At 1,545 square miles, Rhode Island is geographically the smallest state in the United States but one of the most densely populated for its size, with 1,059,361 residents as of July 1, 2019. For a state that is only 37 miles wide and 48 miles long, it is notable that its shoreline on Narragansett Bay in the Atlantic Ocean runs for 400 miles. Called the Ocean State, Rhode Island is one-third water and includes Block Island further offshore, as well as one of New England’s deep water ports at Providence.
The impacts of climate change upon Rhode Island’s built and natural environments are wide-ranging, discernible and documented, and, in many cases growing in severity. Rhode Island will experience warmer air and water temperatures, more extreme weather events such as droughts, intense precipitation, severe storms and flooding, increasing rates of sea level rise, shorter winters and longer summers, and less snowfall and ice coverage. Climate change has the potential to pose significant risks for Rhode Island’s water, wastewater, surface transportation, and energy infrastructures and utilities, the natural environment, and the health, welfare, and economic well-being of its citizens.
Rhode Island became, in 2007, a member of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a market-based program to reduce carbon emissions from electricity generation in 11 of the northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states. They had already joined a number of New England states in 1996, to implement an electricity restructuring plan that separated power generation from transmission and distribution. The restructuring plan was initially only for industrial customers, but was expanded in 1998 to include commercial and residential customers. As a result, all of the state’s electricity generated by the electric power sector comes from independent power producers. The previous exception was on Block Island—located about 9 miles south of the state’s coastline—which was not connected to the mainland grid and was dependent on local diesel-fueled generators. Generator fuel arrived in trucks ferried to the island. Because fuel prices sometimes caused Block Island’s electricity costs to rise to more than four times the state’s average, particularly in summer when rates and electricity demand increased with the influx of tourists, the island participated in the nation’s first offshore wind project. In May 2017, Block Island Power turned off its diesel generators and began receiving power from an undersea cable installed between an offshore wind farm with 5 turbines, Block Island, and the mainland. The cable allowed, in conjunction with the wind farm, electricity to reach Block Island for the first time and allowed excess wind-generated electric power to be forwarded to the onshore grid.
Rhode Island thus became the first state in the U.S. with an off-shore wind farm (however small). Nonetheless, natural gas provides the bulk of the state’s electricity (and more than any other state) –about 89% in 2020 –2% down from 2019. Most of the rest of the state’s net generation came from solar, wind, and biomass resources with a small amount generated from petroleum and hydropower. This will change radically, when the 400-megawatt Revolution Wind Farm, being developed in Rhode Island Sound by the Danish company Orsted, comes on line in 2024. It is expected to supply a full third of Rhode Island’s electricity with renewables. A number of other renewable-energy projects are also completed or in the pipeline, including large solar farms in places like Cranston and Hopkinton, as well as land-based wind turbines in Providence, Coventry and Johnston. Rhode Island produces neither natural gas nor petroleum.
The residential sector leads Rhode Island’s energy consumption, accounting for about one-third of the state’s total, the fourth-highest share for a state’s residential sector energy use after Connecticut, Vermont & New Hampshire. The transportation sector is a close second, consuming slightly less than 30% of the state’s energy. The commercial sector accounts for about one-fourth of the state’s energy consumption, and the industrial sector accounts for more than one-tenth.
Rhode Island has taken actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change, often through executive orders issued by the Governor. In 2015, building on the Resilient Rhode Island Act (2014), which set targets for reducing greenhouse emissions to 45% below 1990 levels by 2035 and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, Governor Gina Raimondo instructed state agencies to reduce energy use by 10% by 2019, committed the state to obtain 100% renewable energy by 2025, and required the State Fleet to purchase a minimum of 25% zero-emission vehicles by 2025. In the spring of 2017, she doubled down, announcing a new goal of 1,000 MW and 20,000 clean energy jobs by 2020. According to the 2020 Rhode Island Clean Energy Industry Report, the clean energy labor force of Rhode Island has grown by 77.3% since 2014.
In the fall of 2017, she took additional executive action calling for the development of the state’s first comprehensive climate preparedness strategy.
A year later in the summer of 2018, the resulting Resilient Rhody report was released outlining an actionable vision for addressing the impacts of climate change in Rhode Island. It focuses on critical infrastructure and utilities, natural systems, emergency preparedness, and community health and resilience.
Rhode Island is the first state to have placed a 100% renewable electricity target as early as 2030, following another executive order by Raimondo before leaving to join the Biden administration, in January, 2020. The closest is Washington, D.C., which is aiming for 2032.
Sitting in on a meeting with Barrington, R.I.’s Resilience & Energy Committee a few weeks after the IPCC’s report was released in August, 2021, as they explore solar solutions in Barrington demonstrates the concerns in the state. Some believe the two initiatives that guide residential solar in Rhode Island — the Renewable Energy Growth Program and net metering — need to be revamped to better address the needs and wants of residential solar customers.
Rhode Island is one of twenty-four states, along with Puerto Rico, committed to the U.S. Climate Alliance, which is working to implement policies that advance the goals of the Paris Agreement.