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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Opposition dropped to key green energy program

By TIM FAULKNER/ News staff

PROVIDENCE — Last year National Grid was the most influential opponent to legislation extending Rhode Island's innovative renewable-energy program. Recently, it led support for a bill (S2690) that would extend the program another five years.

At Statehouse hearings last June, National Grid said it preferred to wait and see if the state’s renewable-energy sector needed further incentives to justify an extension of the distributed generation contracts (DG) program.

At a March 12 hearing of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture, National Grid said it now has the clarity needed to endorse the program. Mike Ryan, National Grid's vice president of government affairs for Rhode Island, said five months of meetings with environmental and renewable-energy representatives included “some rather loud discussion at times."

These conversations included comprise, prodding and hard work. “But together,” Ryan said, “I think we’ve come up with a piece of legislation that is going to have us stand out as leaders in, at least, New England.”

Several small-solar installers praised the bill. Brian Fiske owner of solar installer B.T. Design & Build in Jamestown said the end of financial incentives in the early 1980s caused his business to crash. Thanks to incentives in Massachusetts, he said, his business there is robust. “I prefer it happen in Rhode Island," he said.

To make the DG program inclusive to residential installers, a committee will determine fixed-price incentives that would help installers predict costs and revenue. The incentives would adjust regularly to match market prices, and the prices would be approved by the state Public Utility Commission (PUC).

Key changes to the program, said Ron Gerwatowski of National Grid, are technical modifications that would reduce liability and financial obligations for the power company. The fixed-priced contracts are now called tariffs that fall under the oversight of the PUC rather than a legal long-term contract shared between a developer and National Grid.

In four years, the program has accepted 30 projects — 28 solar and two wind. The solar programs have been for large systems, such as the East Providence landfill and several rooftop projects on large commercial structures, including one of the largest in New England, at the Quonset Business Park.

The original five-year program capped power at 40 megawatts from new wind, solar, small hydropower and anaerobic digestion, which creates electricity from organic waste.

Competition for the annual allotments of power was so strong that new renewable-energy projects were turned away, said Janet Besser of the New England Clean Energy Council, an advocacy group for renewable-energy developers. “The early pilot program was well oversubscribed and, in fact, we saw less development here in Rhode Island because many bidders didn’t bid because their chance of winning the bid were so small," she said.

The new program expand to 160 megawatts across five years.

Jerry Elmer, attorney for the Conservation Foundation, said the pilot program worked as intended by boosting Rhode Island's renewable-energy sector. Elmer helped craft the DG pilot program and the latest legislation. He cited statistics from the Office of Energy Resources saying the program launched 29 renewable-energy projects and created 175 jobs during its first 18 months.

The Senate bill was held for further study. A hearing on the House version of the bill hasn't been held.