Rhode Island’s major power company would be forced to buy renewable energy for a decade at a time under a bill proposed Thursday by Democrats in the state Senate.
Environmental advocates say the bill could fix a problem holding back green energy projects here: a lack of big buyers. Before building an offshore wind farm, for example, developers must convince potential investors that a major customer with money will buy the power over a long period.
House lawmakers refused last year to create a new state authority to act as that buyer. Now, Senate President Joseph Montalbano and House lawmakers want National Grid, the state’s dominant electricity distributor, to fill the role. The company supports the bill.
“It ensures private developers that there is a market for their product prior to them making a substantial investment,” Montalbano said at a news conference.
New Englanders face some of the most expensive electricity bills in the country, largely because the region is heavily dependent on expensive natural gas. But wind ripples across Rhode Island’s coastline. Republican Gov. Don Carcieri and Democratic lawmakers both say wind turbines could lower electricity costs and reduce pollution.
National Grid has about 500,000 customers in Rhode Island. If adopted, the bill would require the company to sign enough contracts by 2013 to ensure 5 percent of the state’s electricity needs will come from renewable sources.
National Grid supports the proposal after rejecting similar ideas in the past, said Michael Ryan, the power company’s president of state distribution. Renewable energy projects had occasionally proved too expensive in other states, he said.
But Ryan said the market now appears more favorable and that National Grid would rather negotiate with lawmakers than have a rule imposed on them unilaterally by the state.
The bill would excuse National Grid from signing contracts it considers “commercially unreasonable,” a term that lawmakers defined only vaguely. Ryan said he could not say what contracts National Grid might reject without seeing a specific developer proposal.
The package could set off a fight with Carcieri since it would move renewable energy funds used by the governor’s office to a quasi-public state agency, the Economic Development Corporation.
Some of the money would be used to support small renewable energy projects built by cities and towns, such as wind turbines and solar panels. Other funds would be used to build similar projects powering state-subsidized housing.
Carcieri has said he wants to build enough wind turbines by 2011 to meet 15 percent of Rhode Island’s electricity needs. None have been built so far, and Carcieri’s energy adviser said the timetable will be difficult, if not impossible, to meet.
Carcieri had not seen the bills Thursday and could not immediately comment, his spokesman said.
By Ray Henry
7 March 2008
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