SOME ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS are skeptical of PPL Corp.’s commitment to Rhode Island renewable energy goals. The company, which now owns the state’s primary utility business, met with state leaders on Wednesday. Pictured from left to right are PPL CEO Vincent Sorgi, Gov. Daniel J. McKee and Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey. /PBN PHOTO/NANCY LAVIN

PROVIDENCE – Top executives with the Pennsylvania company that now owns Rhode Island’s primary utility company were welcomed with open arms by top state leaders earlier this week.

But not everyone is buying the newly named Rhode Island Energy’s plug as a locally owned, customer-focused company.

“We remain convinced that National Grid would be better than PPL Corp,” said Kai Salem, policy coordinator for Green Energy Consumers Alliance. The nonprofit advocacy group was among a host of environmental and consumer protection agencies that originally protested the sale of Rhode Island’s utility operations from National Grid to PPL amid fears that the transaction would increase consumer costs and jeopardize state carbon reduction mandates. 

Some of those concerns have been assuaged thanks to a settlement between the R.I. Office of the Attorney General and PPL Corp., which agreed to a $200 million commitment that includes ratepayer credits and sparing additional expenses from being passed on to customers, in addition to more rigorous reporting and review of the state’s Act on Climate Law.

But Salem still has her doubts about PPL, which doesn’t enjoy the mass purchasing power that comes from a wider regional presence the same way National Grid did. It also lacks experience in some of Rhode Island’s signature renewable programs, including energy efficiency and offshore wind.

“As PPL executives admitted in their testimony, Rhode Island puts a higher emphasis on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and Rhode Island has more experience in nation-leading energy efficiency programs,” said Hank Webster, Rhode Island director and staff attorney for Acadia Center, which also initially opposed the sale.

Vincent Sorgi, PPL’s CEO, said in a media briefing on May 25 that the state’s ambitious decarbonization goals were what attracted the company to Rhode Island in the first place. And while the company may not have experience in offshore wind, it’s earned national accreditation for its grid modernization efforts in Pennsylvania, which include connecting a host of renewable energy sources, said David Bonenberger, president of  Rhode Island Energy, the PPL subsidiary running the state utilities.

Applying that same grid modernization plan to Rhode Island is among Bonenberger’s first priorities, as well as advanced meter technology that will allow customers to review usage in real time and improve company responses to power outages. 

“We just want an opportunity to prove ourselves to Rhode Island,” he said.

Skeptics say they won’t be fully onboard until they see that proof through the actions that backup those words. And the devil is in the details, to be described in upcoming filings to state regulators who must approve the company’s program plans and budgets. 

“There are so many ways they can choose to use grid modernization that will impact how effective it is,” Salem said.

The settlement agreement also requires the company to submit a report outlining how it will meet the decarbonization goals under the state’s Act on Climate law. That document will also play a key role in proving their interest in the state’s climate emissions goals, Salem said.

“They could either do a good job or a bad job.” she said.

A “bad job,” in Salem’s eyes, would be continued expansion of the fossil fuel-reliant gas system. While PPL has agreed in the settlement not to oppose exploration of a “future of gas” proposal that could include alternative fuel sources, it hasn’t expressly said it will support it either.

“Every new fossil fuel connection they sign up as a customer will be a fire that burns through the period where we are supposed to be reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Webster. 

Conversely, a “good job,” according to Salem, would be one in which the company puts time and money into studying alternative fuel sources such as geothermal and electrification of the heating system. 

PPL has also stressed its local commitment, with Bonenberger moving to Warwick and plans to renovate an old National Grid building in Cumberland to use as a local control and customer call center.

Neither Salem nor Webster were swayed by this message. As Webster pointed out, PPL was a multi-national corporation until selling its United Kingdom power business to National Grid as part of the deal between the two companies.

But Meg Curran, senior attorney for Conservation Law Foundation in Rhode Island, thought those local ties might hold some weight among customers.

“National Grid was never interested in creating a local presence,” she said. “Customers that were concerned about issues had to talk to someone in some far away consumer service place. I think them coming into this state and agreeing to have a presence here shows a great attitude.”

The $3.8 billion sale of Rhode Island’s gas and electric operations, formerly known as Narragansett Electric Co., was finalized May 25. The company now known as Rhode Island Energy includes 743,000 Rhode Island gas and electric customers.

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. Contact her at Lavin@PBN.com.

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