Critics say Rhode Island report overlooks potential of heat pumps

That go-slow recommendation comes as some environmental groups are advocating for widespread heat pump adoption in the Northeast to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Acadia Center, for example, recently put out an overview of specific policy measures that states can put in place to develop the market for and accelerate the transition to heat pumps.

Such programs are growing rapidly in the U.S., with current year budgets of nearly $110 million, a 70% increase over the prior year, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

“We know that heat pumps are the most straightforwardly carbon-free way to heat and cool a house, and there are also a number of health benefits associated with them,” said Matt Rusteika, a senior policy analyst in Acadia’s Boston office. “We’re focused on building up the policy interventions that are going to bring down the cost of heat pumps, which are still a pretty new technology.”

Rusteika co-wrote a commentary on the Natural Resources Defense Council blog criticizing the Rhode Island report for not recommending firm targets for heat pump acceleration. He and co-author Alejandra Mejia, a building decarbonization advocate for NRDC, argued that the report overstated the technology’s drawbacks using two “incorrect assumptions.”

The other is the report’s prediction that the high upfront cost of the technology, including installation, will only drop by about 2% per year. Mejia and Rusteika called that estimate too conservative, and said that state incentive programs and other market development activities would drive down the cost more quickly.

“We’ve seen it with solar,” Rusteika said. “A number of overlapping policies have created a favorable atmosphere, with net metering being a big one, as well as renewable portfolio standards. That’s how you get the ball rolling.”

Rusteika expressed hope that the state still might set specific targets for heat pump adoption, as Maine has done.

“We’ve been really impressed with the Raimondo administration’s willingness to tackle this issue in particular,” he said.

Read the full article from Energy News Network here.

New England business groups make case to suspend energy efficiency surcharges

Clean energy advocates are pushing back against the proposal. Hank Webster, Rhode Island director at Acadia Center, said halting the programs would cause further harm to a sector that is already struggling as a result of a drop-off in home and business energy audits and efficiency improvements.

Efficiency programs help drive down energy bills for all customers, regardless of whether they participate, by reducing demand and avoiding the costs of procuring additional supply, he said.

Webster said he suspects the business groups are appealing to lawmakers, rather than the state entities that oversee the programs and set the rates, because “even in the midst of the pandemic, each of those bodies has been resolute in its support for the energy efficiency programs generally and would likely have rejected such a proposal on its face.”

He cited as an example a 6-1 vote by the Energy Efficiency and Resource Management Council in March in favor of more ambitious three-year targets for statewide energy savings. (Roberts cast the sole dissenting vote.) Those targets were subsequently approved by the state Public Utilities Commission.

Read the full article from Energy News Network here.

Shifting to An Online Work World

In an unprecedented time of change and uncertainty, the suspension of many functions of government and imposition of social distancing has resulted in a surprising amount of creative and effective interactions among stakeholders, government agencies, and coalitions. Moving to online, virtual meetings has presented opportunities to interact with new audiences and deepen relationships with stakeholders.

Acadia Center’s experience with online collaboration across its offices has prepared the organization well for this transition to virtual public hearings and stakeholder processes. The crisis has reinforced our commitment to advance effective, equitable reform solutions across the region and has prompted our staff to generate new ideas for innovative virtual engagement opportunities where physical barriers may have previously been limiting.

In Connecticut, just as the historic health and safety directives were put in place in March to cancel all in person events, Acadia Center and allies shifted a long-planned forum on the Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI) to an online webinar format. The result was excellent: the forum was attended by over 80 diverse participants, including business, community leaders, legislators, and administration officials. The event focused on how the TCI program structure could work, how to extend its benefits to all people in the state, and emphasized economic and employment benefits, exceeding its goal to move the discussion forward on implementing a sound transportation and climate policy for the state.

Official government work also shifted to online formats. In Rhode Island, Acadia Center RI Director Hank Webster participated in an “Energy 101” panel for members of the recessed General Assembly and spoke to Leadership Rhode Island’s first ever virtual “Government Day” about the legislative process and climate/energy issues. Hank also commented during the first-ever video conference meeting of the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Committee. An important state stakeholder process designed make recommendations to Governor Raimondo on ways to transform building heating in the state to cleaner resources also moved online, allowing stakeholders including Acadia Center the opportunity to provide verbal and written comments ahead of a final report. And in Maine, the Governor’s Climate Council process – an ambitious effort to engage numerous stakeholders to recommend an effective climate plan for the state –shifted rapidly online as the state phased in social distancing requirements, allowing the tight schedule for the process to remain in place. Acadia Center responded by working remotely with coalition partners on policy development, outreach, and communications strategies related to buildings, energy, forestry, and transportation.

In Massachusetts, Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Katie Theoharides hosted an online briefing and coalition communications have continued without significant interruption. Acadia Center steered advocacy within coalitions such as the Alliance for Clean Energy Solutions (ACES), the Global Warming Solutions Project (GWSP), and the Massachusetts Offshore Wind Power Coalition. Acadia Center continued to lead input in shaping the Baker Administration’s approaches to offshore wind and state carbon targets. Acadia Center and a broad coalition have been focused on ways to strengthen the Global Warming Solutions Act, leading to passage of a strong Senate bill and a commitment from the Baker Administration in January of 2020 to a net-zero carbon target in 2050. Acadia Center will closely track and comment on the forecasts and roadmap development that continues to progress as stakeholder engagement uses remote formats.

The New England Power Pool (NEPOOL), the governance body engaged in overseeing the region’s electricity grid, maintained its regular schedule using virtual tools. As a member of NEPOOL, Acadia Center is engaged in the upcoming Transition to the Future Grid analysis being undertaken to address the barriers faced by clean energy resources in the current electricity grid design. Acadia Center’s Deborah Donovan coordinated with other clean energy advocates to ensure NEPOOL’s rejection of a flawed proposal to modify energy markets in ways that would harm consumers and further bias clean energy.

Acadia Center also raised its voice to address directly ways the crisis was affecting key programs. For example, all residential energy efficiency and weatherization work was ordered to be stopped early in March in Connecticut, causing a wide range of impacts including on the vendor community performing the efficiency installations. No resources were being offered to assist the contractors or workers but as chair of the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Board (CEEB), Acadia Center Connecticut Director Amy McLean was able to raise questions about ways to relieve the burden of the contractors and keep them from going under during the pandemic. As a result of action at the CEEB, the state issued a formal ruling on April 24, 2020 outlining compensation eligibility for energy efficiency vendors.

Rhode Island Legislature Punts on Climate: Smart Siting Legislation Languishes

Several state legislatures in the Northeast have gone big on climate in recent weeks.

New York passed a sweeping climate plan pledging to reach 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040 and net zero greenhouse gas emissions, across the whole economy, by 2050. Maine enacted legislation that doubles the amount of renewable electricity in its Renewable Portfolio Standard to 80% by 2030 and 100% by 2050. Connecticut authorized a massive boost to offshore wind—the construction of up to 2,000 megawatts.

Not Rhode Island. Legislators in Rhode Island ended their six-month session late last month without passing any climate legislation at all.

Several climate bills died in committee, including one that would have established an economy-wide price on carbon pollution and another that would make binding the greenhouse gas reduction targets of the Resilient Rhode Island Act. (Unlike in Massachusetts and Connecticut, Rhode Island’s emissions reduction goals are aspirational, not mandatory.)

The General Assembly also failed to act on a high-profile challenge whose resolution is important to ensuring that solar reaches its potential as a climate solution in Rhode Island. Here’s a look at how that issue played out.

Balancing solar and land stewardship

Both the House and Senate introduced legislation that would have addressed the urgent pressure many communities are facing over the siting of large-scale, ground-mounted solar projects. The bills were informed by the work of a group of stakeholders the state Office of Energy Resources and the Department of Environmental Management convened nearly two years ago to work through the complexities of the issue.

Acadia Center has added its clean energy expertise to the group, which includes renewable energy developers, municipal planners, clean energy advocates, conservation groups, and consumer advocates. The goal? To develop strategies that balanced the need to accelerate solar while also minimizing its environmental impact on forests and prime farmland.

Guided by 13 smart siting principles stakeholders developed through consensus, the committee put forth strategies that garnered widespread support from diverse quarters. The legislation, as introduced, would have:

  • Closed a loophole that effectively allowed projects to bypass the current statutory 10 MW cap on individual remote net metering projects by combining multiple installations at one site. Co-locating projects on contiguous parcels would no longer be allowed;
  • Applied a smaller size cap—of 4 MW—to solar projects in designated areas of environmental concern;
  • Created a new incentive for siting solar projects in preferred areas like landfills, gravels pits, and brownfields by reimbursing energy developers for interconnection costs; and
  • Established a timeline for municipalities to adopt individually tailored solar siting ordinances to help local officials review projects and provide developers with a more predictable process.

 

The House’s siting bill never came to a vote in committee. The Senate passed a watered-down version that did not sufficiently address siting incentives. While the Senate’s amended bill mandated enactment of municipal siting ordinances, other critical strategies including reasonable size limits in areas of environmental concern and incentives for siting in preferred areas were scrapped.

Without any of the improvements proposed in the solar siting legislation, the status quo will largely continue: Rhode Island is likely to see the construction of more large projects on cleared forestland.

In some communities, the legislature’s inaction could have the opposite effect: leading to municipal moratoria that put at least a temporary pause on any solar construction. That outcome not only hinders Rhode Island’s ability to meet its climate goals but also dents growth of the clean energy sector, which has been a bright spot in the economy.

Rhode Island continues to be a leader in energy efficiency, and is moving ahead with a full-size offshore wind farm to join the nation’s first, Block Island. Rhode Island has committed to develop, along with nine states and Washington, D.C., a regional policy proposal to cap and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the most polluting sector: transportation. The Governor just signed an Executive Order for focused inter-agency work on the state’s heating sector, which must move off natural gas. All of this is welcome progress.

Still, the legislature will have to think—and act—bigger on climate, or risk Rhode Island being left behind. The climate crisis is here; there is no time to waste.

Author: Erika Niedowski, Rhode Island Director & Policy Advocate

Herding cats: Controversy over the solar siting bill in Rhode Island

This approach appears to give a lot of leeway to towns and cities to make their own decisions about how to regulate the siting of solar, and would also steer developers to previously disturbed sites. As such it was endorsed by many of the main non-profits active in the environmental and energy space, including Conservation Law Foundation, Audubon Society, Acadia Center, Save the Bay and Green Energy Consumers Alliance.

Read the full article from PV Magazine here.

Rhode Island Must Prioritize Solar Siting in 2019

Solar energy is growing in the Northeast, but the urgency of climate change means that states need to accelerate the transition to clean energy sources.

In Rhode Island, siting challenges that have arisen in the past few years show that the state can’t do this without a plan. In a landscape patchworked with forest, farmland, and open space, policies and incentives must prioritize solar projects in areas with compatible land uses.

On March 14, the House held a hearing for H5789, a solar siting bill that aims to address these challenges. The bill represents months of collaboration between conservation groups, municipal planners, renewable energy developers, farm interests, state agencies and others as part of the Renewable Energy Siting Stakeholder Committee. Acadia Center has worked alongside these groups to generate a range of strategies designed to drive projects to preferred areas, including previously developed and disturbed parcels.

These strategies include:

  • Prohibiting the largest, most controversial projects by preventing projects from being built across neighboring parcels;
  • Significantly limiting the size of solar projects in designated areas of environmental concern;
  • Introducing an incentive through the Public Utilities Commission to reimburse solar projects in preferred areas for interconnection costs;
  • Directing OER to incorporate smart siting policies in an implementation plan for reaching the state’s emissions reductions goals;
  • Setting a deadline for municipalities to adopt individually tailored solar siting ordinances that will help local officials review projects and, if desired, establish more streamlined processes for preferred siting.

 

This bill is not the sole solution to the challenge of solar siting. Small-scale solar capacity in the state’s Renewable Energy Growth (REG) program has been nearly doubled to maximize residential and commercial rooftop arrays, which pose no siting conflicts. Further, just this week, OER and the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation opened a $1 million fund to support projects that propose solar on brownfields.

But make no mistake: legislators must act this session to avoid risking another year without significant protections for the state’s forests and habitats. The economics of siting currently favor large projects in flat, forested tracts, but they don’t have to remain that way.

To learn more, read Acadia Center’s full testimony on House Bill 5789.

$2B offshore wind farm gets RI approval

Vineyard Wind cleared a major hurdle on Tuesday when Rhode Island coastal regulators determined the $2-billion wind farm proposed in offshore waters to be consistent with state policies.

Although the 84-turbine project is planned in Atlantic Ocean waters south of Martha’s Vineyard where the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management holds lead permitting authority, it needs consistency certifications from the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council and its counterpart in Massachusetts primarily because it would affect the states’ fishing industries.

With the Massachusetts approval still under consideration, the decision from the Rhode Island coastal council represents a step forward for a project that has divided opinion and would have come as a relief to Vineyard Wind.

Read the full article from the Providence Journal here.

Charging Ahead with Electric Buses in Rhode Island

Rhode Island and its Northeast neighbors have achieved great reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from power plants since joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in 2009. Unfortunately, emissions from transportation sources are not covered by RGGI and still comprise about 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the state. Rhode Island needs to act urgently to reduce emissions from passenger, commercial, and public transportation fleets.

Rhode Island has taken an exciting stride towards cleaner public transportation by leasing three 100% electric buses, slated to enter service in early 2019. The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) showcased the three 40’ vehicles at an October 22nd test drive featuring Governor Gina Raimondo, the state’s congressional delegation, and a contingent of state and local officials. Unlike Providence’s electric trolley-buses from the 1930s to 1950s, which were powered by fixed overhead wires, these battery-powered buses will charge overnight at RIPTA’s bus depot and can be flexibly used on a variety of routes.

The new electric buses make their debut during the test drive.

RIPTA is using funds from Rhode Island’s $14.4 million share of a massive settlement between the federal government and Volkswagen after the automaker was caught circumventing emissions rules. The state has committed nearly $11 million to purchase 16 to 20 additional all-electric buses in 2021. Each electric bus that replaces an older, high polluting diesel bus could reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) tailpipe emissions by nearly 230,000 pounds annually, according to bus manufacturer Proterra.

In addition to reducing CO2 emissions, each diesel-to-electric bus replacement would also avoid over 100 pounds of nitrogen oxide (NOx) tailpipe emissions, which can cause or worsen respiratory and heart diseases in local communities. RIPTA will prioritize deploying electric buses on routes that serve low-income, environmental justice communities in neighborhoods that disproportionately bear the negative health impacts associated with fossil fuel combustion. This approach to prioritizing health benefits in overburdened communities should serve as a model for future clean transportation investments in Rhode Island and the region.

While the upfront cost of electric buses is higher than existing diesel, diesel-electric hybrid, or compressed natural gas (CNG) equipment, RIPTA expects to achieve significant life cycle savings primarily through lower fueling and maintenance costs—electric vehicles have fewer drivetrain components and feature regenerative braking, which can greatly reduce the overall frequency and cost of parts replacement. Still, as transit agencies across the country seek to incorporate cleaner vehicles, the upfront premium on electric bus purchases will likely remain a significant barrier.

One way to generate a dedicated revenue stream for clean transportation investments is through a price on carbon emissions from the transportation sector. A group of dedicated states, including Rhode Island, has been exploring policy solutions through the Transportation & Climate Initiative. Acadia Center released a policy analysis in September detailing how enacting a $15 per metric ton price on carbon emissions from the transportation sector could help Rhode Island generate over $600 million in revenues between 2019 and 2030 for a variety of clean transportation investments. This could include vehicle electrification, improved commuter rail offerings, cleaner port operations, and expanded pedestrian and bicycle paths to connect more people to employment, recreation, and basic services in their communities.

Acadia Center will continue to advocate for programs that address transportation-related emissions, helping states pursue and expand new opportunities for investment in clean transportation programs. Click here to read more about Rhode Island’s clean transportation opportunities.

As solar grows in Rhode Island, so does the need for smart siting policies

One of Rhode Island’s newest renewable energy installations is being celebrated as a model of solar siting, repurposing contaminated land that is unlikely to be developed. The solar array’s 6,700 panels spread across 12 acres in North Providence that comprise an old landfill.

The rapid expansion of renewable energy projects in Rhode Island – and across the region – is bringing new and pressing land-use challenges. Because of the urgent threat posed by climate change, it is important to accelerate the pace at which clean energy resources replace polluting fossil fuels. At the same time, we must protect Rhode Island’s diverse ecosystems.

With collaborative work on smart siting policies – and solar projects like the one in North Providence – Rhode Island is demonstrating a commitment to doing both: creating a low-carbon energy system and serving as responsible stewards of our landscapes and habitats.

Solar’s role in the clean energy future

The deep greenhouse gas emissions reductions demanded by the rapidly changing climate will require an energy system that looks a lot different than today’s. Our vehicles and home heating systems will need to transition from gasoline, propane, and natural gas to electricity, which has the flexibility to run off the sun, wind, and other clean sources. That means our electricity supply must move away from fossil fuels and become significantly cleaner itself.

Solar energy will play a key part in the clean energy future. According to the State Energy Plan, Rhode Island could develop over 1,800 MW of solar by 2035, compared to the current 105 MW. Determining how much solar is needed to meet the state’s climate goals under the Resilient Rhode Island Act is only one part of the equation. We must work together to determine how best to site it, including on what types of land and at what scale, to minimize land-use conflicts in local communities.

First, Rhode Island must harness the potential of rooftop solar, which gives residents and businesses more control over their energy use and production, lowers utility bills, and helps avoid the siting of projects in sensitive environmental areas. Acadia Center’s EnergyVision 2030 Rhode Island Progress Report finds that Rhode Island is lagging regional leaders on locally-sited solar resources. While rooftop solar is not the only answer, we can do more to support it.

Larger-scale solar projects are also needed. Some municipalities in Rhode Island, especially rural ones where land is more readily available, are being inundated with solar proposals – some of which have resulted in widespread tree-clearing. In response, a number of communities are halting renewables development, at least temporarily, putting at risk continued progress towards a climate-safe Rhode Island. It is imperative that we find a new path forward that balances the need to deploy renewables with forest and habitat protection.

Consensus-based solutions

A stakeholder group of diverse interests began convening in August 2017 to address the siting issue. The committee, which includes Acadia Center, developed 13 consensus principles that reflect the priorities of conservationists, clean energy advocates, farm interests, municipalities, and renewable energy developers. State officials have also been holding public workshops all across Rhode Island to gather input from communities and residents. There has been widespread agreement on the need to influence the economics of siting to encourage cost-effective development of solar projects on already developed land like brownfields, commercial and industrial zoned land, and other environmentally disturbed sites.

There are no quick solutions, but progress is being made. Rhode Island is undertaking several initiatives designed to guide solar to preferred areas. An infusion of $1 million into the Renewable Energy Fund will support brownfields projects. A proposal before the Public Utilities Commission includes a 70 percent increase in small rooftop solar in the 2019 Renewable Energy Growth Program and a new category to promote solar carports. Between six and twelve solar canopies are expected to be developed as a result.

Much work remains. The stakeholder group is discussing additional strategies for the 2019 legislative session to encourage solar siting in least-conflict locations. The work being done in Rhode Island could serve as a model for the region as states grapple with a productive path forward that both reduces harmful emissions and protects our natural resources.

Rhode Island charts a course for a cleaner grid

The agencies spent eight months engaging with more than 200 people and 65 organizations in the process, including local residents, national experts, clean energy companies, nonprofits, and Rhode Island’s utility, National Grid. The aim was a blueprint outlining how the state can achieve a cleaner, more affordable, and more reliable energy system—one that adapts and evolves as consumer demand and technology does.

[…]

The decision received overwhelming support from stakeholders, including customer advocates and environmental advocacy organizations.

“It’s a big first step,” said Mark LeBel, a staff attorney with the clean energy nonprofit Acadia Center, which was a stakeholder in the project. “We can’t do it all at once, and I think Rhode Island has taken a big first step here.”

Read the full article from Energy News Network here.