Editorial & Opinion

OpEd: Democratic Socialists call for an end to fossil fuels on Aquidneck Island

“Giving the people more say and ownership over their energy will allow Rhode Islanders to stop the vicious cycle of sunk cost in a false bridge fuel that leads nowhere. The Providence DSA firmly believes that true justice and equity comes when the utilities that heat our homes are owned by the people who live in them. Aquidneck Island represents a clear opportunity to make headway against the climate crisis here in Rhode Island.”
Photo for OpEd: Democratic Socialists call for an end to fossil fuels on Aquidneck Island

On the occupied Narragansett and Pokanoket territory now known as Aquidneck Island, Rhode Island has a chance to change course and build a greener future. Following a power failure and the ensuing state of emergency last winter, National Grid presented several options to update the island’s energy infrastructure. These options include a new pipeline spanning the Narragansett Bay; continued use of the natural gas and vaporization facility at Old Mill Lane in Portsmouth; a new liquid natural gas facility; and non-infrastructural measures consisting of electrification, demand reduction, and efficiency improvements.

The Providence DSA endorses the non-infrastructural option. Rhode Island cannot afford to continue investing in an energy system that threatens the planet. We call on National Grid to use Aquidneck Island as a staging ground for a future beyond fossil fuels.

Aquidneck Island and Rhode Island at large are uniquely threatened by the climate crisis. Our coasts are vulnerable to floods, and the temperate climate cycle is showing signs of disruption with stronger storms and warmer winters. Outages and destruction will grow more frequent as investment in fossil fuels spurs more greenhouse gas emissions.

Like many states, Rhode Island has set goals for phasing in a renewable energy economy. Per the proposed Act on Climate 2020 bill, Rhode Island has set a goal of 45% renewables by 2030 and 100% by 2050. Earlier this year, Governor Raimondo additionally issued an executive order aiming for 100% renewable electricity by 2030. Continuing to expand the fossil fuel system runs counter to these goals and makes it harder to adopt greener energy long-term. 

Energy companies often cite the price tag when passing on greener technology. National Grid conceded in their presentation that the costs of electrification of local power and heat on the island evens out with the other options in the long run, but the company still favors the short-term windfall of expanding infrastructure and increasing dependence on fossil fuels. 

Most utility companies in New England do not generate any actual energy of their own, and National Grid is no exception. These companies charge ratepayers for delivery of gas and electricity via their own. With profit as their primary motive, companies like National Grid seek to expand their ability to deliver more energy and make more money. 

The economic stimulus of the non-infrastructural option would offset the initial cost of adoption. Traditional workers like contractors, electricians, plumbers, carpenters and other homebuilding professionals would gain work removing and replacing existing natural gas pipelines. These changes yield material benefits, and are essential to protect public health and the environment. 

In May of this year, Samantha Wilt of the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York criticized a similar report by National Grid, pointing out that National Grid neglected to consider the value of reducing carbon as a goal unto itself. National Grid’s methodology must remain in line with their stated goals of safety and compliance with environmental objectives in the fight against climate change. As the Office of Environmental Research noted this year, the non-infrastructural solution’s use of heat pumps and increased energy efficiency are what’s needed to address the crisis.

Being neighbors with natural gas infrastructure presents immediate dangers, like respiratory problems from fumes and explosions from leaks and failures. Fumes from burning gas have increased asthma rates in frontline communities like South Providence. Despite pushback from groups like NOLNG PVD, National Grid continues plans for a new LNG facility in South Providence. Increasing Aquidneck Island’s dependence on fracked gas would feed destructive fracking in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, while regional fracked gas systems spew toxins into local communities like Burrillville here in Rhode Island.

Transitioning from environmentally-damaging energy provided by natural gas returns priceless dividends as we fight and mitigate climate change. Climate change carries dire social costs, threatening public health, food supplies, and people’s homes. In addition to the material benefits of electrifying heat and modernizing the utility scheme in the state, these changes are essential to protect public health and the environment. Rhode Island has the opportunity to lead the way in renewable and equitable energy, and Aquidneck Island is the next step on that path. 

Rhode Islanders must have a direct, decisive say in their utilities, now more than ever. Former National Grid managers have already been tapped for audits, tasking them with holding their former employer accountable. The Public Utilities Commission in Rhode Island is intended to act as a check on National Grid, but instead of truly representing the people, it is staffed by governor appointment. Even former lawyers for energy companies have been appointed to push a new pipeline for Aquidneck Island.

Relying on a governor with a track record of making pro-fossil fuel appointments is not a tenable solution. Giving Rhode Islanders the power to instead elect our own representatives to the PUC would be a strong first step in building a more just scheme for utilities in Rhode Island. 

Building universal access is another step toward democratic energy. Amid a pandemic, National Grid has continued rate hikes and shutoffs, even as the global economy continues to shrink. The PIPP, or the Percentage of Income Payment Plan, ensures that everyone has access to heat and electricity by adjusting their rates to their means. Every year in Rhode Island, National Grid cuts power to people who need these utilities to work, stay fed, and survive the winter. Before the deregulation of the 1990s, PIPP protected these people from losing power during lean times.

Giving the people more say and ownership over their energy will allow Rhode Islanders to stop the vicious cycle of sunk cost in a false bridge fuel that leads nowhere. The Providence DSA firmly believes that true justice and equity comes when the utilities that heat our homes are owned by the people who live in them. Aquidneck Island represents a clear opportunity to make headway against the climate crisis here in Rhode Island. 

The Providence DSA will continue to fight for energy and climate justice, public utilities, and a better future for all.

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