Rhode Island Has No Clear Plan to Reach 2030 Climate Mandates


State leaders spent much of last year doubling down on offshore wind, but transportation and building emissions remain a top concern for meeting Act on Climate mandates. (Rob Smith/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — With less than six years left on the clock until 2030, Rhode Island lawmakers are headed back into their legislative chambers with no clear plan to achieve the state’s next big climate mandates.

State officials celebrated a bit of a jubilee earlier this year, when the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management released its latest greenhouse gas inventory showing the state achieved a 20% drop in emissions compared to 1990 levels. The decrease was double what is required in the Act on Climate law, legislation that passed in 2021 that enshrines the state’s emission reduction goals into state law.

But the victory is temporary; DEM noted in its report that the 2020 data is skewed by the COVID-19 pandemic, when the public drove much less due to government-mandated shutdowns across Rhode Island for many businesses, and is no indicator of future reduction trends.

“The big message is, we are not on track,” said Timmons Roberts, professor of environmental studies and sociology at Brown University, on the state’s latest emissions inventory. “If the state fails to come up with a legitimate plan to reduce emissions in the next two calendar years, according to the Act on Climate, if our plan is not legitimate and our emissions are not on track, then the state could be sued as early as 2026.”

Emissions in Rhode Island come from three sectors: transportation (think planes, trains, and automobiles), electricity consumption (natural gas power plants), and heating emissions from buildings (think furnaces and home heating oil).

Roberts said electricity emissions have been one of the state’s few bright spots for reductions, crediting both the transition to renewable energy, as well as the region converting coal-fired power plants to oil and then later natural gas.

“Electricity generation is the one area where we’ve seen improvement over time,” he said. “It’s substantial. Historically, it’s the one sector that has gone down and stays down; it doesn’t bounce back up.”

In 2022, lawmakers passed the 100% Renewable Energy Standard, which will require all electricity sold to Rhode Island homes and businesses to be offset with a renewable energy source. Revolution Wind, the 704-megawatt (MW) offshore wind project being built 15 miles south of the state, is expected to come online and begin powering Rhode Island homes in 2025.

The state is also doubling down on offshore wind. Rhode Island has teamed up with Massachusetts and Connecticut for a first-of-its-kind multistate proposal process for new offshore wind projects. In 2024, the states are expected to seek project proposals for up to 6,000 MW of offshore wind.

Meanwhile, policies to tackle the other emission areas remain slim. Rhode Island has lacked a comprehensive, actionable plan to tackle transportation emissions since its New England neighbors backed out of joining the Transportation & Climate Initiative.

Last May, DEM announced it would adopt the Advanced Clean Cars II (ACCII) rule, which requires car manufacturers, slowly over the next decade, to ramp up the percentage of electric vehicles sold in Rhode Island until 100% of all sales by 2035 are zero-emission vehicles.

But the state still lacks a clear path to reducing vehicle miles traveled, or adequately fund its public transit system. The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority still faces a steep deficit of about $20 million just to maintain existing services.

And the state is nowhere on reducing heating emissions.

“I think there really is no long-term policy that adequately addresses emissions from heating in the state of Rhode Island,” said Amanda Barker, a policy associate for the Green Energy Consumers Alliance.

Historically, cold New England states like Rhode Island overwhelmingly use fossil fuels to heat homes in the winter. More than 54% of homes in Rhode Island use natural gas, with another estimated 30% using home heating oil. The state has ramped up financial incentives and rebates for homeowners to electrify their heating systems through the Rhode Island program, Clean Heat Rhode Island.

Barker said lawmakers need to pass two programs this year to reduce building emissions. The first is a clean heat standard, which would work similar to the state’s renewable energy standard. The policy would require natural gas utilities and heating oil and propane dealers to provide their customers with increasing percentages of cleaner heat services over time, with the key goal of phasing out fossil fuels. The businesses would also have the option to buy cleaner heat credits from heat pump installers, similar to how natural gas power plants can buy renewable energy certificates from solar and wind facilities.

“The ultimate intent is for them to see the writing on the wall,” Barker said. “We need to make this transition, and they should really look to transition their business models to get more into those clean heat services.”

The other piece of the building emissions puzzle, according to Barker, is an energy benchmarking law, where large buildings above 25,000 square feet would be required to report their building emissions to the state Office of Energy Resources, which, after collecting the data for three years, would then be required to set a standard for buildings to reduce their emissions over time.

“The big piece of the puzzle is addressing existing buildings,” Barker said. “Seventy percent of our building stock in 2050 is already in place today. If we want to reach net-zero by 2050, we really need to retrofit and electrify existing buildings.”

The General Assembly is scheduled to start its legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 2, at 4 p.m.


Join the Discussion

View Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your support keeps our reporters on the environmental beat.

Reader support is at the core of our nonprofit news model. Together, we can keep the environment in the headlines.


We use cookies to improve your experience and deliver personalized content. View Cookie Settings