The order directs the state Office of Energy Resources to develop a plan by the end of the year to achieve the ambitious goal.
PROVIDENCE — Gov. Gina Raimondo signed an executive order on Friday that sets Rhode Island on the path to getting all of the state’s electric supply from renewable sources by the end of the decade. While Rhode Island is not the first state to adopt a 100% renewables target, the timeline put forth by Raimondo is the most aggressive in the nation.
In a speech before the signing, the governor said that transforming the state’s energy system is needed to fight climate change, and she took issue with a recent statement by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello in which he discounted the impact of any action Rhode Island could take.
The governor first announced the plan in her State of the State address on Tuesday, framing the transition away from fossil fuels within the climate crisis, and she took up that argument again in the State House ceremony on Friday.
“The bad news is climate change is real, urgent, closing in on us,” she said. “The good news is Rhode Island is a leader in the fight against climate change. Today is about maintaining our leadership position and pushing ourselves to do more, go faster.”
Her position stands in contrast to Mattiello’s, who said on Wednesday during a panel hosted by the Boston Globe that change can happen only at the national and international levels.
“There’s nothing Rhode Island can do to address climate change in a way that’s real or impactful,” he said in part, according to the Globe and the website UpriseRI.
In a pointed response, Raimondo said Friday, “There are some who say, ‘Rhode Island doesn’t have a role in this — it’s a national issue.’ That could not be more wrong.”
She referred to the lack of action at the national level by the Trump administration and the president’s statements playing down the effects of climate change.
“That’s wrong,” she said. “It’s factually wrong, scientifically wrong, economically wrong and morally wrong.”
The Environment Council of Rhode Island, which represents nearly all of the state’s major environmental organizations, also disputed Mattiello’s contention.
“Investing in climate resilience will not only protect our communities and shorelines, it will also grow our economy,” Meg Kerr, senior policy director at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, said in a statement issued by the environmental council. “But this will require leadership from policymakers at every level of government — local, state, and federal. There’s no excuse for Rhode Island to watch from the sidelines. We need to step up and do our part because Rhode Islanders will also suffer the consequences of inaction.”
Mattiello was not at the signing ceremony. Neither was R.I. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio or other legislative leaders. But there were dozens of members of state environmental groups, including Save The Bay and The Nature Conservancy, and representatives of renewable energy developers, such as offshore wind company Orsted. Michael Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council, also attended.
Priscilla De La Cruz, president of the environment council, said its member groups support the governor’s order.
“We see this as a step towards addressing the climate crisis, but we should be doing a lot more,” she said.
In the immediate term, that means rewriting the state Renewable Energy Standard to drive more development of solar and wind projects, and making the emissions reduction goals enshrined in the Resilient Rhode Island Actmandatory and enforceable, she said.
Jerry Elmer, senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, who helped lead the successful fight against a large fossil fuel-burning power plant proposed in Burrillville, said something similar.
“The governor must now make good on her promise to support a law that goes beyond mere talk and makes Rhode Island’s climate goals mandatory, including slashing emissions beyond the electric sector,” he said in a statement.
Timmons Roberts, Ittleson Professor of Environmental Studies at Brown University and co-author of a recent study that set out ways to quickly decarbonize the Rhode Island energy system, described Raimondo’s plan as “meaningful.”
“I think this is really something, because it’s a target that’s at the level that we actually need to be getting to, according to science,” he said. “The electricity sector is 25% roughly of our state emissions. It’s one slice, but it’s a key slice if we’re going to electrify everything else, like building heat, hot water heaters and transportation. We’re going to need clean electricity to replace all that natural gas and heating oil and gasoline.”
The order directs the state Office of Energy Resources to develop a plan by the end of the year to achieve the goal. The plan will include any legislative and regulatory changes that would be needed. The state has already started advertising for a consultant to work with the energy office, and a selection is expected to be made in February, according to Nicholas Ucci, acting state energy commissioner.
One key piece of the analysis will be determining how much electricity will be needed when accounting for such factors as energy efficiency and electrification of the transportation and heating sectors, Ucci told The Journal earlier this week. Another will be in figuring out where all the power will come from. Offshore wind will surely contribute. So, too, will solar farms in rural areas. But how much energy can come from solar panels mounted on rooftops or installed on tough-to-develop brownfields sites?
Raimondo acknowledged the questions about her order, but said that by setting the bar high, it will force the necessary changes.
“I know it’s ambitious, the most ambitious in America,” she said. “I believe we’ll get there.”