Rhode Island Governor Favors Energy Choice

Published June 1, 2004

Like many of his colleagues across the nation, Rhode Island Governor Don Carcieri (R) would like to cut greenhouse gas emissions and encourage the use of renewable energy sources in his state.

Unlike most of his colleagues in the Northeast, however, Carcieri has adopted a distinctly free-market approach to such policy-making. The governor has empowered citizens to decide for themselves how important those energy goals are.

Residents Can Choose

The Rhode Island State Energy Office has hired a New England-based marketing firm to promote a new program that allows residents to choose emissions-free renewable power. Through Narragansett Electric Company’s GreenUp? program, approved by the state Public Utilities Commission in February and launched on March 31, residents can choose to purchase none, half, or all of their power from wind and hydropower sources.

“If you feel strongly about it, and you want to pay the extra cost, it’s there for you,” said Michael F. Ryan, executive vice president of Narragansett Electric, one of the state’s four electricity providers.

A Rhode Island household opting to purchase 50 percent of its power from renewable sources would pay electricity bills roughly 7 percent higher than they otherwise would be. A household purchasing 100 percent of its power from renewable sources would face electricity bills roughly 19 percent higher.

The program directly tests the claim, made by some environmental activists, that citizens would gladly pay extra to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if only given the opportunity to do so. By giving residents a choice, rather than mandating a particular energy source, the program allows citizens to vote about energy and the environment through their own individual actions.

Similar programs offered by electricity generators in other states have not proven popular. Only about 9,600 of 1.5 million eligible customers (less than 1 percent) have signed up for the renewable energy program offered by Niagara Mohawk to New York residents. Similarly, Massachusetts Electric allows residents to purchase emissions-free electricity, but only about 1,790 of 1.2 million eligible customers have enrolled.

Low participation rates have caused some activist groups to criticize Carcieri’s decision to give Rhode Island residents the power to choose their energy sources. Those groups would prefer the state mandate the use of renewable power.

“There are easy steps that could be easily implemented, and the governor could throw his support behind them,” said Kate Canada, an advocate for the Rhode Island Public Research Group (PIRG). Such steps would include requiring Ocean State residents to buy their household energy from renewable sources and purchase emissions-reduction technology for their automobiles.

Mandates Would Be Costly

The mandates sought by PIRG and others would be costly. According to a recent study by The Heartland Institute, a state-specific version of the Kyoto Protocol would cost the average Rhode Island household more than $4,500 per year in higher-priced goods and services and lost income. The Rhode Island state government could lose more than $370 million in tax revenue each year.

Even those figures represent only the tip of the economic iceberg, according to supporters of mandatory CO2 reductions. Jan Reitsma, a former director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and a leading voice among Rhode Island CO2 activists, told the Providence Journal Kyoto-style emissions cuts would be only a “first step” toward even more stringent future CO2 reductions.

“States should reject every form of Kyoto legislation for the very same reasons Kyoto was rejected by our leaders in Washington DC,” observed Sandy Liddy Bourne, director of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture Task Force. “The Kyoto Protocol is just another highly regressive energy tax on America’s working families, with no measurable benefit to environmental or human health.”

Leading by Example

In addition to promoting the voluntary program to purchase emissions-free electricity, Carcieri has pledged the state will purchase much of its own power from emissions-free sources.

On March 31, Carcieri announced the state would purchase renewable energy certificates to generate 100 percent of the electricity used at the State House for five years. That program will cost Rhode Island taxpayers roughly $210,000 more than they would have paid to power the State House through conventional energy sources.

“Governor Carcieri is supportive of increasing, substantially, the amount of renewable energy by 2020,” said Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal.

According to Neal, Carcieri recognizes that programs designed to reduce CO2 emissions come at a cost, and that the benefits of such programs are not certain.

“It’s very difficult to quantify exactly what the benefits will be,” said Neal, “and more importantly, what the costs would be to utility rate payers.” That’s why the governor won’t mandate the use of renewable energy sources–the benefits are too uncertain to justify a mandate.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].