May 1, 2012

Rhode Island Senate committee debates energy efficiency

The slow track of environmental bills followed their usual course at an April 4 hearing in the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture.

A bill encouraging the local production of biofuels and biodiesel in particular was debated at length then held for study. Ray Albrecht from the National Biodiesel Board described biodiesel as homegrown energy. "It doesn't have to come from major corporations. It can be done right here in your hometown," he said.

Robert Morton of Newport Biodiesel said his company is prepared to double its capacity for biodiesel processing. The legislation would keep more used cooking oil in Rhode Island for biodiesel production. It's a market that has seen an increase in competition for the oil from other states. Five years ago, Morton said, Newport Biodiesel received a fee from customers for collecting used cooking. "Now we're paying a substantial amount to get oil from the restaurants," he said.

Advocates also noted that biodiesel is not only better for the environment by cutting air pollution but also cleans fuel systems and requires fewer service calls. Similar laws have passed or are being considered in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Oil industry lobbyists called the legislation a "mandate" and labeled biodiesel as a "niche" product that would be inconvenient and costly for customers.

Renewable energy
An act to increase the duties of the renewable energy coordinating board to consider green job and sustainable community development was held for further study.

Energy efficiency
A bill making power plants more energy efficient through combined heat and power systems was held for further study.

Terrence Gray of the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) testified that such systems reduce the need for fossil fuels. "Less fuel combustion, means less pollution," he said.

Keith Stokes, head of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (EDC), said efficiency upgrades would bring skilled workers to Rhode Island. "It's clean, efficient and effective," he said. "We cannot wait. The time to do this was yesterday."

Opponents of the bill claimed combined heat and power (CHP) systems are unproven. "It's a great idea to add CHP, but we've got to make sure that it's economically better than what we have," said Chris Powell of the Rhode Island Energy Efficiency and Resource Management Council.

The committee passed a resolution urging Rhode Island's members of Congress to support a lending program that would allow home and business owners to finance the cost of energy-efficiency improvements.

A bill also was approved for passage in the Senate that increases the size and scope of the Rhode Island Energy Efficiency and Resources Management Council and the Renewable Energy Coordinating Board.

Seafood and agriculture
The committee endorsed the House bill establishing the Rhode Island Agriculture and Seafood Act. The bill would help promote small farms, farmers' markets, farm-to-school programs and community-supported agriculture. It would also support the processing of local seafood. The DEM would become a conduit for grants less than $20,000. The bill also creates a food and nutrition advisory board.

The committee also passed an act giving the DEM additional authority in agricultural wetlands in a coastal region.

Pets and animals
The committee recommended passage of guidelines and penalties for tied or caged dogs. It also recommended passage of a bill that sets guidelines and penalties for cutting or "docking" the tails of bovines.


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