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Thursday, March 1, 2018

Can Rhode Island meet its goals?

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

The state climate change council recently met for the first time since November to report on progress and the challenges ahead for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and preparing Rhode Island for climate change.

Shaun O’Rourke, director of stormwater management and climate resiliency at the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, said the financing agency is halfway through writing a state resiliency plan, which will be sent to Gov. Gina Raimondo on behalf of the Executive Climate Change Coordination Council (EC4) by July 1.

The adaptation plan will include projects that will be funded through the Infrastructure Bank, and other funding sources. O’Rourke said the agency hopes to secure $20 million from the Green Economy and Clean Water bond referendum that will likely be on the statewide ballot in November. A budget hearing on the bond is scheduled for Feb. 28 at the Statehouse.

Potential projects include work on dams, roads, bridges, public water supplies, utilities, emergency preparedness, and habitat protection and education. Infrastructure will be rebuilt to adapt to warmer weather, sea-level rise, additional snow and rain, and changes in water temperature. The plan will identify projects that are ready to start; begin in two to five years; or take 10 years to launch.

The project ideas were taken from public workshops held across the state last fall. Municipal planning employees represented 35 percent of the 350 attendees. Additional public meetings will be held this spring to review the plan.

Information and updates on the Rhode Island resiliency plan and other state adaptation and mitigation efforts are posted online.

Reducing emissions

A year after the release of the state mitigation plan. Nick Ucci, deputy commissioner of the Office of Energy Resources, explained that Rhode Island is on track to meet its 10 percent emissions-reduction target by 2020. Longer-term goals, such as an 80 percent reduction by 2050, require large investments to eliminate fossil fuels from the transportation, heating and energy sectors.

“This is going to be tough. This is going to be very difficult,” Ucci said during the EC4’s Feb 26 meeting. “It’s going to require innovation, technologies that we have yet to imagine or develop.”

Meeting the long-term targets, Ucci said, is “daunting” considering the inaction in Washington, D.C.
But the speed of innovation is cause for optimism. Ucci referred to the sudden emergence of energy-storage systems as an example of a technology that looks poised to benefit the power industry.

Environmental activist and Brown University professor J. Timmons Roberts challenged the notion that Rhode Island is on track to meet its near-term emission-reduction targets. When the EC4 shifted from production-based accounting of emissions to consumption-based accounting it left out greenhouse gases such as methane released during natural-gas extraction and transportation, he said.

“It’s deeply problematic. If you include its global-warming potential, it’s worse than coal,” Roberts said of Rhode Island's lopsided reliance on natural gas.

Emission-reduction targets, Roberts said, are based on outdated research. The goal of zero emissions should be met by 2035 instead of 2050. Otherwise, Rhode Island won't meet its commitment of keeping global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius, as set by the Paris Agreement.

Roberts said the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) has been a modest success, but the low cost of carbon credits doesn’t give power plants the financial incentive to buy new equipment for lowering emissions.

Ucci said Rhode Island has made strides in energy efficiency, renewable-energy incentives, improving the power grid, and collaborating with neighboring states. A three-year plan approved by the state's Public Utilities Commission(PUC)  is expected to reduce Rhode Island's carbon emissions by 3.75 million tons.

Rhode Island also has launched renewable-energy initiatives that will reduce emissions and improve the power grid, according to Ucci. In March 2017, Raimondo announced a goal of 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2020. An energy-acquisition agreement with Connecticut and Massachusetts recently brought 44 megawatts of renewable power to the state.

Ucci said discussions with National Grid are underway at the PUC to prepare the regional grid for renewable power, electric vehicles and energy storage.

Janet Coit, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and chair of the EC4, said she sees promise in regional projects such as the nine-state RGGI. The cap-and-trade programs allows power plants to buy credits for each ton of carbon dioxide they emit. The proceeds have paid $2.8 billion across the region. 

Rhode Island has received $60 million, which has been spent on renewable-energy and energy-efficiency projects. Some of the money paid for solar panels on state buildings and marketing costs for the Solarize discount solar-panel program. A tree-planting initiative and a subsidy to bring renewable energy to farms also received RGGI money.

So far, RGGI has reduced power plant carbon emissions in the region by 40 percent. Another 30 percent emission reduction is expected between 2020 and 2030, according to officials.

New Jersey is expected to rejoin RGGI, now that Chris Christy is no longer governor. Virginia would also like to be a member.

“Particularly with the lack of leadership at the federal level, watching this RGGI regional approach increase is exciting,” Coit said.

Reducing climate emissions from the transportation sector is a major challenge. Coit said it would help if the federal government sticks with raising fuel-economy standards.

Rhode Island is looking to another regional partnership for help. The Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) brings together 11 Northeast/Mid-Atlantic states with the goal of reducing emissions in the transportation sector. The Rhode Island Department of Transportation and TCI will host three public listening sessions to address the major changes to vehicles, public transportation, roads, and infrastructure.

Some of the challenges include ride-sharing services and autonomous vehicles.

“It could be that 10 years from now we have a completely different way of thinking about automobile ownership and mobility,” said Macky McCleary, administrator for the state Division of Public Utilities and Carriers.

McCleary called autonomous vehicles an opportunity and a challenge. They will likely be commonplace sooner than expected. The emissions impact of ride-sharing is unknown, but it’s likely made the roads more crowded, according to McCleary

Roberts said the anticipated changes in transportation and energy can be met with a fee on all fossil fuels entering the state.

“To be the leaders that we want to be ... we need to be thinking much bigger,”he said.

In 2017, the General Assembly ordered the EC4 to conduct a study on a carbon tax. Coit reported  that funds haven't been raised to pay for the study.

Pete Galvin of Nature's Trust Rhode Island said recent research shows that global warming will continue if all carbon emissions stopped today. Therefore, planning should focus on removing carbon from the atmosphere, he added.

“It’s not enough. These goals don’t get you where you need to be,” Galvin said. “And they are just goals. There is no enforcement.”

Climate events

• The Rhode Island Department of Health is sponsoring a talk From Puerto Rico to Rhode Island: Raising Voices for Climate Justice. It will feature Elizabeth Yeampierre, an internationally recognized Puerto Rican attorney and climate-justice leader. The talk will be held March 20 at the University of Rhode Island's Providence campus at 5:30 p.m.

• The Division of Planning will host a workshop for local officials involved in planning and land management to learn about new state law amendments and to advise local planning boards and commissions. “Addressing Mandatory Planning Board Education on Sea Level Rise/Flood Plain Education” is scheduled for March 2 at the Department of Administration, conference room B, from 12:30-2:30 p.m.

• The Civic Alliance for a Cooler Rhode Island has released a manual for Rhode Islanders who want to reduce their contribution to climate change through simple acts. Livable Rhode Island contains local artwork and ideas by local environmentalists. Ken Payne compares the actions to eating a hamburger, a popular food that has a large carbon footprint but isn't typically produced in the state.
“What we do is have those emissions conveniently accrue elsewhere yet counted against other states while we get the benefit of the hamburger,” he said. “So if we really want to honor the Paris Agreement we have to take responsibility for our lifestyle in Rhode Island. And this manual for a Livable Rhode Island addresses that kind of thing.”