In January 2020, Governor Raimondo signed an Executive Order setting a goal of meeting Rhode Island electricity demand from 100% renewable sources by the end of the decade. Back in January, we wrote that we’re skeptical that another study will result in the action we need. Over six months later, where does Rhode Island stand on 100% renewable electricity?
The Office of Energy Resources held a public workshop in July on the topic and has scheduled one for September 29th. But we think it’s already clear what Rhode Island needs to do to achieve 100% renewable electricity by 2030:
- Strengthen the Renewable Energy Standard
- Procure additional offshore wind
- Minimize roadblocks to solar and expand incentive programs
- Double down on energy efficiency
There are a lot of pieces involved, but they fit together.
It’s Time to Raise the Renewable Energy Standard
Today, state programs provide for about 14% renewable power in our electricity mix. This percentage is mandated by the Renewable Energy Standard, which requires that utilities buy a steadily increasing minimum percentage of their electricity from renewable resources. Our current Renewable Energy Standard would only require Rhode Island’s utilities to buy 31% renewable electricity by 2030. If we’re serious about getting to 100% renewable electricity by 2030, the logical first step should be to raise the RES to 100% by 2030. In addition, the RES increase will ensure that Renewable Energy Certificates from new projects in the state, like the upcoming Revolution Wind project, go towards satisfying Rhode Island’s own greenhouse gas reduction goals, rather than being sold to other states.
As an increased Renewable Energy Standard grows demand for renewable energy in the state, Rhode Island also needs to support the supply side. Luckily, Rhode Island has lots of opportunity for new projects.
Existing laws are likely to lead to about 664 megawatts of solar total in Rhode Island by 2030, according to a forecast of ISO-New England, which manages the New England power grid. If the state meets that forecast, solar would account for about 11% of the state’s projected electricity load in 2030.
Smart-sited Solar Farm in North Providence, Rhode Island (2019)
But with the right mix of laws and incentives, Rhode Island could do better than 11%. On August 18, OER released the results of a study conducted by Synapse Energy Economics. The study estimated available solar potential, especially in areas that minimize impact on open space and forests: residential rooftops, landfills, gravel pits, brownfields, parking lots, and commercial and industrial properties. Getting to something like 1000 MW of of solar will take further planning and policy development, especially if we are to minimize solar on previously undeveloped land. We think a big missing piece in Rhode Island is a concerted effort to solarize public buildings, especially schools. We recommend that the state survey all such buildings and make installations a priority.
Other Land-Based Resources
In the Ocean State, on-shore wind, digester gas, and small hydro currently produce about 650 GWh, a bit less than 10% of the state’s load. Getting to, say, 1000 GWh will be a matter of siting. Will more projects get permission to build? Time will tell.
Tour of the Small-Hydro Plant in Pawtucket, Rhode Island (2019)
When Revolution Wind comes online in 2023, Rhode Island should be at about 50% home-grown renewable energy, including the resources mentioned above. But insofar as offshore wind is concerned, we need a lot more. Offshore wind has the potential to create a lot of jobs and affordable electricity. However, projects can take many years before they’re permitted and constructed. OER and National Grid should solicit bids for at least one more big offshore wind project as soon as possible to make sure we meet the 2030 goal. Another big project could bring Rhode Island to 75% renewable electricity.
Block Island Offshore Wind Farm (Source: illumination.duke-energy.com)
The Fourth Quarter
The last 25% could come from a variety of sources, whether from more offshore wind or from projects elsewhere in New England. From a climate perspective, a wind turbine built in Maine does as much to reduce emissions as a wind turbine built here.
Energy Efficiency & Beneficial Electrification
Reaching 100% renewable electricity will depend not just on supply but on how much power Rhode Island consumes. Efficiency is almost always the least cost option to reduce emissions from electricity, and we should invest as much in efficiency as is cost effective. Switching to efficient electric heating systems and electric cars could increase electricity load, technically making it more difficult to reach 100% renewables: but that’s okay. Building and vehicle electrification reduce our carbon footprint even more overall.
A Balancing Act
Even if Rhode Island builds all of these renewable resources, keeping the lights on 24/7 will require complementing wind and solar with other resources such as nuclear, hydro, and natural gas.
In the short term, if Rhode Island consumes some natural gas when wind and solar are not producing enough, those emissions will be offset by the fact that Rhode Island would be overproducing wind and solar at other times, which goes to displace the fossil fuels used to supply electricity in other New England states that would not yet be at 100%. This results in the same total carbon reductions.
In the long term, we’ll need to balance the system through energy storage and other creative solutions. nd as we’ve written, vehicle electrification could provide lots more storage to the grid through managed charging and even vehicle to grid battery technology. The more EVs we have, the more wind and solar we can build into the system.
Rhode Island Can Lead by Getting to 100%
Unfortunately, Rhode Island is pretty far off from having any real solutions to reducing carbon from the transportation and heating sectors. Decarbonizing electricity can help us lead while we wait for those sectors to catch up. A recent report showed that Rhode Island came out 37th nationwide and last in New England in cutting carbon from 2005-2017. Since 2017, no policies have been adopted that would significantly improve that ranking. Rhode Island trails states around the country, including Hawaii, California, New York, and Vermont, in enacting policy that would get the state to 100% renewable electricity. But, if the Ocean State could get on track to 100% by 2030, it would be a leader—perhaps.