Report: As solar explodes nationwide, Rhode Island still lags behind

Environment Rhode Island

With one solar panel in the state for every 15 people, Rhode Island remains near the middle of an annual ranking of solar power capacity, and utility companies across the country would just as soon keep it that way.  

Environment Rhode Island Research & Policy Center’s new study shows that as embattled utilities witness the growing popularity and adoption of solar energy across the country, they’re girding for a fight everywhere they can. While they may be fighting the hardest where solar is flourishing the most, they aren’t confining their attacks to the top solar states.

“The more solar grows here in Rhode Island, the more big utilities try to stop it,” said Galen Hendricks, with Environment Rhode Island. “Even in the face of strong public support for pollution-free energy, utilities are working to block the policies that would help us catch up with our neighbors, and become solar leaders.”

The study’s top states for solar capacity per capita — Nevada, Hawaii, California, Arizona, North Carolina, New Jersey, Vermont, New Mexico, Massachusetts and Colorado – have for years held in common pro-clean energy policies, such as strong net metering programs and interconnection standards.

But the inducements for growing numbers of homes, businesses and schools to go solar are increasingly under attack by utilities, who view distributed clean energy generation as a direct threat to their business model.

Last year utilities convinced officials in Hawaii as well as Nevada to eliminate their net metering programs, while earlier this year California’s program narrowly withstood a high-profile utility assault. In Arizona, one major utility charged a new fee on new solar customers, depressing rooftop solar power growth in its 1 million-person service area; two other utilities in the state are now pressing to institute similar charges and eliminate their retail net metering programs.

Yet attacks like these haven’t yet stemmed the tide of solar power. In February it cleared the milestone of 1 million installations across the country, and is expected to add another million in just two years’ time as prices continue to plummet. Even here in Rhode Island, we saw this amazing growth.

“Renewable Energy policy in RI has been steadily improving over the last few years. The incredible job growth in the renewable energy industry has caught the attention of our Legislators and they have encouraged the expansion of the industry. Just a few years ago there were only a handful of us local solar installers in RI. Now with the passage of favorable legislation, all of the major players are staking a claim in the RI market.” Said Doug Sabetti, owner and founder of Newport Solar.

Here in Rhode Island, small businesses, local elected officials, and average Americans are demonstrating their support of the increasingly cost-competitive energy source, a crucial part of the solution to global warming. Governor Gina Raimondo recently signed a package of bills, which will extend the renewable portfolio standard, and provide other measures to expand renewable energy sources like solar. In addition, clean energy jobs in Rhode Island have already increased 40 percent from 2015 levels.

Despite utility attacks, many pro-solar policies remain in the 10 leading-edge states, who make up 88 percent of the nation’s solar capacity but less than a third of its population. All have renewable energy requirements, for example, and nine have strong laws to allow solar customers to connect to the electricity grid.

Here in Rhode Island we also have a program called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (or RGGI), which limits global warming pollution from power plants and accelerates our transition to clean energy sources. Rhode Island is currently considering stronger goals for reducing pollution out to 2030 under this program. Pro-solar policies can help make bigger cuts in pollution possible.

But Environment America warned that utilities weren’t letting up on their quest to erode such policies, nor were they confining them to top solar states. For instance, they’ve succeeded so far in blocking clean energy progress in Florida, where the potential is vast.

In 2014, Rhode Island adopted it’s  Renewable  Energy Growth program;  to increase clean, distributed energy, like roof-top solar, by 40 MW/year until 2020.  Attempts to extend the program this year were thwarted by opposition from utilities and others.  Environment Rhode Island said it was time to allow the state to realize its vast solar potential.

“These attacks are a desperate finger in the dike against the tide of support for solar,” said Hendricks. “It’s time for utilities to stop blocking clean energy and ride the solar wave.”