggressive 10-year renewable electricity target in the United States.

What's unclear is whether this new power will be generated in Rhode Island or can include existing sources of imported electricity, such as hydropower from Canada or nuclear energy from Connecticut. Also unresolved is whether the shift to renewables will prompt a reduction in new and existing natural-gas infrastructure and the closure of the state’s six fossil-fuel power plants.

Nicolas Ucci, Raimondo’s designee to head the Office of Energy Resource, said those question will be answered during a months-long process that will begin with a search for a consultant to look at the “costs and benefits and those opportunities for Rhode Island both in state and regionally.”

Raimondo and Ucci expect much of the electricity to come from local, small- and medium-sized land-based solar and wind projects, and from the nine gigawatts of offshore wind energy slated for construction off southern New England.

“There is no offshore wind industry in America except right here in Rhode Island,” Raimondo said.

Despite support from the large representation of trade unions, environmental groups, and wind and solar developers at the Jan. 17 Statehouse event, Raimondo may face impediments from House Speaker Nicolas Mattiello.

During a business forum two days earlier, Mattiello expressed doubts about Rhode Island’s role in curbing greenhouse-gas emissions, saying “there’s nothing Rhode Island can do to address climate change in a way that’s real or impactful.”

Mattiello claimed a response to the climate crisis must be national or global, but he added that he will support climate-related legislation.

Judging by the number of climate bills that have failed to advance at the Statehouse during his tenure, the prospect for a bill that makes this and other mitigation initiatives enforceable is uncertain.

Mattiello’s comments elicited a rare rebuke from the Environment Council of Rhode Island, a coalition of environmental groups and individuals members.

Raimondo is positioning her latest environmental effort as a job creator and part of an inevitable transition to cleaner energy systems built around renewables and battery storage. To bolster the point, Jeremy McDiarmid of the renewable-energy developers advocacy group the Northeast Clean Energy Council spoke at the event.

The executive order may not require any legislative support, but Raimondo still pushed back at Mattiello.

“I strongly disagree with his position that this is, quote-unquote, a national problem that there is nothing much Rhode Island can do,” Raimondo said. “That’s wrong in every sense of the word. As I’ve already said, it’s factually wrong.”

The governor noted that Rhode Island “is uniquely vulnerable to the dangers of climate change" with its eroding shoreline and its rapid air and ocean temperature increases.

“We absolutely have to take state action and I think he’s dead wrong suggesting that we don’t,” Raimondo said.

Mattiello didn’t respond to a request for comment. But Raimondo said she expects state representatives and senators to act in the best interest of their constituents by supporting bills that address the climate crisis.

Raimondo noted that renewable energy and emerging technologies are necessary and inevitable. Opposing it, she said, is “such a backward way of thinking.”

But some groups weren’t pleased with the governor’s executive order. The Green Energy Consumers Alliance wanted the pledged renewable-energy transformation to go beyond electricity usage to include heating and transportation, which account for more than 60 percent of state greenhouse-gas emissions.

“Unfortunately, the Governor’s executive order does not take the steps we already know we need to act on climate change,” according to a Green Energy Consumers Alliance statement.

During a press gaggle, Raimondo restated her commitment to the Transportation & Climate Initiative, a regional plan to tax wholesale gasoline and diesel fuels. The proceeds would subsidize transportation initiatives.

But TCI is facing a headwind of criticism from conservatives media and political groups. Mattiello said he opposes what has been characterized as a “gas tax.”

Several environmental leaders and experts at the signing ceremony supported Raimondo’s latest plan, but withheld final judgment.

“The reality of the climate crisis demands that we end our reliance on dirty fossil fuels. This commitment to 100 percent renewable electricity is a major step towards reaching that goal,” said Jerry Elmer, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation. “The governor must now make good on her promise to support a law that goes beyond mere talk and makes Rhode Island’s climate goals mandatory, including slashing emissions beyond the electric sector.”

Food & Water Watch’s Northeast region director Alex Beauchamp noted that more than half of Rhode Island’s current renewable energy comes from high-carbon emitters such as wood and landfill gas. Removing those from the state renewable-energy standard portfolio would require approval from the General Assembly.

“Governor Raimondo should set bold goals to meet the challenge of the climate crisis, and that should include ensuring that the state’s clean energy program only relies on clean power from solar, wind and tidal sources,” Beauchamp said.