As Rhode Islanders shed their heavy coats and welcome spring, chances are they won’t remember this past fall and winter for the relatively mild weather. Instead, most residents will likely recall it as the time when cheap energy died and the dizzying ascent of fuel prices put a hurt on their bank accounts.
Indeed, most people have paid dearly over the past several months to drive their car, heat their home, and play on the computer. The hurricanes that struck the Gulf Coast, the war in Iraq, and other events produced a shock to the energy pricing system that would have made a heart patient proud. Natural gas rates rose 17 percent, increasing a typical customer’s bill by $250; electricity rates rose 27 percent, costing an average user more than $18 extra a month; home heating oil was 30 percent more expensive in early February than at the same time the year before; and gasoline prices topped out at $3.19 a gallon on average in early September, vastly eclipsing the highest average per gallon price of $2.07 a year before.
Although unsure what will happen in the future, experts generally believe that large price declines are unlikely, assuming the existing pricing system, which is predominantly tied to natural gas, remains in effect. Meanwhile, public leaders have sprung into action, concerned about how the high prices have affected, and will affect, their constituents — especially in an election year.
Republican Governor Don Carcieri appointed a first-ever chief energy adviser and is talking reform. Not to be outdone, the Democratic-dominated General Assembly promises major action in this session: The Senate has a four-bill package that addresses price, policy, and renewable energy, while the House promises its own energy package. The debate has brought together an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, businesses, and low-income advocacy groups whose ideas have coalesced into a shared platform. Ironically, soaring energy prices have built support for the kind of alternative energy sources that were once viewed as flaky, unproven, or too expensive.
The state is pledging to obtain 16 percent of its energy from renewable sources, up from about 2 percent now, by 2020. Policy leaders are looking at wind, waves, solar, and even technology to harness power from currents and tides to meet that goal. Cities are also getting in on the action. Providence has pledged to get 20 percent of its energy from green sources by 2010; the city is awaiting federal approval for a hydroelectric project at the Scituate Reservoir. “We’re going to have to be very imaginative,” says Michael McMahon, executive director of the state Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which is courting businesses interested in renewable technology.
Moderate winter weather offset price increases somewhat, but those on the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder suffered nonetheless, say low-income advocates. And they remain worried about next winter, since none of the legislation proposed so far would take effect until July 2007 at the earliest. “My feeling is, yes, we weathered this winter,” says the Reverend John Holt, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. “Have we weathered the storm? Not by a long shot.”