Environmental groups and renewable energy advocates applauded the General Assembly’s passage this week of legislation that dramatically expands the program that has been most effective in fostering the development of solar power in Rhode Island.
The House of Representatives and the Senate both overwhelmingly passed bills on Wednesday that extend the life of the state’s “distributed generation” program by another five years and expand its size fivefold to 200 megawatts.
“This bill is a breakthrough for clean, local renewable energy, especially solar,” said Channing Jones, of Environment Rhode Island. “The sun gives us the resources we need to create jobs and supply our energy right here on our own rooftops.”
The program started as a three-year pilot in 2011 in Governor Chafee’s first year in office. It takes its name from what it aims to achieve — the distribution of small- to medium-sized sources of electric generation throughout the power grid. The aim is to promote grid reliability and spur the development of renewable energy, including wind, biogas, hydropower and solar projects.
It’s that last sector that has most benefitted from the initiative, which locks in long-term prices for projects and guarantees sales to the state’s main utility, National Grid. When the program started, Rhode Island had only 1.2 megawatts of solar capacity. As of today, 29 solar projects totaling 21.65 megawatts have either been built or are under contract.
The program is currently open to only commercial-scale projects, but the new legislation opens it up to homeowners. Supporters expect the expansion to drive a surge in residential solar installations.
“The clean energy industry is one of the fastest-growing, innovative sectors driving economic growth in Rhode Island and New England and this legislation will assure that Rhode Island reaps the economic, energy and environmental benefits that come with that growth,” said Peter Rothstein, president of the New England Clean Energy Council, an industry group.
The legislation was written by the Clean Energy Council, the Conservation Law Foundation and National Grid. It was introduced in the House by Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, and in the Senate by Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown.
The state Office of Energy Resources was also involved in crafting the legislation and Chafee, a supporter of the program, is expected to sign it into law.
A report commissioned by the energy office projected that expanding the program would create 246 jobs over a 25-year period, and though it would cost ratepayers $354 million, it would also generate $556 million in economic activity.
It would also reduce air pollution and carbon emissions and protect against spikes in the price of natural gas, the main fuel source in New England, according to the report by the Cambridge, Mass.-based Brattle Group.
“I want to applaud the General Assembly’s support for passing this critical legislation, in maintaining and building a renewable energy jobs market in Rhode Island,” said Marion Gold, commissioner of the energy office.