Innovation Ecosystem

The historical roots of renewable energy

The demise of nuclear power and utility deregulation is an important part of the conversation around smart growth

Photo of image from program of Smart Growth Awards by Richard Asinof

The Forbes Street Solar Project in East Providence, built on a former landfill, is now the largest solar farm in the state. The project received the 2018 award for outstanding smart growth project from Grow Smart RI.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/2/18
The historical context for investment in renewable energy involved both the accident of Three Mile Island and the decision to deregulate electric utilities.
How can microgrids developed on a community basis change the economic power of utilities moving forward? Will the proposal to create a microgrid at the URI campus in Kingston be chosen for investment by CommerceRI as one of the new innovation campuses? Could community development corporations, as part of their efforts to rebuild urban communities, be allowed to create their own microgrids? Which company in Rhode Island will offer residents a bundled renewable plan, involving photovoltaic panels, hot water panels, and a solar-driven rain barrel system?
What is the status of the performance of existing land-based wind turbines in Rhode Island, in terms of actual savings and avoided costs of electricity? What kinds of investments is the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank prepared to make in renewable energy in the state? If the proposed power plant in Burrillville is rejected, will that create more incentives to invest in renewable energy infrastructure in Rhode Island?

Part Three

PROVIDENCE – Walking in from the parking lot to attend the 2018 Power of Place summit hosted by Grow Smart RI, ConvergenceRI kept getting distracted by distant memories, becoming unstuck in time, much like Billy Pilgrim, the character in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, upon entering into the state’s economic temple of man-made commerce, the R.I. Convention Center.

Twenty-five years earlier, five years before Grow Smart RI had first been conceived, in November of 1993, ConvergenceRI had been ordered by his employer, United Way of Rhode Island, to attend the opening dinner gala, and before the dinner, to pose with fellow colleagues for the TV cameras from WJAR, smiling and waving on cue to show how excited and happy everyone was that the R.I. Convention Center. Talk about fake news.

That kind of free association is perhaps what happens during a walk on the beach, say in Little Compton at the town beach in late March, in advance of the herring run, a natural rite of spring with a strong intentional sense of place, with hundreds of expectant seagulls and terns gathered nearby the channel that the herring would traverse to the fresh water pond, forming a natural gauntlet, awaiting a festive happy hour.

Whatever conscious thoughts had been lurking had now been swept away in the salt spray of that moment of collision with the birds, the herring, and fresh and salt water.

The Power of Place breakout morning workshops were finished, a one-size-fits-all lunch awaited all of us, and the human seagulls and terns were gathering around the coffee urns in a kind of feeding frenzy, when ConvergenceRI bumped into Frank Carini, the co-founder and editor of ecoRI News, a digital news platform that covers the waterfront when it comes to environmental issues facing Rhode Island.

Carini had attended the session entitled “Rhode Island Forests – Our Invisible Green Giant,” a panel discussion examining the state of forests in the state and their value to the economy and the critical role forests play in mitigating the effects of climate change.

“Did you know that yesterday, March 28, was the 39th anniversary the accident at Three Mile Island that resulted in the meltdown of a nuclear reactor?” ConvergenceRI asked.

No, Carini had responded, and we both agreed that next year, on the 40th anniversary, the news media would be chock full of stories, similar to the way that the 50th anniversary of the April 4, 1968, murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., is being retold this week.

Historical context
The roots of smart growth choices around the use of renewable energy and models for microgrids and resilient growth go back to two major historical events: the accidental nuclear reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, which ended future investment and expansion of nuclear power in the U.S., and the restructuring of the electrical utility industry in 1997, which allowed utilities to bail out of their expensive investments in the nuclear power industry in exchange for investments in renewable energy.

The accident at Three Mile Island had precipitated a sea change in the nation’s energy policy, exposing the risks and high costs – call them the economic reefs that had always been there, covered over by decades of platitudes, promises and deceptions – of pursuing nuclear energy. Looking back now, 40 years later, the reefs are easier to see, but many of the same problems that made nuclear power unsafe, uneconomical and unneeded remain.

The Daily Download by Mass Inc., in its story published last week, “A nuclear dinosaur,” had posed the question: “What do you do with an aging nuclear power plant that is going to be closed in little more than a year? As the shutdown date for the Pilgrim nuclear power plant approaches, the 45-year-old facility in Plymouth is coughing and wheezing all the way to the grave, and local officials and activists are worried the end – and after life – will be problematic.” Good question.

Competitive market?
In 1997, the utility industry had been deregulated, under the idea to separate out the ownership of the power generation stations from the utilities.

Translated, a deal had been cut, mostly because of the rising costs of nuclear generation, which under current law could not be passed onto consumers. In return to removing the “stranded costs” of nuclear power plants, states mandated an investment in renewable energy.

[It also precipitated the consolidation of the electric utility industry into behemoths such as National Grid, a foreign-owned company.]

Mass. Attorney General Maura Healey recently spotlighted one of the big downsides of the two-decade experiment with a deregulated electricity market in a news conference, as reported by Jon Chesto in The Boston Globe.

Healey called for an end to the residential electricity competition in Massachusetts, claiming that too many residents, particularly low-income residents, were being persuaded to sign up for electricity plans that were more expensive than what the incumbent utilities were offering.

According to a report, Healey said that residential customers who switched to a competitive supplier had collectively paid nearly $180 million more over a two-year period than they would have paid if they had stuck with utility, according to the story in the Globe. Another troubling stat, the story continued, was that 36 percent of low-income households were receiving power from a competitive supplier, double the rate among other customers.

Third leg of the renewable conundrum
The third leg of the renewable conundrum is being played out in the efforts by utilities such as National Grid and Eversource, with support from Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker and R.I. Gov. Gina Raimondo, to build a new powerline connection, allowing Hydro Quebec to export some 1,200 megawatts of hydro as a renewable source of electricity to meet the renewable mandate.

The discussions at the Power of Place summit regarding “A Smart Approach to Renewable Energy Siting,” focused onstrategies for increasing incentives to site renewable projects on brownfields, rooftops, landfills and other developed parcels. Future discussions may want to also address the macro concerns regarding utility investments in renewable energy sources and the alleged competitive markets for consumers.

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