Installers, leaders sound off: Let’s grow R.I. solar sector

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Channing Jones

Environment Rhode Island Research & Policy Center

Newport –– With concern growing about Rhode Island’s energy dependence on out-of-state fossil fuels––and the associated environmental and public health consequences of dirty air and global warming pollution––a Wednesday evening roundtable organized by Environment Rhode Island sought to answer the question: How do we grow Rhode Island’s solar sector?

“More and more, homes, businesses, and schools are turning to solar as a pollution-free energy source with no fuel costs,” said Channing Jones, Campaign Director with Environment Rhode Island and emcee of the event. “The sun gives us the resources we need to create jobs and supply our energy right here on our own rooftops, and it’s time for Rhode Island to step up and join the nation’s solar leaders.”

The roundtable, “Growing Solar in Rhode Island”, was held at Salve Regina University and aimed to address Rhode Island’s lag in solar energy production compared to other Northeast states. Rhode Island ranks second-to-last among northeast states in per capita solar capacity [1], with roughly 98% of the state’s power generation coming from gas [2], an out-of-state fossil fuel that creates air pollution and contributes to global warming.

Environment Rhode Island co-hosted the event with the Salve Regina University Environmental Club and the Newport Energy & Environment Commission. To discuss strategies to “grow solar”, the event featured panelists including State Rep. Deb Ruggiero (Dist. 72), State Sen. Lou DiPalma (Dist 12), and Rhode Island Energy Commissioner Marion Gold, along with solar developers and renewable energy advocates.

“Rhode Island is poised to expand opportunities for solar for our citizens”, said Commissioner Gold. “We are building on in-state and regional momentum to make solar more affordable and accessible for all. A thriving solar market will generate in-state job growth, stimulate economic develop and promote a carbon-free, local, renewable source of energy.”

With the Rhode Island General Assembly session approaching in January, lawmakers will be considering changes to Rhode Island’s renewable energy policies, including an extension and expansion of the Distributed Generation (DG) program that facilitates local development of renewable energy projects. “Public policy plays an important role in sustaining the renewable energy sector in Rhode Island,” said Rep. Ruggiero, sponsor of the original Distributed Generation bill. “DG projects––wind and solar––create renewable energy, jobs, and economic benefit to our communities.”

At the event, advocates and solar developers also stressed the importance of specific incentives and programs for residential-scale projects. According to Sen. DiPalma, “With rapid advancements in solar technology, the time is ripe to reap those rewards, both on a macro scale, with solar farms, and a micro scale, as it relates to commercial and residential uses.”

“It should be our goal in Rhode Island to be entirely powered by renewable energy by 2050, if not sooner, and we are capable of doing it,” said Abel Collins, Program Manager with the Sierra Club of Rhode Island. “A big part of the necessary transition is multiplying our efforts to build a vibrant solar industry.”

“The sun provides enough energy in one hour to power the world for one year,” said Doug Sabetti, owner of Newport Solar and a member of the Newport Energy & Environment Commission. “All of that energy delivered right to your door.”

In addition to Sabetti, solar developers participating in the roundtable included Brian Fiske of B.T. Design & Build, Anthony Baro of E2SOL, Eric Beecher of Sol Power, and Keith Boivin of bcx Energy. According to the State Solar Jobs Map report [3] released this year by the Solar Foundation, Rhode Island ranks 8 out of 10 in the Northeast in per capita solar jobs––dwarfed by Massachusetts in total solar jobs by a ratio of over 20:1.

“Solar power will create jobs here in Rhode Island and keep energy dollars in our local economy, all while reducing fossil fuel emissions that pollute our air and contribute to global warming,” said Jones of Environment Rhode Island. “Fortunately, there’s no secret to expanding solar. With ambitious and achievable commitments from Rhode Island leaders––and smart policies and programs to back them up––we can grow solar in Rhode Island.”

[1] Interstate Renewable Energy Council, U.S. Solar Market Trends (Aug 2012)
[2] Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Monthly (Aug 2013)