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Slow and Steady: Mixed Energy Policies for a Clean Future

Rhode Island needs energy. A series of power plant closings and maxed out pipelines have left the state –  and much of the New England area – in need of alternative sources of energy. The state needs a solution that would generate enough energy to compensate for this growing energy shortage.

Enter: Invenergy, the Chicago-based energy company which, in 2015, proposed the construction of an energy center in the town of Burrillville, RI. The $700 million Clear River Energy Facility would be the largest natural gas center in New England and would to add 900 megawatts of energy to the state grid. Though natural gas is still a fossil fuel, its production emits fewer carbon emissions than coal powered plants. Thus, it may fulfil short term energy needs while also acting as a segue to renewable energy.

In reaction, many Rhode Island environmentalists have protested the proposal of this plant. Natural gas facilities, though they contribute less to greenhouse emissions, still burn non-renewable fossil fuels, one of the leading factors of climate change. This plant is specifically an issue for environmentalists as well because Invenergy has not provided all of the pertinent information for the environmental impact advisory opinions to return conclusively. They have also supported the pending Energy Facility Siting Act, which will stall the Rhode Island Siting Board  from making a final decision on the Burrillville plant until the advisory opinions are returned conclusively.

There is a very clear argument for the complete and immediate halt of all fossil fuel usage. Climate change is aggressive and the political response to it should be as, if more, aggressive. Environmental agencies such as Fighting Against Natural Gas (FANG) have publicly called for this termination of fossil fuel usage.

These concerns are not purely alarmist; even the past year alone has shown the sheer magnitude of climate change. Just last week, a glacier the size of Manhattan broke off from an ice shelf in Antarctica following a one trillion ton iceberg that broke away in July. Additionally, the especially destructive power of hurricanes Harvey and Irma have been linked to the increasing severity of climate change.

However, the provision of energy to Rhode Island residents is a glaring issue that cannot be overshadowed by the pursuit of a single ideal, environmentally conscious solution. Rather, Rhode Island needs a varied and multifaceted approach that can be implemented across a variety of sectors.  A process to transition to renewable energy is already in place in Rhode Island. Though a slow transition cannot aggressively combat climate change by itself, alongside carbon emission targets and close maintenance of existing facilities, significant progress can be made.

First, even in light of Governor Raimondo’s plan for Rhode Island to contribute 1,000 megawatts of clean energy (primarily solar, wind, and hydropower) to the state grid by 2020, there  will still not be enough to compensate for the projected energy shortage the state is preparing for. This past August, the National Grid was approved to increase energy costs from 16 to 21 percent due to statewide energy shortages. Rhode Island is not ready to abandon fossil fuels; currently, only less than 4 percent of electricity generated in the state is from renewable energy sources.

California, another state which relies heavily on natural gas, is facing a similar issue. However, the state has proposed a more ambitious plan which will move it towards 100% renewable energy by 2045. This goal requires that big renewable energy projects begin their growth now in order to reach the goal within the next 30 years.

However, the quick growth of renewable energy centers has been viewed with scrutiny by environmental activists. In 2008, the development of a solar plant in Southern California was protested due to its threat to desert wildlife such as the Mojave ground squirrel and the desert tortoise. This past June, a solar power project proposed in California’s Panoche Valley was stalled because it would further threaten an endangered rat population.

The issue with any rapid development is the threat it poses to the surrounding environment. While renewable energy centers can drastically cut down on the release of carbon into the atmosphere, their industrious development often requires the displacement and destruction of local wildlife. So, although a full transition to clean energy is certainly attainable, this transition will inevitably threaten the environment. The time for compromise has not truly passed, however – the most effective solution in California thus far has been the steady expansion of solar and wind farms, not immediate development.

Alongside this steady development, Rhode Island also has an existing program to manage and decrease the carbon emissions from pre-existing companies, including the natural gas power plants. In 2012, Rhode Island implemented the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Under this cap and trade policy, the state gives a certain number of permits to companies that dictates the  maximum level of carbon emission allowed. Unused permits can be sold on the market to companies in need of a higher emission limit. This allows the state to directly control exact emission levels by adding or removing permits from the market. This policy provides monetary incentives to emit as little carbon as possible. Additionally, the state can directly control the amount of carbon emitted over time by adjusting the amount of permits available on the market.

However, this method is only effective alongside the state’s continued investment in renewable energy. On its own it may slow the progress of global warming, but it cannot otherwise begin to reverse or rectify the impacts thereof.

Herein lies the necessity of consistent monitoring of development and power plants. These solutions are not viable if there continues to be a growth of negative environmental impacts. Rhode Island’s cap and trade program only applies to carbon dioxide emissions, not the litany of other gases, such as methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons that also contribute to global warming.

To this point, the power should be built- as long as all of the environmental impact information is known. In order to ensure this, the Energy Facility Siting Act needs to pass. This will stall the Rhode Island Siting Board from making a final decision on the Burrillville plant until the advisory opinions are returned conclusively. If the project is approved, this will allow the plant to be built with full knowledge of its impacts.

The best solution for conservation development in Rhode Island is a hybrid policy of both weaning off all coal and other fossil fuels and investing in renewable energy. With an immediate transition to renewable energy not being a viable option, the next best solution is to monitor and limit the already existing sources of carbon emission while steadily developing alternative sources of clean energy.  

Unfortunately, however, this alone cannot solve climate change. Activists are valid in the assertion that we are not doing enough. The policy as proposed is an effective solution for transitioning to clean energy in Rhode Island and states, like California, that already have clean energy plans and goals. It combats the energy crisis and leaves way for investment in renewable energy centers. However, in order to significantly combat climate change and energy shortages, these strides need to be taken nationally. While Rhode Island can efficiently minimize its carbon footprint, the United States still needs an overarching plan to incentivize clean energy policies nationally.