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Progressive idea: municipal renewable-energy utilities

More than a decade ago, Rock Port, a small farming community in northwest Missouri, reportedly became the first U.S. municipality to be powered almost exclusively by renewable energy. Four large wind turbines are connected to the power grid and provide the town’s nearly 1,400 residents with most of the power they need. The turbines produce about 5 megawatts of electricity annually.

When the wind isn’t blowing, residents buy power from the grid. But on most days, the turbines generate enough wind power for the town to get paid to export energy.

Members of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats of America are hoping to create a similar energy situation in Cranston. The group is raising money to have a study done to determine if a municipal renewable-energy utility would work in Rhode Island’s second-largest city.

The group’s broader idea is to create an energy plan that would transform the Ocean State into a sizable producer of solar, tidal, and onshore wind power. The group’s aim is to generate 200 percent of the power that the state needs and to return energy profits to Rhode Island as citizen dividends and municipal funding.

ecoRI News recently spoke with Nate Carpenter, the group’s state coordinator, and Wil Gregersen, its environmental co-coordinator, about Rhode Island’s renewable-energy potential and its ability to address climate change. While they admitted that the project, which is in its infancy stage, is ambitious, they also noted that it’s an excellent way to fight climate change.

Gregersen said the idea is to “build a pressure from underneath” to move legislators to address the issue.

“We really want to sell this to every person who lives here,” he said. “We know that all the pieces for doing this kind of thing exist … renewable-energy technology, models for setting up a municipal utility, all these pieces are out there they just need to be assembled.”

“We want to make switching to renewable energy an attractive offer,” Carpenter added. “We want to incentivize people to make this change.”

Rhode Island currently spends about $3 billion annually on energy, most of it from outside sources and most of it from fossil fuels. As an energy producer, Gregersen said, Rhode Island could keep that money in the local economy.

The Rhode Island chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America are partnering with Ocean State Community Energy, a collaborative of Massachusetts-based ReVenture Investments and 4E Energy, to develop a plan to build municipal utilities across Rhode Island, starting with a scalable design for a utility in Cranston. The design will use existing city infrastructure, will avoid green space, and will employ the latest innovations in renewable technology, they said.

With a well-researched plan that shows what such a utility would look like and how it would work, Gregersen and Carpenter say they will be able to start large-scale fundraising for a statewide plan and to advocate for similar projects across Rhode Island. The idea is strong, but they noted proof of concept is needed before any additional steps can be taken. The study will cost $26,000.

Gregersen said the study will determine how much renewable energy Cranston could produce and the amount of profit that could be generated. He said Cranston is a good model, because it has both urban and suburban areas.

“Rhode Island, the Blackstone valley, was the site of the Industrial Revolution and this was an incredibly powerful and wealthy place,” Gregersen said. “We’d like to do that again for our state by creating an energy revolution.”

Both Gregersen and Carpenter noted that they are disheartened by the time and effort that has been wasted dealing ineffectively with climate change. They said the issue needs to be addressed immediately. To address the ongoing lack of urgency, Carpenter said the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats of America has elevated addressing climate change/reducing fossil-fuel emissions as its core issue. He noted that worsening climate events will overstretch vulnerable communities and tear societies apart.

“We see with absolute clarity that if we don’t solve climate change we won’t solve anything we care about,” he said. “Everything that progressives are fighting for will come to nothing if climate change is allowed to continue. We’re not here to scare people. These things are real but we do have the ability to fix this, or at least mitigate the effects of climate change.”