Solar Developer Clashes with Rhode Island Energy Over Renewable Growth Program
July 25, 2022
A solar developer is clashing with Rhode Island Energy, formerly National Grid, over how the utility manages its renewable energy development program.
Brooklyn, N.Y.-based solar developer Ecogy Energy Inc. filed a petition July 15 with the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC) alleging that Rhode Island Energy and its corporate owner, the PPL Corp., are engaging in arbitrary and illegal behavior over project enrollment in the state’s Renewable Energy Growth (REG) Program.
Earlier this year Ecogy submitted six medium-scale bids — five solar projects and one wind development — for consideration under the program run by Rhode Island Energy.
Each bid had received approval into the utility’s REG program in 2021, but inflationary pressures and supply chain delays threatened to make the projects uneconomic or take longer than the 24-month turnaround time mandated by state law for medium-scale developments in the program.
It wasn’t the first time Ecogy had rebid projects to refresh the time limit and account for rising supply prices. It had successfully bid and received a new offer last October when National Grid owned Rhode Island Energy.
Renewable energy trader with the utility, Tom Kender, wrote to Ecogy in an October 2020 email, “If you are offered a Certificate of Eligibility in this 2021 Third Open Enrollment you will need to terminate the COE issued in 2020, prior to accepting this offer.”
But eight months later, and with a new owner running the program, something changed. In an email dated June 27, Kender told Ecogy officials their rebids were denied “due to the project’s existing Certificate of Eligibility awards per the Renewable Energy Growth Program Tariff for Non-Residential Customers.”
Rhode Island Energy did not respond to requests for comment.
In a pre-petition demand letter to PPL, Ecogy laid out its case, arguing the pandemic and supply chain issues compelled solar developers to rebid projects to keep them economically viable.
“The rationale is flawed because it forces solar developers to wait until non-viable COEs expire, grinding further development to a standstill while inflation and supply chain disruptions further increase costs and further decrease the potential of deploying the projects,” Ecogy legal counsel Anthony Lebe wrote.
Rhode Island Energy, in a response letter dated July 7, said Ecogy had yet to formally request the termination of its six projects. “If the request does not meet the RE Growth Tariff’s termination standard, the Company has discretion not to consent to the requested termination,” PPL counsel Andrew Marcaccio wrote.
Rising prices of materials and supply chain shortages are not new to the solar industry this year. In February, as the PUC was considering the docket for this year’s REG Program, Ecogy submitted testimony explaining how costs in the second half of 2021 had exploded.
Price quotes for solar panels went up from $161 a panel in September 2021 to more than $200 a panel by February, a 24% increase according to Ecogy’s testimony to the PUC. Quotes for racking, the system used to safely affix solar panels, went from $24,942 in August 2021 to $33,740 a month later.
“Prices have only continued to increase, making the use of lower end ceiling prices unreflective of current increased project costs which have seen a clear trend over the last two years,” wrote Brock Gibian, director of development at Ecogy, in testimony to the PUC.
In an email to ecoRI News, Gibian wrote, “Ecogy strongly believes that only through fair, transparent and consistent regulation and utility practices will Rhode Island be able to achieve their ambitious renewable energy goals. We hope that we can move towards a cooperative partnership to bring more projects online which will help the State, its residents and businesses and the local and regional economy.”
Pricing for modules was further exacerbated earlier this year when the U.S. Department of Commerce — headed by former Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo — announced a probe on solar materials imported from Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia. Commerce said it was going to investigate whether Chinese companies were avoiding U.S. tariffs by routing projects through those four countries, which collectively are responsible for 82% of the solar technology used by U.S. developers.
The probe was, to say the least, controversial in the renewables sector. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm characterized the Commerce probe as “smothering” the renewable energy industry in the United States.
The issue was resolved when President Joe Biden authorized use of the Defense Production Act to spur domestic renewable energy manufacturing, including heat pumps, building insulation, fuel cells, and transformers. The executive order also waived all tariffs on solar material imports from the impacted four Southeast Asian countries for at least two years.
Meanwhile, in Lebe’s letter to Rhode Island Energy, Ecogy warned the utility’s actions over the certificates of eligibility would “not only render these projects uneconomic and kill them but will also diminish all developers’ interest in expanding valuable resources participating in the Rhode Island Renewable Energy Growth Program.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated July 26, 2022.