In March 2017, Governor Raimondo announced a statewide goal to install 1,000 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy by the end of 2020. One thousand megawatts, or one gigawatt, of clean energy is equivalent to covering 1,000 average-sized IKEA stores with solar panels or installing 167 wind turbines offshore. It’s a 10-fold increase over the amount of clean energy that was installed in Rhode Island at the end of 2016.
Rhode Island is all of 1,033 square miles. In that space and in the state’s abutting oceans, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates that we have the technical potential to install more than 30,000 megawatts of renewable energy that could produce more than 100 gigawatt-hours of electricity – an amount that could meet Rhode Island’s annual electricity consumption 14 times over. Another NREL report looking only at rooftop solar potential found that suitable rooftops in the city of Providence alone could hold 500 megawatts of solar – half of the governor’s goal.
In that context, 1,000 megawatts sounds like the least we can do.
Whether you’re worried about global warming, eager to see that Rhode Island is pulling its weight or just love checking off those boxes on our collective to-do list, it is worth paying attention to the pace of clean energy adoption in the state. How much progress have we made so far in our transition to renewable energy, and can Rhode Island hit this 1,000-MW milestone? What can each Rhode Islander do to move the clean energy revolution along a little faster?
Progress, By the Numbers
Governor Raimondo announced the 1,000 megawatt goal in a room full of clean energy advocates, developers and government officials at the Quonset Business Park. I was in the room, representing my then-employer Level Solar, and I spent the moments after the announcement gauging others’ reactions. In the conference room corners, there were murmurs of optimism and swirling questions about the path forward. That tone – optimism tempered by level-headed practicality that comes with working in a oft-changing industry – has continued into 2018.
“I think people are excited about seeing things that help to push the sector forward in terms of knowing that it’s a more secure place to hire and build a business,” says House Representative Art Handy, who works for the company Got Sun, Go Solar in addition to representing District 18 of Cranston and Chairing the House Committee on Environment & Natural Resources. He has worked on clean energy issues for decades, with environmental and public health groups including the American Lung Association.
“It’s not unusual for us to pick goals that are not that hard to blow through – and I think it’s good to have a difficult one,” Rep. Handy says.
As of the end of 2017, there were 244 megawatts of renewable energy installed in Rhode Island, and at least several dozen megawatts more have been installed at the beginning of 2018 according to the Office of Energy Resources (OER). More projects will be joining the pipeline – at the beginning of February, Governor Raimondo directed OER to issue a 400-megawatt procurement for large-scale renewable energy projects. Filling this request for renewable energy projects (to be officially issued by the end of summer 2018) in addition to existing capacity would bring Rhode Island to two-thirds of the 1,000 MW goal.
“We’re really pleased with the progress, and really confident that we’re going to make the goal. But we have a lot of work to do,” says Carol Grant, commissioner of the Office of Energy Resources. “What’s exciting about the governor’s bold goal for 1,000 MW is that it will help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions even more quickly than was already expected.”
The Dirty Alternatives
Yet, many advocates do not see a megawatt goal for clean energy installations as a strong enough statement from the governor in support of a clean energy future. The alternative to investing quickly and intensively into renewable energy resources is continuing to support and rely on fossil fuel infrastructure – like the natural gas plant proposed in Burrillville or the liquified natural gas facility proposed in south Providence. These facilities have negative public health consequences for local communities in the near-term and negative consequences for the hospitability of our planet for the human race in the long-term.
The “No LNG in PVD” campaign is fighting a liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility proposed for south Providence – a part of the city severely impacted by industry and highway pollution and one of its worst asthma hot spots. Supporters of the campaign continue to call out Governor Raimondo’s silence on the proposed facility: The campaign held a vigil outside of the governor’s home in October 2017, asking her to take a stand against the LNG facility. On February 23, the campaign tweeted: “Compared to Carcieri @GovRaimondo has done *nothing* to fight LNG. As a candidate for governor, what’s your position on LNG in Fields Point?” The tweet is referring to Governor Carcieri’s 2005 opposition to a similar proposal for an LNG facility in the port of Providence – Governor Raimondo has not taken a position on the current proposal. Likewise, community members have urged the governor to oppose the construction of a natural gas plant in Burrillville – a plant that she supported in 2015 and has since remained neutral on.
Toward a Renewable Rhode Island
Rhode Islanders can take action now to support a clean energy grid for the Ocean State – personally and politically.
To each homeowner and business, Carole Grant at OER tells individuals to reduce their energy use first with a free home energy assessment, then to work with a certified solar company to consider whether their homes are suitable for solar panels.
Politically, opposition to fossil fuel infrastructure is paving the way for more urgent calls for clean energy investment – local groups in Rhode Island and across the country are taking a stand against pipelines, power plants and other forms of fossil furl infrastructure. Community members can join local campaigns to organize against new fossil fuel investments. Finally, Representative Handy encourages individuals to stay in touch with their elected officials, especially in this 2018 election year:
“When we come knocking, have your questions ready on everything you want to ask about. That’s why we’re there,” Rep. Handy says. “Let us know that these are important issues to you and you want to know what they’re doing about it.”
There is a lot at stake. We all noticed when heat records broke on February 21, 2018 – a 64-degree day in Providence that soared past a 1930s record for the month. Such heat events are not isolated weather blips; they are part of a scientifically measured trend of rising temperatures around the globe. By burning fossil fuels to power our cars, our lights and our hot showers, humans are sending heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere and covering Mama Earth with a few blankets too many for our climate system to keep behaving as it has done in the past. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, temperatures in Rhode Island have risen 3 degrees in the last century – and they will continue to rise. How fast and how dangerously depends on how quickly we can leap across the chasm between where our energy sector is and where it can and should be – harnessing the clean energy technologies at our fingertips.