In an ambitious and controversial move, Governor Gina Raimondo signed an executive order Jan. 17 to meet 100 percent of the state’s electricity demand with renewable energy by 2030.
This action came just two days after Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello (D-Cranston) told the Boston Globe that “there’s nothing Rhode Island can do to address climate change in a way that’s real or impactful … all you can do is harm your economy and not improve your climate unless the entire nation joins in,” during a Legislative Kickoff Panel Jan. 15, The Herald previously reported. Raimondo directly addressed this criticism in her announcement of the executive order: “That could not be more wrong.”
The executive order “is potentially a very big deal. It’s one of the most ambitious in the country, maybe the most ambitious, but it’s also really just an order for a plan,” commented J. Timmons Roberts, professor of environmental studies at the University. The order does not establish any policy measures, but instructs the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources to develop an “economic and energy market analysis” by the end of this year.
The order also comes just months after Raimondo came under fire from climate activists for allegedly receiving around $500,000 in donations from executives within the fossil fuel industry, The Herald previously reported.
The R.I. electricity sector is heavily sourced by fossil fuel energy imported from outside of the Ocean State, according to Timmons Roberts. In total, Rhode Island spends about $3 billion annually on importing fossil fuel energy. Timmons Roberts suggested these funds could be redirected toward renewable energy. “If we produce (renewable energy) here, that’s $3 billion that we’re not spending elsewhere, and then that money can circulate in the economy, creating jobs to produce the electricity from solar and wind,” he added.
In 2017, Raimondo’s office announced the environmental goal to “increase the state’s clean energy ten-fold by the end of 2020,” wrote Robert Beadle, communications manager of the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources, in an email to The Herald. As of the third quarter of 2019, Rhode Island had increased its renewable energy output from about 100 megawatts to 809 megawatts, with over half of the energy sourced from offshore wind.
Since Raimondo’s executive order is not law, it is technically unenforceable — and some believe it could easily get thrown out or rolled back, according to Kai Salem, speaking as the policy coordinator at Green Energy Consumers Alliance. Even if the order does succeed, Salem believes it falls short in light of the imminence of the climate crisis. “This executive order does not nearly go far enough, and moreover, it sets a narrative that the governor is taking action on climate change … when (it) does nothing of the sort and simply sets another, somewhat meaningless goal,” she said. The Green Energy Consumers Alliance also contends that the state should be focusing efforts on transitioning to renewable energy in other sectors, including transportation and heating, since electricity only accounts for 26 percent of total state emissions.
Timmons Roberts believes that this newest executive order is a response to pressure placed on Raimondo by the Sunrise Movement, a political coalition of young people committed to ending the climate crisis. “The Sunrise Movement has been right up in her face … so this was her effort to do something bold,” he said.
But members of the Sunrise Movement were not won over by this newest policy measure. “I would say it is pretty disingenuous of her to make this statement and release this executive order with a lot of fanfare,” said Nina Wolff Landau ’20, a co-coordinator of the Sunrise branch for Brown and Rhode Island School of Design.
Members of Sunrise Providence expressed more enthusiasm about the executive order. “Initially we were excited because this means that our collective voice … successfully pushed her to see how serious this issue is,” said Mycala McKay, an organizer of Sunrise Providence. But instead of seeing the order as an accomplishment, Mckay said she sees it as a “jumping-off point” for Sunrise. “This is a chance for us to continue to apply pressure,” she added. “We can’t allow this to stop the momentum we’ve created.”
Though reactions to the order remain mixed, Timmons Roberts maintains the order has potential. “It’s a big deal. It especially could be a big deal if we push hard. If we keep pushing.”