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Could America’s smallest state lead the way toward the next energy age?

The tiny state of Rhode Island is at a crossroad, facing major decisions on investing in fossil fuel infrastructure or turning sharply to renewable energy.

The contrast between two major projects—a huge natural gas-fired power plant and towering offshore wind turbines—could not be greater, and the long-term implications of the decisions for the state and the country are far-reaching. Depending upon which road it takes, tiny Rhode Island could be a leader of a new energy age for the U.S., or a middling actor locked into fossil fuel infrastructure for decades.

Fracturing with gas

On one side is a huge power plant proposed for the far northwest corner of the state in the rural woods in Burrillville, Rhode Island. Announced by a merchant Chicago-based investor called Invenergy at a press event with the governor and the Laborers Union International Union at their side, the facility would invest about $700 million dollars and produce 850-1,000 megawatts of power. The facility would sit next to a major natural gas pipeline where it slices through the corner of Rhode Island, fueled largely by gas extracted through hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania.

Fracturing is exactly what this plant has done to Rhode Island’s politics and society since last year’s announcement.

Fracturing is exactly what this plant has done to Rhode Island’s politics and society since last year’s announcement. Governor Gina Raimondo saw the investment as a coup for economic development in the state, bringing in tax revenues and creating construction jobs. The plant is expected to employ over 300 people during its 18-month construction but create only two dozen permanent positions.

The Invenergy siting in Rhode Island seemed political genius at the time, and to most observers the announcement made the plant seem a “done deal” from the start. However, opposition has steadily mounted and the tide may be turning against the plant. Local opposition turned out to be surprisingly fierce, as residents of the peaceful town raised issue after issue with the plans, including the hundreds of diesel oil trucks that would be plying rural roads to fill massive backup fuel supply tanks and the proposed reopening of a town well that was already contaminated with MTBE, a fuel additive known to cause cancer. Finally local politicians began taking stands against the proposed facility; the townships have denied the company access to the town water supply and refused to negotiate a tax agreement with the plant.

The strength of the local opposition surprised many, as three coalitions consistently turned out hundreds of impassioned attendees at meetings and public hearings at the local high school. The Conservation Law Foundation filed testimony and a motion to dismiss against the plant, claiming that building it will make it impossible for the state to meet its greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals. With major life cycle impacts of fracking and methane leakage, building a huge natural gas plant risks locking the state into decades of a high-carbon development pathway. In short, the plant has raised local, state and global issues, and galvanized the community.

Spinning up an offshore revolution

At the same time as the Invenergy gas plant is tying the state’s licensing process, agencies and civil society in knots, a remarkable thing was happening in Rhode Island. After years of planning, Deepwater Wind installed an offshore wind farm—the first in the Western Hemisphere—just three miles off Block Island.

The five turbines, which will be flipped on sometime in the next weeks, can only be described as a pilot, but by themselves should power 17,000 homes. Compared to the Burrillville plant—which can produce 1,000 megawatts versus the 30 megawatts maximum for the five turbines—these turbines are merely a drop in the bucket. But they prove that offshore wind can be done in the United States, which is a huge piece of the puzzle in getting to zero net carbon emissions in the next 20 years. A study by the Solutions Project led by Stanford University’s Mark Jacobsen suggests that a 100 percent renewable Rhode Island should get 62 percent of that power from offshore wind. And Jeff Grybowski, CEO of Deepwater Wind, suggests that because of forward-looking zoning work done over the past decade Rhode Island has the capacity to install in the next 5-10 years 5,000 megawatts more offshore wind—perhaps enough capacity to power 2.8 million homes (The state population is about 1 million).

For a state with chronically high unemployment and lagging incomes, the estimates of the numbers of construction and permanent jobs from a full renewable transition for the state are attention-grabbing.

For a state with chronically high unemployment and lagging incomes, the estimates of the numbers of construction and permanent jobs from a full renewable transition for the state are attention-grabbing. The state’s first “Clean Energy Jobs Report” this spring reported that these jobs increased 40 percent in just one year—creating 4,000 new jobs in 2015. Photos of hardhats installing the offshore wind farm on the state’s leading newspaper sent a striking message that a renewables revolution will be a boom time for good jobs.

Why Rhode Island could lead America

Rhode Island is arguably uniquely able to lead America into a new energy age. The state is small, uniquely vulnerable, not wed to fossil fuel production, and it’s blue and highly Catholic. Permitting and siting the Block Island wind farm showed the state can be nimble when it does something well, which nearly all agree was the case with highly participatory Ocean Special Area Management Plan. With 400 miles of coastline it has been hammered by coastal erosion and upland flooding, raising awareness of the cost of not acting on climate change. The Newport tide gauge is up 9 inches since 1930, threatening colonial era historic buildings and beaches, both crucial for the state’s tourism and identity.

Spending up to $3 billion a year of its tiny economy on imported fossil fuels, the state is waking up to how it could keep those dollars in the state with renewables and efficiency measures through carbon pricing. And with a completely Democratic congressional delegation and an 85 percent blue statehouse, Rhode Island can act on climate change largely without dealing with the hardline denialism on this issue created by polarization and primary election tactics fueled by fossil interests to purge moderate Republicans. And finally, Rhode Island is 45% Catholic, and especially after the Pope’s major Laudato Si encyclical last year, Catholics are more likely to support strong action on climate change.

Rhode Island’s choice between allowing the construction of a huge fracked natural gas power plant or throwing itself behind an all-out renewables push is not a simple one. Valid concerns exist about the reliability of renewables, but betting on the stability of natural gas supply and price has its own risks, and some analyses suggest the gas plant may not be needed. The state’s 2015 State Energy Plan called for diversification away from gas, since it already makes up 50-60 percent of energy used here. Diversification is critical, but the science tells us we must move quickly to a diverse zero-carbon mix, including existing nuclear, hydroelectric, geothermal, mass storage, wave, and tidal power—all offer partial solutions to this problem. Reducing demand through variable pricing, especially at peak times, could be hugely helpful.

But in the meantime, America finds itself with choices much like the one faced by Rhode Island today: build huge gas fired infrastructure, or go all in on wind and solar? Tiny Rhode Island could lead the nation into the next energy age, or it could drag its feet and be stuck with huge new fossil fuel “stranded assets.”  The politics are not easy, but each decision like these determine which road we are on.

The findings, interpretations and conclusions posted on Brookings.edu are solely those of the authors and not of The Brookings Institution, its officers, staff, board, funders, or organizations with which they may have a relationship.

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