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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Key green energy program saved

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Cat Energy-Crisis-Solution animated GIFPROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s unique renewable-energy program is close to a contract extension after the House and Senate both approved clean-energy bills on June 11. The bills (S2690H7727) are nearly identical and enhance the state’s distributed generation (DG) program to build small and large wind turbines and solar-energy arrays.

The House and Senate next vote on each other’s bill before the legislation heads to the governor’s desk. Gov. Lincoln Chafee is expected to sign the bills.

Since the DG program was launched in 2011, about 20 large solar arrays and two wind turbines have been built in 15 communities across the state. Notable projects include a 14-acre solar array on a landfill in East Providence and a 1.5-megawatt wind turbine in North Kingstown.

The program is unlike others in the country because it awards 15- to 20-year contracts to renewable-energy developers, allowing them sell the energy at a fixed price to the electric utility company. The fixed price is typically above the market price for electricity, thus allowing the projects to attract investors.

The legislation would extend the DG program for five years and quadruples the power to 160 megawatts of electricity allotted to new renewable-energy projects.

A new provision to the DG program permits homeowners to apply for a fixed-price agreement with National Grid. The pricing means that homeowners can receive payments for generating excess electricity. Currently, homeowners use net metering, which applies electricity generated from a solar project to offset costs on future bills.

The program helps fill a whole left by a 25 percent tax credit for small renewable projects that was dropped in 2010. The tax credit was omitted from the latest budget despite efforts to reinstate it.
A recent report commissioned by the Office of Energy Resource and the General Assembly suggested the expanded DG program would create $30.65 million in economic benefits annually and 225 new jobs.

Opponents of the bill said the program raises electricity costs. Rep. Patricia Morgan, R-Coventry, noted that some of the initial contracts are three to five times the cost of standard electric rates. The total cost to ratepayers for the DG program is an estimated $17 million a year.

“The problem right now is that the technology simply hasn’t developed to be efficient and affordable,” she said.

Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, sponsor of the House bill, said the new DG program would cost the average ratepayer about 90 cents a month. An expanded DG program, she said, creates more work for local renewable-energy companies. Many of the companies already do most do most of their business in Massachusetts, which has one of the top renewable sectors in the country.

“We are just trying to be competitive,” Ruggiero said.

To help the cause, she noted that the House and Senate also passed a bill that allows renewable companies to earn a special certificate that allows installation of portions of solar projects without licensed electricians and pipefitters.

The Rhode Island Builders Association, National Grid and several environmental groups support the DG bills.

Rep. Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield, opposed the bill, saying it written by ideological supporters of the environment. “They don’t really care what the cost is. That’s fine. If you are one of those people you should vote for this bill. Nobody who wrote this bill gives one fig about ratepayers.”

The House approved the bill 62-8; the Senate passed its DG bill 35-0.