Metro

R.I. still plugged in to renewable energy

By
Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Despite a $331 million state deficit that has forced political leaders to consider state programs for cuts, Rhode Island’s renewable energy efforts are moving forward. The state is focused on shifting from conventional energy sources, and state agencies have increased efforts to identify new sites for these projects, according to Keith Stokes, executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation. The corporation, a quasi-public agency, manages a renewable energy fund that is used to provide financing for green investments.

The Economic Development Corporation and the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources are currently finalizing the details of a study to identify land-based renewable energy projects in the state. The study will be conducted with the assistance of the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center and other state agencies.

The study, the Land Special Area Management Plan, is modeled on the Ocean Special Area Management Plan, a nationally recognized collaboration between the URI Coastal Resources Center and other agencies that is now underway. The ocean management plan “is currently one of the country’s leading models for offshore wind energy siting recommendations,” said Susan Kennedy, a coastal management extension specialist at URI.

The ocean management plan was created to identify offshore zones for renewable energy projects through a process that combines  scientific research with public input, according to the project’s website. URI joined the project to add research expertise on analyzing coastal and marine issues from economic, environmental and social standpoints. “What we do is help communities identify issues and problems that are occurring and bring them the information they need to solve these problems,” Kennedy said.

The decreasing cost of photovoltaics, a form of solar-generated electrical power, and an increased state focus on hydroelectric and wind power mean “there is a very clear pattern of opportunity for renewable energy projects in Rhode Island,” said Ken Payne, an administrator in the Office of Energy Resources.

But due to Rhode Island’s small size, land availability is limited, meaning the long-term effects of wind turbines and other onland renewable energy projects must be given careful consideration. With this in mind, the Economic Development Corporation gave a grant last September to the East Bay Energy Consortium, nine Rhode Island communities that will work together to increase renewable energy use. The grant allowed consultants to advise on sites for utility-scale wind farms.

Last month, Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 announced a $200,000 Economic Development Corporation grant to develop a solar farm on the site of a former landfill in East Providence.

“What is exciting is that these projects give us the sites that are liabilities and turns them into something that is green and helps generate renewable energy,” Stokes said.

Recent increases in gas prices have brought renewable energy options to the forefront. The average price per gallon has risen 11 cents in the past week, making it exactly a dollar higher than it was at this time last year.

In the State House, a flurry of energy bills in the past few months reflects a sharper focus on renewable sources of power. A bill sponsored by Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown and Middletown, and Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston and Warwick, aims to make it easier for the state’s businesses and government to invest in renewable energy. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Jamestown and Newport, has proposed legislation to create a Rhode Island Renewable Energy Coordinating Board to develop a blueprint for the state’s renewable energy efforts.

“Renewable energy laws on the books currently really developed from 2004 to present,” Payne said. “Every year there were modifications to these regulations. It appears that the General Assembly is looking to apply overall coherence to this structure and fill in the missing pieces,” he concluded.

The question of how to supply electricity to the grid without raising costs for consumers remains. Both the state and the University should prioritize installing cost-effective systems as soon as possible, said Kurt Teichert, environmental stewardship initiatives manager at the Center for Environmental Studies.

“The challenge is that these technologies are still really on the margins,” he said. “We need to see another leap in efficiency before we can see a widespread application of these projects.”

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