October 23, 2011

Rhode Island’s renewable energy laws

By Representative Deborah Ruggiero

Rhode Island ranks among the lowest 10 states in the country when it comes to renewable energy. However, in the 2011 session, the General Assembly passed a suite of renewable energy laws -- some of the most cohesive and comprehensive in the nation—that will leap frog Rhode Island from laggard to leader in renewable energy.  It’s more than just protecting our environment, it’s about creating jobs in our state.

It was an honor to chair the Small Business Renewable Energy Task Force. The SBRE Task Force was a very diverse group of stakeholders including state government (EDC, DEM, Office of Energy), small businesses (rTerra, Newport Biodiesel, Central Tool Manufacturing), renewable energy advocates, and National Grid.  

We focused on three key issues (1) organizational infrastructure for consistent, unified policies in renewable energy development, (2) the need for a strategic plan for a sustainable renewable energy industry in Rhode Island, and (3) the need for financing mechanisms for renewable energy development. 

Frankly, the two biggest concerns we heard were: the state lacks unified, consistent policies, and it’s tough to get financing to build these projects. 

The package of four bills that are now law include:

(1) The creation of the Renewable Energy Board which will develop a strategic plan for a sustainable renewable energy industry. It’ll be the first time in Rhode Island there’s a coordinated evaluation of energy policy in the state.

(2) Changes to the net metering law include all forms of renewable energy, raising the cap on net metering to 125 percent of a self-generator’s own consumption, and allowing municipalities that generate renewable energy to credit any account they own.

(3)  The creation of a defined a timetable and a fee schedule for interconnection. Interconnection to the grid is critical. Many developers voiced concerns about the cost and the difficulty connecting projects to the grid.

(4)  The promotion of distributed generation, which allows small, land-based renewable energy projects to access long-term 15-year contracts with National Grid, which will buy the renewable energy they produce. These long-term contracts mean means the developers can get financing from banks.

The DG bill is a game changer in Rhode Island because these projects are built right here in Rhode Island —wind, solar, hydro—and connected to the grid.  That means jobs here in Rhode Island. It’s good economic policy and good environmental policy.  

How will we measure success? By the number of renewable energy projects developed in the state and by the number of jobs created. 

It was really profound that the governor signed these bills into law at Sandywoods Farms in Tiverton, which is an innovative, affordable housing project for artists and farmers. 

They’ve had a wind turbine in their back yard for a year, since it was delivered last October. So the interconnection law now means that turbine can begin spinning and generate 70 percent of their electricity for the 50 housing units. 

I also met with planning officials in East Providence who are building a solar project on a 70-acre old landfill.  They call it “bright fields on a brownfield.” 

They’ve submitted an interconnect application to National Grid and are on track with the first phase. The legislation has reduced the cost and time frame.  They’re also looking at the net metering law because it now includes all renewable energy so they hope to connect the solar panels at their landfill to power the city’s waste water plant. 

So businesses and municipalities are hip to what we’re doing. We’ve created some of the most comprehensive and cohesive renewable energy laws in the nation. 

We’re taking the Renewable Energy Show to Rhode Island.  Myself, Ken Payne (Office of Energy) and Julian Dash (Economic Development Corporation) are speaking to area chambers of commerce so small business and municipalities can learn how to move their projects forward. 

Thanks to the yeoman efforts by the Office of Energy, the ceiling prices for the long term contracts have been submitted to the Public Utilities Commission. The PUC has until Nov. 27 to render a decision. The goal is to have contracts available by the end of this calendar year. 

All of this occurred because of effective communication and collaboration. Thanks to the leadership of Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, her policy office, the House Policy office, state agencies and National Grid. 

The business and environment communities should be pleased that Rhode Island is moving from being a laggard to a leader in renewable energy.


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