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Q&A with Rhode Island energy leaders: Highlights from our May 18th Spring Meeting

spring meeting follow-up blogs

This is the first blog of a three-part series focused on renewable energy development and climate progress in Rhode Island. 

Keep reading for highlights from our virtual Spring Meeting on May 18.

This year, Green Energy Consumers shifted our annual Spring Meeting program, focused on Rhode Island, to an online setting due to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Over a hundred attendees joined us for a live webinar to dive into the progress of renewable energy development and climate change action in the Ocean State. We welcomed Rhode-Island-based panelists to talk about the urgency of the climate crisis, now exacerbated by the pandemic.

Legislative Priorities 

Our Policy Coordinator Kai Salem presented our legislative priorities and moderated our panel of local experts through a series of questions focused on policy and regulatory solutions to the climate crisis. Our legislative priorities as presented by Kai included:

  • Strengthening Rhode Island's energy efficiency policy and programs, including our support to updating Rhode Island’s outdated Appliance Efficiency Standards (S2043/H7866), bringing back state rebates for electric vehicles, and strengthening the state’s energy efficiency programs. Increased investment in electrification and energy efficiency cuts greenhouse gas emissions, reduces dependence on fossil fuels, and saves consumers money; 
  • Increasing the Renewable Energy Standard to 100% by 2030, (S2404, sponsored by Sen. Miller) to get Rhode Island to 100% renewable electricity by 2030;
  • Implementing the regional proposal for a Transportation and Climate Initiative, which will reduce carbon pollution from transportation and secure funding for transit and clean transportation options; and, 
  • Advocating for the Act on Climate 2020 bill that would strengthen the Resilient Rhode Island Act (which set non-binding greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets back in 2014). The Act On Climate 2020 (H7399/ S2165, sponsored by Rep. Blazejewski and Sen. Euer) would set Rhode Island’s first mandatory carbon emissions reductions target of 50% by 2035. 

Green Municipal Aggregation

Our Rhode Island Director Priscilla De La Cruz reported our tremendous progress to advance green municipal aggregation, also known as community choice aggregation. 

last years spring meeting (1)At last year's Spring Meeting, Providence Mayor Elorza announced a commitment to achieving the goals of the City's Climate Justice Plan, including a green community choice aggregation program that could provide cleaner and more affordable electricity to all residents. Thanks to continued advocacy and outreach by Green Energy Consumers Alliance and our partner Good Energy, communities of Providence, Central Falls, Barrington, and South Kingstown, are pursuing green community choice aggregation programs. These programs save consumers money while providing green electricity for all through multi-year contracts and resulting in greenhouse gas reductions.

Rhode-Island-Based Panel Q&A on Climate and Energy

The panelists included Dawn Euer (State Senator), Marion Gold (Commissioner, Public Utilities Commission), and Nick S. Ucci (Acting Commissioner, Office of Energy Resources).

Senator Euer sponsors climate action legislation like an Act on Climate 2020, which will require Rhode Island to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 100% by 2050. Throughout the panel discussion, Senator Euer expressed how it is possible to develop policies that keep Rhode Island economically competitive regionally while addressing the climate crisis. She also spoke to the externalities of fossil fuels and the true cost of climate inaction as a coastal state. 

We were thrilled to welcome back Commissioner Gold to our annual meeting who served as the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources (OER), prior to being appointed to the RI Public Utilities Commission by Governor Gina Raimondo in June 2016. Commissioner Gold’s remarks captured the real complexity of shifting the power grid off fossil fuels, and the pressing need to electrify our heating and transportation sectors while ensuring social equity. It was also interesting to hear from Gold about the information asymmetry advantage that utilities have over the public sector and regulators. 

Nick S. Ucci was nominated by Governor Raimondo in January 2020 to serve as Commissioner of OER. During his time at OER, Commissioner Ucci has been leading on critical clean energy efforts like the state’s offshore wind procurement, Heating Sector Transformation initiative, doubling our electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure, and now working to ensure that 100% of the state’s electricity demand is met with renewables by 2030. At our Spring Meeting, Commissioner Ucci talked about the importance of policies like the Renewable Energy Standard as we work toward 100% by 2030. He also stressed the need to aggressively move forward with the decarbonization and electrification of the heating and transportation sectors while considering the synergies across sectors and equitable distribution of costs.


We thank our expert panelists for their time and expertise.

Here is a summary of the key points made by our panelists.   This is not a verbatim transcript.

Kai Salem:

First, I'd like to ask why we haven't seen a lot of movement on energy and environment policy priorities over the last couple of years. Can you talk a little bit about the General Assembly's appetite for private legislation? What kind of political environment do you see in the legislature in both the House and the Senate as it would relate to those issues?

Senator Dawn Euer:

I want to start off by recognizing the amount of work historically that has been done in Rhode Island. I do think that it's important to start with the successes. I actually moved out here because of the work in the leadership that Rhode Island had in offshore wind projects, with the Block Island wind farm being one of the first offshore wind facilities in the United States, and I think that that is very important for the context of this conversation. Also, as you're talking about the municipal aggregation and energy efficiency, I think putting forward those policies and programs were all big lifts as those worked their way through the General Assembly before my time there.  While certainly none of those efforts were low-hanging fruit, I think part of the thinking and the conversation now is trying to work through some very complex situations, and how can we be bold, and how can we take action that needs to be taken in a very urgent circumstance. When I talk to a lot of people, not just my General Assembly colleagues, the concerns around climate action seem so huge and so it becomes almost a where do we start? And how do you tackle the problem that is so large? 

The size of the challenge that we're facing needs to be met with bold action and so that's why I introduced that Act On Climate because learning what we've learned from when the legislation was originally introduced in 2014, and how we can build upon that framework to take the next step. Another thing I'll say is that I think from the perspective of a General Assembly member, the influence of industry is very strong and very present. After I got elected in 2017, one of the first emails I got to my official Senate email address was from an industry group, an oil and gas group; they added me to their listserv and immediately started sending me propaganda pieces. So, I think that there's this false narrative that there’s some sort of competition between regional competitiveness, economic concerns, and these kinds of environmental and energy goals. I don't see them as conflicting issues. 

The aspects of these developing policies in this area can really be complimentary. We should be continuing to lead in green energy and efficiency because these are jobs. This is an opportunity to really shift our economics and shift our job focus points and make sure that we're addressing the crisis that's facing us. Being a small state, we have the opportunity to try things that might be unwieldy in other states due to their size. I think we need to continue to educate and to advocate to make sure that we're moving forward on these issues.

Kai Salem:

Commissioner Ucci, I'd like to ask: Do you have any more detailed updates on the sense of how all of these studies and planning processes are going? Are we going to be able to have a plan that gets us to 100% renewable electricity by 2030?

Commissioner Nick Ucci:

From a utility-scale perspective in less than a year we've added 450 megawatts of renewables to our portfolio. The Revolution wind offshore wind project alone is expected to deliver 91 million dollars in energy cost savings, 11 million metric tons of reduced emissions, and provide enough carbon free energy to power a quarter of Rhode Island's electric use about 270,000 homes, while generating at least 800 construction jobs and 50 permanent jobs and more positive externalities through the supply chain. Just a couple of months ago, we also received approval for a 50 megawatt solar project that's located actually in Connecticut at a gravel pit which is good siting to save load and that project is expected to save consumers 30 million dollars over 20 years. It's also the first time in the state's history that all three of Rhode Island's electric utilities have agreed to share in a project output and contract so we're moving, and we're moving quick. 

Locally, we continue to see new projects being developed through the Renewable Energy Growth program and through net metering. As you mentioned, we do have a lot of studies underway. That's because this work is complicated and it's all intricately linked - the heating system, the transportation system, and the electric system. It's not just installing air source heat pumps in a person's home or in a neighborhood; it's thinking at scale, what are these investments? Due to our distribution system, electric or gas to the trains interstate transmission system, what does it mean for the workforce that would be needed to do this and do it well? What sort of investments in terms of public or private capital would be needed and how do we ensure that low and moderate income consumers and small businesses can take part in this clean energy revolution? 

We spent many months working with stakeholders very openly in a number of public workshops that we held thinking through some of those opportunities and challenges in the heating sector and we're going to do the same exact thing this summer in advancing the governess work for 100% renewables by 2030. I'm happy to announce at this event that OER has locked down the Brattle group to support us in the work on 100% renewables. It's the same team project team that worked with us on the Heating Sector Transformation effort and there are costs, a lot of synergies there, as we think about future load growth associated with heating and transportation decarbonisation. We will need to think through the implications on the electric system and plan for it and so we will hold a series of public workshops this summer related to that work, very much like we did with the heating, to take stakeholder feedback and input insights into our analysis. 

One of the things you mentioned earlier, Kai, about a 100% Renewable Energy Standard is something that is important to me and that I believe may be one of the tools we will need to utilize in order to achieve the governor's goal and so that in particular will be a significant piece of our analysis moving forward. We'd not only want to look at the costs and benefits associated with this rapid acceleration of renewables ensuring that we take advantage of local growth in small scale solar, but also looking at some more commercial-scale utility-scale opportunities where we can leverage economies in industry such as offshore wind and think about the sorts of policies, like a Renewable Energy Standard, that can ensure that we hit the mark  in a way that makes sense for Rhode Islanders in terms of the costs and benefits associated with all our other programs that are in this space. So, I think that the analytical work we've done is critical, it's foundational to being able to bring together citizens, businesses, and policymakers like the senator to give them confidence that their decisions that they make in the State House are ultimately for the best for our economy and for our citizens. 

Kai Salem: 

That's great, and as you mentioned the Renewable Energy Standard is indeed one of our priorities, a policy we've worked on for a long time, and I think it's been really successful, that and efficiency have led to major gains on electric sector emissions over the past decade or two.

Commissioner Gold, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is a pretty opaque regulatory body. Do you wish that the regular Rhode Islander knew about the PUC and are there ways to follow proceedings or influence those decisions?

Commissioner Marion Gold: 

Yes we are. What I would like people to know, and this is something that I did not fully appreciate, is that for anyone for advocates and for anyone working in the energy industry the regulatory arena can be a very powerful tool to move policy into practice and this has to do with the power of regulations to help us understand the complex workings of the energy system that Commissioner Ucci alluded to. So there's a complex web. We have a very progressive suite of legislation that provides a framework for the regulatory decisions. The devil is in the details; utilities are very good at finding ways to avoid risk. We like the risk avoidance characteristic when it comes to keeping the lights on but that characteristic can also be challenging when we're trying to figure out how to deal with all the things that you talked about Commissioner Ucci. We need to electrify our transportation, clean up the heating sector, and then we have probably 30% of our families in Rhode Island before COVID who were struggling to pay their energy bills. So, it's really important that we move forward as carefully as we can and use our relatively scarce resources. And a lot of this comes down to how are we going to find a way to make it feasible for people? I think more and more, especially living in a coastal state, people are aware of the real problems that climate change poses but when they're faced with do I put food on the table for my family or do I pay a little bit more on my energy bill? So, we have to be really careful and the regulatory arena can allow us to ask the hard questions to make sure we're making the best use of scarce resources.

We need to do better getting out into the community and engaging on these issues earlier and helping advocates understand how they can work in the regulatory arena.

Kai Salem:

One question I have for all of you is: what are the biggest challenges you see in front of Rhode Island right now as we move forward transitioning to a clean energy future?

Commissioner Ucci:

You know, it's impact on our economy will likely be with us for a long time. At a minimum, it will have impacts on the ability of consumers and businesses and public entities to invest in comprehensive clean energy and measures, particularly those of the retail level that require upfront capital for local consumers. I think that will necessitate more creativity and how we design and deliver incentive and financing programs to enable energy efficiency renewable and other clean transit investments, and I don't think that we can necessarily count on additional public dollars to do that. 

Again, we wait to see what may come out of Washington and future stimulus bills, but we know that this has had a real impact on our state economy too, and we're all going to need to do some heavy lifting here to get us back on track, but I want folks to know that there are things that we can and are doing to leverage this moment, so out of great challenge comes some interesting opportunities. Let me give you one example, with many clean energy workers struggling now is the time that we should be supporting vendor and worker training and certification to ensure the industry is fully prepared and behind our clean energy system once we get back to a new normal. We want to make sure that HVAC contractors, our vendors, and workers are properly trained to install high efficiency air source heat pumps to maximize the energy economic and environmental benefits from those investments for the home or a business owner. For society at large, we're also using this this time to put in the hard work to do the difficult analysis to understand the cost benefits and longer-term implications of these significant system transformations like in heating and in the electric sector. 

Yes, COVID is going to impact the way we move forward with certain initiatives, but I think that through creativity, and importantly in Rhode Island this gets back to Commissioner Gold's point, we may not have the resources or the labor as in New York or Massachusetts but we have collaboration. In Rhode Island, that's where we excel. In a dozen years of working on energy for the state, no other state collaborates as we do.

Senator Euer:

I think one of the one of the biggest challenges is in the existing system; the reliance on fossil fuels is so baked into our system and into our economy, into every aspect of our system, so much of  the costs of that system quite frankly [don’t account for the] externalities, the negative health impacts that we have from poor air quality from fossil fuel emissions.  What I think everybody on this call knows, there is a better and brighter future and an alternative future that we can achieve but so long as we're facing those kinds of upfront costs, because of the baked-in cost that we all currently live with. And I think we need to start changing the thinking, making sure that we're integrating these concepts into every agency throughout the state and making sure that when we're thinking about these costs and the upfront costs. We also need to remember that there's a cost of inaction. 

As the Ocean State, we're extremely vulnerable to all of the impacts of climate change,so on one hand, I'm having these conversations with the municipality about how do you address the real infrastructure challenges in the cost of the infrastructure adaptations that we're going to have to make as the seas continue to rise? How do we continue to address asthma rates as they are impacting certain communities that are more vulnerable in the frontline of some of these facilities? So, we really need to start comprehensively thinking about the costs of the system that exists now and help everyone shift their thinking about how do we integrate this future and how do we share our vision for a different and a brighter future? 

Commissioner Gold:

I echo everything you're saying; I think it's incredibly challenging but also perhaps exciting. How can we prepare now to make sure that we lower overall the peak demand so that we don't have to spend millions of dollars upgrading our electricity system? We can do the same thing on the heating side.

In the last crisis, we had a lot of era dollars that went towards research nationally and also with local utilities and the fruits of that research are now making their way into electric grid understanding, and National Grid actually has hired some great scientists who used to work at the National Renewable Energy Lab. And they're on the cutting edge of trying to understand how to upgrade the electricity grid. I'm looking forward to having that same kind of research done on the natural gas side of the house. Here another opportunity we have is we have National Grid which owns both the electricity and the gas distribution service. They also are headquartered in England and have national decarbonisation goals so National Grid is used to thinking about what a decarbonized future might look like.

You can also find a recording of the discussion we had with our panel of local energy experts on our YouTube channel!

There's more to come... stay tuned for the rest of our blog series!

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