Questions Surround Rhode Island’s Calls for More Renewable Energy
August 31, 2023
Rhode Island lawmakers have passed laws and resolutions and governors have signed executive orders during the past several years that called for more renewable energy. Among those calls include generating all of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2033.
Promises of a cleaner energy future raise two important equity questions:
Can Rhode Island fairly meet its renewable energy goals and Act on Climate mandates if every municipality doesn’t host its fair (and responsibly sited) share of wind and solar?
Will this reorganized energy system be affordable to everyone?
Since all 39 Rhode Island municipalities want and need power, let’s start with the first question. The state can’t jam all of its new renewable energy infrastructure onto the Providence waterfront or into the woods of Burrillville. It can’t expect the waters off the Ocean State’s coast to host enough turbines to power our energy-sucking lives.
Just saying no to renewable energy isn’t an acceptable answer.
Newport, for one, doesn’t allow the siting of utility-scale wind turbines on land. The Aquidneck Island municipality prohibits wind energy systems of greater than 100 kilowatts — enough energy to power an office or perhaps an average-sized home.
The city ordinance dealing with wind turbines notes that “due to the close proximity of properties and uses within the city limits and the massive size of utility scale wind energy systems, systems of this type are deemed inappropriate for reasons of protecting public safety and general welfare.”
Since the City-by-the-Sea isn’t home to any fossil fuel power plants, I wonder if local officials and the residents they represent have spent much time concerned about the safety and general welfare of the communities that host the polluting facilities that power Newport’s tourism economy.
The ordinance then plays the joker card. “Inherently, wind energy systems impact neighborhood esthetics and character. Therefore, wind energy systems are not in keeping with preserving the historic and cultural fabric of the city’s local historic districts.”
Does that mean the asphalt streets in these districts are going to be turned to dirt or cobblestone? Are the SUVs parked in driveways going to be replaced by horses and buggies? When do the satellite dishes come down and the air conditioners come out of windows? For the record, windmills have been around for quite a while.
I don’t know if siting a utility-scale wind turbine anywhere in Newport makes sense (Ocean Drive?), but I do believe no city or town in Rhode Island should be exempt from helping power a society to which it belongs.
Unfortunately, the state has done a lousy job guiding our transition to renewable energy. Early on, it allowed the private sector and some shady developers to dictate the ground rules. It led to the irresponsible siting of many projects.
About six years ago, the state, under the leadership of then-Gov. Gina Raimondo, called for more renewable energy. The state offered no real plan for how to wisely incorporate solar and wind energy into the landscape. State officials didn’t adequately communicate with municipal officials and municipal officials seldom communicated with each other.
The result was a Wild West approach to renewable energy siting. Both forestland and trust were lost.
Since the state failed to provide adequate guidance or incentivize the development of renewable energy in already-disturbed areas, many of the developers’ initial rushes centered mainly on building ground-mounted solar arrays in rural Rhode Island. It’s less expensive for developers to clear-cut forestland than repurpose already-developed sites, and towns like Exeter, Coventry, Richmond, and Hopkinton, with small municipal staffs and volunteer town boards, weren’t prepared for this renewable energy stampede.
The developers bullied their way in, left a trail of open-space destruction, and were routinely cited for environmental noncompliance, such as the unauthorized alteration of freshwater wetlands. Most of the developers’ promises to hosting communities never materialized.
Utility-scale renewable energy projects were built, but the cost was steeper than it needed to be. First, nearly 1,100 acres of forest has been cleared to make room for ground-mounted solar arrays. It has been estimated that Rhode Island’s forests absorb, on average, 88 tons of carbon dioxide per acre. With about 400,000 acres of forest in the state, that’s 35 million tons of carbon sequestered annually for free — the emissions equivalent of 6 million cars.
But we keeping chipping away at this vital ecosystem and covering farmland with solar panels while leaving underused and vacant pavement, concrete, and rooftops alone. We are adverse to building solar carports or installing solar panels on median strips, but show little concern about cutting down trees or taking agricultural soils out of production to power our streaming services and air conditioners and to charge our cell phones.
Sadly, there is plenty of mauled space in all 39 cities and towns, including Newport, that should have been targeted initially. Perhaps we can begin to correct that mistake now.
The renewables stampede frustrated unprepared local officials and angered unsuspecting residents. Many overreacted by calling for and enacting ordinances that effectively shut the door on many sensible renewable energy projects — all because the initial call for more renewable energy was done with little thought.
As for the second question, the transition to renewable energy — in Rhode Island and across the country — must address historic inequity and deliver a just distribution of costs and benefits, which means addressing generations of systemic discrimination. The government, both state and federal, must play a major role, by driving renewable energy investment and policy to increase equity.
Bringing more renewables into our energy mix will not, by itself, deliver needed structural change. Directing the expected quality of life, public health, and economic benefits of renewable energy toward those who have disproportionately shouldered the costs of a polluting system built around the extraction, transportation, and burning of fossil fuels is the just way to begin addressing energy inequity.
More than one in four U.S. households faces a high energy burden, spending at least 6% of its income on energy, compared to the national average of 3.1%, according to a 2020 assessment.
The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy assessment noted a disproportionate number of Black (4.2%), Indigenous (4.2%), and Latino (3.5%) households face a higher energy burden compared to white households (2.9%).
As Rhode Island moves toward an economy powered by renewable energy, the state’s future utility systems need to be community-based, affordable for everyone, and sustainable for both people and the planet, according to Camilo Viveiros, executive director of the Pawtucket-based George Wiley Center. The current system, he has noted, treats low-wealth families, people of color, and the environment unfairly.
Rhode Island could start by reinstating a percentage income payment plan (PIPP) for low-wealth families, which would require Rhode Island Energy to accept payments based on a percentage of a household’s income. Some Rhode Island families are paying an unsustainable 40% to 50% of their incomes on utilities, according to Viveiros.
In 1986, Rhode Island carried out a pilot PIPP program, and an evaluation of the program, by the Rhode Island Governor’s Office of Energy Assistance, found a significant number of households participating in the pilot actually increased their payments for monthly gas and electric bills. State officials, of course, allowed the pilot program to expire. The state’s lone major utility didn’t want it. ‘Nuff said.
Rhode Island should also make any and all utility shutoffs illegal.
Frank Carini can be reached at [email protected]. His opinions don’t reflect those of ecoRI News.