ERIKA NIEDOWSKI – You can power change on energy use

ERIKA NIEDOWSKI – You can power change on energy use

With air conditioning working overtime, this week’s heat wave in Rhode Island brought some of the highest energy usage of the summer. That means expensive utility bills. Under our current fossil fuel dominant energy system, it can also mean some of the dirtiest power, when coal plants get called up to help meet peak electricity demand.

Creating a livable, sustainable climate will require broad societal changes to how we power our homes and businesses, and that transition is well underway. As someone who works in clean energy policy, my hope is that local communities and residents make better-informed decisions about energy use – yes, to help our planet, but also to unlock bill savings and other local economic benefits. The following are three ways to start.

• Expand energy efficiency investments. It only makes sense that the cleanest, cheapest megawatt hour is the one that isn’t even needed. (Think of it as a “negawatt.”) Energy efficiency is about more than just lightbulbs. Deep efficiency measures such as weatherization and heating and cooling system upgrades can significantly lower energy bills, decrease emissions, and even help improve community health. Participants in the state’s energy efficiency programs enjoy the most direct savings; even those who don’t participate benefit from lower overall energy prices. Low-income customers can access many efficiency improvements at no cost. If you haven’t had an energy audit lately, call National Grid, the program administrator, at 1-888-633-7947 to schedule one.

• Support local solar access. My household went solar 18 months ago. Our array, installed by a Newport-based small business, has lowered our monthly electric bill (especially during sunny summer months!) and our carbon footprint. On an annual basis, we now spend zero dollars on electricity. But as with energy efficiency, the benefits of local solar can accrue to non-solar customers, too. During periods of high electricity usage, rooftop solar helps keep overall electricity usage down. By keeping usage down, utilities have to build and maintain fewer poles, wires, and other costly infrastructure – which is paid for by ratepayers.

Unfortunately, most communities in the Blackstone Valley didn’t take advantage of Rhode Island’s Solarize program, a missed opportunity to spur residential and commercial solar conversions at discounted costs. Other policies and programs like Renewable Energy Growth, the Renewable Energy Fund, and net metering are still available. The offerings can seem complicated, but it’s possible to structure financing so you can enjoy bill savings from Day One.

Of course, not everyone can put solar on their roof. Community solar, a subscription share of a larger local installation, is one option that provides clean power and bill savings no matter the suitability of your roof or credit score. Rhode Island’s Office of Energy Resources is expected to petition regulators this year to extend the state’s community solar pilot program. An equitably designed program that ensures low-income participation can make solar accessible to all. I strongly urge cities and towns to support it.

• Explore community choice aggregation. Rhode Island has joined Massachusetts in allowing community choice aggregation, or the ability to purchase electricity in bulk on behalf of residents and businesses. Benefits can include stable longer-term pricing, more clean energy options, and even lower rates. Municipalities including Providence, Newport, Central Falls, and others have approved or are moving toward adopting CCAs. I hope my community does, too.

After you get your summer electricity bill and catch your breath, remember these suggestions. And arrange for your home efficiency study, comparison-shop local solar companies, or visit OER’s Community Solar Marketplace for cleaner ways to power your future.

Our guest columnist Erika Niedowski, a resident of Lincoln, works in clean energy policy in Rhode Island and across the Northeast.


How will solar energy lead to fewer poles? Electricity will still need to run via the wires to reach homes, businesses and schools. You do realize Cox and Verizon utilize poles for their wires as well to bring phone, Internet, and paid TV to customers? What is the exact lifespan of a solar panel? What components in the panel are hazardous waste? How exactly are solar farms and rooftops decommissioned? How is sleeping under a solar rooftop different then being exposed to high tension wires? I truly would like to know the answers to these questions as I have found conflicting information when conducting an Internet search. Thank you in advance for your reply!

If my dad didn't say it a million times growing up, turn off the darn lights! Rant over.

This is great information. Thank you.

To answer some of Lincoln02865's questions, I'm not as expert on solar panels as an installer, but depending on which you use, they should last 25+ years, with some slight degradation in performance over time. On decommissioning, for ground-mount systems, some jurisdictions require a decommissioning plan, and that's generally a good policy to ensure best practices and risk mitigation. Finally, "poles and wires" is sort of a metaphor for utility infrastructure in general - energy efficiency and rooftop solar used on-site (lowering what is needed from the grid) don't mean there will be fewer poles, but they help prevent the need to build costly NEW infrastructure to meet higher and higher peaks, which soar during heat waves like the one we are in. Thanks for reading!

With more and more roofs being covered by solar panels how does a Fire Department effectively fight a fire or perform a rescue through a roof?

Are solar panels a hinderance to fire fighting?

yes they are a hindrance to fighting fires. They are also dangerous to the firefighters, hot sticks will only detect AC current not DC which is what solar panels generate, also if you cut through the buss bar with a saw on a nice sunny day you could be killed. Never mind if the house has battery backup which is charged by the panels then you have a whole new set of hazards to deal with but it's OK because "saving the planet" and all that.