Big Thinking from a Small State


Once in a while, it can be interesting to take a deep look at what one state is doing in the power sector reform arena. New York, California, and others get a lot of attention. But the small state of Rhode Island (pop. 1.05 million) has significant ambition and is taking a path that a small state, really any state, can take.

Rhode Island started with a lot of useful and progressive laws and programs to advance energy efficiency and renewable energy. These are recapped in the Systems Integration Rhode Island (SIRI) report, that, in its first phase, set out to rationalize the state’s many initiatives.

The SIRI report is designed to provide insight into the transformation of the electricity sector—the big system shifts involving customer adoption of distributed energy resources such as energy efficiency, demand response, renewable energy, and energy storage, and the response we can expect from the state’s utilities, regulator, and others. A key to the success of the SIRI process has been constructive participation by the state’s dominant utility and NGO community as the result of a clear commitment to the overall effort from the state energy office up through the governor’s office.

Distribution Planning

The SIRI process continues and is now primarily a forum for the utility and others to discuss how to improve the distribution planning process and how it will be reflected in the local regulatory processes. The SIRI report also set out a challenge for the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), a challenge the PUC picked up last year when it opened Docket 4600. The PUC’s initial ambition in the docket was to figure out a benefit-cost approach for resources on the distribution system. The docket established a facilitated collaborative that anyone could participate in and, now that the collaborative is finished, will soon result in a PUC order (order issued July 31, 2017).

The collaborative group’s report on the docket goes beyond the initial ambition of the PUC, covering not only benefits and costs, but also addressing rate design and potential future processes. The report then envisions a stakeholder process that would examine four policy areas: the utility business model, distribution system planning, grid functionality and technology, and beneficial electrification. The governor is supportive of this new process, called the Rhode Island Power Sector Transformation Initiative, which began earlier this month with a standing room-only meeting at the PUC. (Leadership always matters.)

Assisting, Advising

RAP will be helping this stakeholder process and its four work streams, while also advising the Rhode Island state agencies along the way, as we have the privilege of doing in several other states. In this effort, we will be partnering with our colleagues at Great Plains Institute.

The SIRI process, Docket 4600, the new power sector transformation initiative, as well as the 2015 state energy plan, are excellent examples of what a state can do when the powers that be put their minds to encouraging the best people in the state to start working together. While we can’t see far enough into the future to say what the new initiative will produce—aside from a PUC policy statement on electrification—it is certain that the stakeholder process will lead to more process collaboratives and, hopefully, decisions by the PUC and the important work of the Department of Public Utilities and Carriers and the State Energy Office that will guide utility investment and behavior in ways that reflect state priorities.

Leadership in service to clear state objectives on sound regulation, energy markets, and environmental quality among all the key stakeholders and the state is essential to animating this work. Clearly, Rhode Island is yet another state embracing the opportunities presented by an electricity system on the cusp of big change.

Photo: Matt Hintsa via Flickr Creative Commons