Energy

Senate Energy Infrastructure Commission Leaves Out Environmental Groups

The first meeting of the Rhode Island Senate commission studying electric and natural gas infrastructure was strictly informational and, lacking public comment, steered clear of the controversy surrounding the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.

However, a point of contention, at least so far, is the lack of environmental representation on the 19-member commission. Red flags were raised in a recent story by UpriseRI, which noted the absence of renewable-energy advocates, many of whom have expertise on local energy matters.

One of the commission’s four public appointees, William Horan of Middletown, was singled out in the UpriseRI story for supporting the Burrillville power plant. The retired electrical engineer supports natural-gas extraction, nuclear power, and so-called “clean coal.”

Another puzzling commission appointment is Antonino Ferrera of ACEA International. The company, based in Rome, operates water and wastewater utilities and natural-gas pipelines. Ferrera keeps his office in Miami. The other public appointees represent the city of Newport and Naval Station Newport.

The commission also features 12 members that represent state agencies or private corporations, including National Grid Rhode Island, AARP Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and Enbridge, the Calgary-based owner of a natural-gas pipeline in Rhode Island.

Three senators — Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown; Dawn Euer, D-Newport; and Jessica de la Cruz, R-North Smithfield — are also commission members.

The slight to environmental groups was highlighted by the vetting of commission members by the Senate Committee on Commerce rather than the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture.

DiPalma, the commission chair, recommended the appointments. He explained at the Dec. 21 online meeting that the commission was created as a consequence of the January 2019 natural-gas outage on Aquidneck Island and “to be sure that doesn’t happen again.”

DiPalma acknowledged after the meeting that the cause of the outage was human error by National Grid and pipeline owner Enbridge and not because of a lack of infrastructure to deliver natural gas to customers.

He defended the selection of Horan and the lack of environmental voices on the commission, saying after the meeting, “It’s not an oversight. It was looking at the charge of the commission and going forward from there.”

DiPalma noted repeatedly during the meeting that the commission is examining “reliable and resilient” natural-gas transmission and distribution infrastructure. Environmental concerns, he added, will be addressed when the commission reviews renewable power grid connections.

But the marginalized role of green groups overlooks the fact that transmission and distribution of natural gas through pipelines and related infrastructure pose considerable environmental and public-health risks.

When the commission was created in early 2019, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) asked that two commission members from the environmental community be included to offer their expertise in gas and electricity markets.

“Utilities are already well represented on the commission, and equity and balance suggest that environmentalists must also be represented,” CLF Rhode Island director Amy Moses wrote in a Feb. 26, 2019 letter.

The suggestion was ignored and a counter to Horan’s unaffiliated advocacy for fossil fuels left open.

Horan was the lone member absent from the commission’s first meeting. DiPalma said he notified Horan of the meeting but didn’t know why his fellow Middletown resident didn’t attend.

DiPalma noted that the commission and its final report must recognize and appreciate the state’s goal of achieving 100 percent renewable power by 2030 and the goal of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

He added that at some point fossil fuels will run out.

“From a renewable perspective, we need to understand and appreciate as renewables become more available than they are today, as we drive to increase our use of renewables, how do all those factors factor into ensuring we have a reliable and resilient natural-gas and electric-power transmission and distribution system infrastructure?” DiPalma said. “Everything has to be all around the infrastructure we have today and the infrastructure we have tomorrow.”

The operator of the regional power grid, ISO New England, gave a presentation about electricity infrastructure and interconnection. Highlights included the decline of electricity use caused by the rise of energy efficiency and renewable energy, so much so that New England reached its peak electricity use in 2006.

Twenty years ago oil- and coal-fired power plants accounted for 40 percent of electricity generation. Today, they account for about 1 percent. Electricity from natural gas jumped from 15 percent in 2000 to 48 percent now.

Renewable power increased modestly from 8 percent in 2000 to 11 percent today, but it’s projected to increase from 5,400 megawatts of power capacity in 2019 to as much as 33,600 megawatts by 2029.

Demand for electricity is expected to increase as the heating and transportation sectors are electrified through increased use of electric vehicles and heat pumps. Eric Johnson, director of external affairs for ISO New England, noted that it will likely be 7-10 years before this demand for electricity increases power production. In the meantime, energy efficiency will tamp down demand and local land-based and offshore renewable energy will be coming online.

He also said there will be some 6,000 megawatts of electricity coming to southern New England from Quebec hydropower, along with onshore wind power from northern Maine. He noted that battery storage is expanding to meet peak demand, with 3,000 megawatts of storage capacity seeking to join the power grid.

The commission is scheduled to meet next month to review the outlook for natural-gas infrastructure. Like the Dec. 21 meeting, no public comments will be permitted. DiPalma said public comments will be allowed at the third meeting.

Since the commission was postponed from its March 30 meeting, a new deadline will be set for submitting its findings to the Senate.

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