Tiny Rhode Island Thumbs Nose At Wind Power Nay-Sayers With New 38.5% Plan

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The great state of Rhode Island is about to have an outsized influence on the pace of US clean power development. Rhode Island is already leading the way on the exploitation of the nation’s vast offshore wind energy potential, and its General Assembly has just signed on to an extended renewable energy standard that sets an ambitious statewide goal of 38.5% by 2035.

The new standard covers all clean power, but based on the state’s progress on offshore wind, it’s a good bet that wind energy is a main driver behind the high expectations.

Rhode Island wind clean power

Why Clean Power?

With their super cold winters and lack of in-state fossil fuel supplies, Rhode Island and other New England states have become increasingly dependent on imported fossil natural gas for electricity.

That’s all well and good while gas prices are low, but memories of past price spikes are fresh in the minds of policymakers (and then of course there’s that climate change thing).

Even without a violent swing upward, gas costs could rise steadily under the next president. Presumptive Democratic nominee and current presidential polling front runner Hillary Clinton has advocated tightening up loopholes in environmental and public health regulations, which would sharply reduce, if not largely eliminate, oil and gas fracking in the US. That could have an enormous impact on prices, because as of last May, the US Energy Information Agency calculated that about two-thirds of natural gas in the US comes from fracked wells.

More Clean Power For Rhode Island

Offshore wind development is already creating hundreds of jobs in Rhode Island, helped along by a political environment that has already enabled the state to lay claim to the first “steel in the water” for offshore wind in the entire US. Policy makers are eagerly anticipating more.

The new law was passed by the General Assembly on June 18. It is still awaiting the Governor’s signature as of this writing, but there doesn’t appear to be any roadblocks in its way. Along with a number of other green initiatives in the bill, it’s all part of a green job plan unveiled last January in the Assembly, backed up by the Governor’s budget.

Check out the Providence Journal for a complete rundown on how one small northeastern state plans to leverage its renewable energy resources for economic development.

For those of you on the go, the key takeaway is that the new bill pumps the state’s Renewable Energy Standard up from 14.5% by 2019, to 38.5% by 2035.

To help push the market for distributed energy at the consumer end, the bill also expands net metering, and extends an existing “virtual” net metering for municipalities to include small groups of three or more residential customers as well as affordable housing developments (the virtual part means that property owners can install their solar panels and/or wind turbines offsite).

Another element in the bill that could really set things on fire is a change in state law that would allow the kind of solar leasing or power purchase agreements that currently exist in 26 other states.

Support by utilities in Rhode Island has been a factor in the bill’s success. Last year, People’s Power & Light paired with other organizations to issue a fact sheet advocating for more renewable energy statewide. In addition to pointing out that “free” fuel from wind and solar would buffer the state from fossil fuel price shocks, they came up with these numbers for the 35.8% goal:

Rhode Island economic output increases by $30.65 million per year for 25 years, or a total of $556 million over the 25 -­‐ year life of the program.

The program will create an average of 246 jobs in Rhode Island – and these jobs will last the 25 -­‐ year life of the program , not just go away in a year or two.

Increase state tax revenue by over $1 million per annum, or $13 million over the life of the program.

More Wind Power For Rhode Island

Naturally, the American Wind Energy Association is quite excited about the prospect for strong growth in Rhode Island. In a press release earlier this week, the organization toted up the numbers:

Wind farm investment in Rhode Island has attracted $20 million in total capital investment to the state economy. According to the Wind Energy Foundation, growing wind power in Rhode Island could result in $240 million in electricity bill savings by 2050 and up to $744 million in savings through lower gas prices.

Meanwhile, foundations for the state’s first offshore wind farm, the Block Island project, were constructed last year. After a winter hiatus, the work resumed this spring, including the task of laying cable between the five-turbine farm and Block Island.

For some insights into the complexity of offshore wind energy development, you can find frequent project updates at The Block Island Times. Despite some delays, completion is apparently still expected by the end of the year.

US Offshore Wind: The Sleeping Giant Awakens

Taking a quick look at the rest of the wind-rich Atlantic coast, it looks like New York State has positioned itself to be next in line for offshore wind development.

As with Rhode Island, a favorable political environment for renewable energy is one of the key factors. Back in 2011, the state’s Power Authority proposed a site area that became the basis for a federally designated wind energy development area of 81,000 acres earlier this year.

…Or Not

Meanwhile, other Atlantic states with rich offshore wind resources are far behind. Among other factors in the slow pace of development, we note that the influence of the Koch brothers appears to be at play.

New Jersey Governor and noted Donald Trump supporter Chris Christie, for example, is on record in support of the brothers’ various efforts to influence US policy, including energy policies that deter the growth of the renewable energy sector.

Perhaps following the Governor’s lead, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) has been dragging its feet over implementation of a 2010 law that outlines an ambitious wind energy development program.

Nevertheless, the Obama Administration has been pushing back from the other end. In addition to the New York wind area, last year the Interior Department began putting up offshore wind development areas for auction for New Jersey and other Atlantic states.

Global wind industry powerhouse DONG Energy is one of two companies that won leasing rights to the New Jersey area, so the prospects look good.

On the other hand, BPU has yet to finish the paperwork that would enable an offshore wind energy developer to get paid, so stay tuned.

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Image (cropped): via Deepwater Wind.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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