In last week’s State of the State address, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo announced a goal to power the entire state with renewable energy by 2030.
Having spent much of her political career balancing the influence and systemic role of “traditional energy providers” with frequent calls for urgent action on climate change and other environmental concerns, the governor’s remarks were a substantial public pivot toward cementing Rhode Island’s green and blue economies as a part of her legacy.
While Raimondo has done well to navigate an emerging maritime wind farm industry (see: 1.15.20 Boston Globe RhodeMap, describing how Ørsted, the offshore wind conglomerate, is opening their US-based innovation hub in Providence), she has faced criticism and political pressure from several angles on her handling of climate action.
In 2018 she faced Democratic primary challenges from “green energy” candidates Matt Brown and Spencer Dickenson. She had been lukewarm on blocking the development of old energy infrastructure issues such as The Burrillville Power Plant. In recent times she has faced multiple public protests, including the occupation of her office by the activist Sunrise Movement for her unwillingness to sign a Green New Deal for Rhode Island.
The Progressive Democrats of Rhode Island have developed their own forward-thinking, architectural template for a clean energy-powered state, and have assembled interest and targets on their own accord, offering a far more specific renewable energy plan than anything put forth by the governor’s administration.
The global and local impacts of pollution and climate change, the potential scarcity of oil in the not-too-distant future, growing concerns about the operation of a monetary system that is largely built around petroleum, and the many associated human / workers’ rights issues are not new problems that have popped up since Governor Raimondo last addressed the state. So what factors may have driven the governor’s announcement?
While public pressure (and how that pressure plays into the continued sculpting of her public image for a global audience) has undoubtedly played some role in Raimondo’s decision to call for a renewable Rhode Island by 2030, the primary driver is almost certainly the maturation of the industry that would develop and operate such projects.
Rhode Island has been a national leader in some areas of new energy production (eg, Block Island wind farm), but has largely embraced and developed around old energy concepts. Save for a rental scooter here and a bike path there, Rhody is hardly a clean state.
In order to meet the governor’s stated goal of 100% renewable energy by 2030, green and blue technology will have to be elevated to be the state’s key economic driver, that is to say, the industry driving the most relevant investment, employment, quality of life and quality of society at large. We need an obsessive, entrepreneurial, dedicated, competitive and collaborative deep-dive into the work.
This conversation, however, must feature the input of Rhode Islanders statewide, in terms of what models of new energy will be pursued, who will build and maintain the infrastructure, where the infrastructure will be sited, and who will reap the monetary rewards of producing that energy.
For example, there has been a noteworthy amount of pushback to the early rollouts of land-based wind and solar projects in western Rhode Island, with organized civic action in Richmond, West Greenwich, Hopkinton and Coventry demanding a regulatory process that protects their region’s forested areas from the installation of new energy infrastructure. There have also been concerns raised about how long-lasting the current infrastructure models are, if they create additional unforeseen environmental problems (eg, current solar panel model’s runoff), and if the rapid pace of technology and innovation can develop more effective long-term solutions if given the correct incubation opportunities.
While it was outstanding to hear Governor Raimondo pivot toward a more forward-thinking approach to energy, regulators and Rhode Islanders must keep a close eye on the process by which renewable energy profits are developed. This should be an opportunity for all Rhode Islanders to invest — and see substantial return — in both improved energy infrastructure and plain old dividends and cash profits.
After all, in our current world, it is the industrial element of clean energy that will move the needle more than any other.