Small Wind, Solar Energy Suffering In Rhode Island

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of ecoRI News. Author credit goes to Tim Faulkner.

Vito Buonomano doesn’t beat around the bush when talking about renewable energy and our future. His solar installation business is hurting, the state’s new incentive program for renewable energy, he said, snubs small projects, and he’s concerned little is being done to address climate change.

“It’s horrifying,” he said of the predicted effects of sea level rise during a recent meeting held by the state Office of Energy Resources (OER) for renewable energy developers. “Why don’t we tell this to our grandchildren? And we’re sitting here arguing about pennies.”

Solar Panels

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The pennies he refers to are the monthly charges on National Grid utility bills that fund renewable energy programs. Most residential customers pay about 2 cents daily to subsidize these incentives.

When the state tax credit for residential and small renewable projects disappeared in 2010, so did many of the residential and small business customers for Buonomano and other wind and solar contractors.

Rhode Island’s new distributed generation program was supposed to help the renewable sector by providing fixed electricity pricing contracts. Predictable pricing, of course, means predictable revenue. It’s also considered effective for bringing renewable energy prices closer to fossil fuel-based electricity prices, which in theory will eventually reduce the reliance on incentives to promote renewable energy projects.

“The ultimate goal of distributed generation is to create a clear and streamlined incentive program that leads to a decline in prices,” said Julian Dash, former head of the state’s Renewable Energy Fund and principal of Clean Economy Development.

But some small developers complain that the state’s distributed generation program favors larger wind and solar projects.

Since December 2011, 16 renewable energy projects have been awarded contracts, or fixed pricing, by National Grid. All but one are big solar arrays, such as the one proposed for the Quonset industrial office park and another at a closed landfill in East Providence. Only one is categorized as small scale, which produce less than 500 kilowatts for solar and 1.5 megawatts for wind. The least amount of electricity a qualifying project can create is 10 kilowatts, which is much larger than a typical solar or wind project for a home or a small business.

Awarding contracts to numerous smaller projects creates more local jobs by spreading money across many companies, according to Buonomano, who runs Northeast Solar and Wind Power. By contrast, larger projects often hire employees and firms from out of state, he said.

“Whose interest do we have here,” he asked. “Do we have National Grid’s best interest or Rhode Island’s?”

Other small-scale developers complained that the 1 megawatt of electricity National Grid reserved for the fixed pricing isn’t enough to divide among small developers.

“It’s not worth it for us in Rhode Island for 1 megawatt of power,” said Middlewtown resident Scott Milnes of Beaumont Solar. “It makes more sense to go to Massachusetts.”

Stephan Wollenberg of People’s Power & Light and Mass Energy said a Massachusetts program has helped grow the Bay State’s small renewable energy sector. “I think having lots and lots of (smaller) solar projects really raise the awareness for renewable energy,” he said. “And that is a good thing.”

At the Sept. 7 meeting, Chris Kearns of the OER urged patience with the Rhode Island program. “People need to keep in mind that this is a brand-new program,” he said.

His boss, Marion Gold, the OER’s new director, noted that Gov. Lincoln Chafee must still appoint the committee to oversee the distributed generation program. National Grid must also be more forthcoming with information, Gold said.

Buonomano said the Massachusetts program allows renewable energy projects of all sizes to enroll in the state’s renewable certificate program. In Rhode Island, fees of up to $4,500 must be paid just to apply. There also are other administrative fees that Massachusetts doesn’t require.

Both Wollenberg and Dash, however, believe Rhode Island will eventually offer a tax credit or rebate to promote the small wind and solar industry. “I would expect to see something to come this year to stimulate the residential renewable energy market,” Dash said.

Spreading incentives across numerous smaller renewable energy projects reduces the risk of high-profile failures and better creates jobs, Buonomano said. “We have an opportunity to create long-term, sustainable job growth with these projects,” he said.

ecoRI News is the journalistic arm of ecoRI Inc. and is dedicated to the advancement of environmental and social justice issues that impact Rhode Island. It is devoted to protecting the Ocean State’s ecosystems, natural resources and public health through independent journalism.

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