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In addition to recycling and paperless billing programs, there has been focus on the renewable energy sources of wind and solar as a way to bolster both the environment and bank accounts.
“[Wind] is very difficult to site because it is so large, and I would say the experience both in New England and across the globe with solar is that it’s generally more palatable to local communities because it doesn’t stick so high up in the sky,” said Marion S. Gold, Rhode Island’s commissioner of energy resources, who added that her office considered itself “energy neutral,” and was considering both wind and solar in the state’s energy plan, which is scheduled to be submitted in the fall.
Gold said the state had made “significant progress” in solar energy through its distributed-generation contracts program, which is for small to medium-sized solar projects. Since December 2011, 13 municipalities across the state have built solar projects totaling 17 megawatts – enough to power roughly 1,300 Rhode Island homes, she said.
“We’ve seen [solar] go from early adopters to now really mainstream, where just about all businesses understand that there are significant benefits that they can take advantage of using solar,” said Phil Cavallo, president and CEO of New Bedford-based Beaumont Solar Co., a full-service solar engineering procurement and construction company.
Cavallo’s company, which was founded in 2007, is responsible for engineering three of the six solar projects awarded to different companies in National Grid’s Open Enrollment Program in March. National Grid’s program accepts applications for projects three times a year. The latest Open Enrollment Program from the utility began taking applications on June 17.
Currently, Rhode Island’s program, run through the utility, awards a fixed amount of megawatts of renewable energy projects on an annual basis. The utility company agrees to buy power from the customer for a given price for 15 years.
Ronald T. Gerwatowski, senior vice president for regulation and pricing at National Grid, said that although solar costs have come down in recent years, they are still “far higher” than any other renewable. On average, solar costs have dropped down to 20 cents per kilowatt hour, while wind costs are between 8 and 12 cents a kilowatt hour.
“Rhode Island is a small state, only about 480,000 electric customers. The renewables program does add to cost, so we always have to look at balancing that,” said Gerwatowski.
According to Gold, however, there’s more to solar than just a slightly elevated price tag. The state is currently working with the National Renewable Energy Lab on coming up with a way to analyze the “real value of solar to Rhode Island.”
“Right now, we are comparing renewable energy generation to fossil fuel generation without being able to quantify the benefits that clean energy provides that aren’t accounted in the price,” said Gold, who added that those benefits could include: increasing the reliability of the energy grid, reducing greenhouse gas emissions or reducing other kinds of pollution.
The state has applied for a “Sunshot Grant,” with would allow Rhode Island to work with a group of New England states to address the permitting interconnection, siting, zoning and financing issues attributed to solar while working very closely with cities and towns. If approved, the state would get $200,000. Gold called this “a nice complement” to the Department of Energy grant the state already has to work on energy efficiency and energy planning for cities and towns.