Putting dollars behind decarbonization: FY24 budget marks $4.5M for interagency climate council

The R.I. Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council met Wednesday to discuss plans for its $4.5 million funding allotment in the state budget. From left are members Jeffrey Diehl, executive director and CEO of the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank; Pam Cotter, planning administrator for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation; Christopher Kearns, acting commissioner for the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources; and Terry Gray, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. / RHODE ISLAND CURRENT / NANCY LAVIN

Compared with the $14 billion bottom line of the state’s budget, $4.5 million doesn’t sound like much. 

But as the first dedicated funding to the state’s Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council, it’s a big deal — critical, in fact, to helping the consortium of state agencies to carry out the state’s ambitious decarbonization goals. 

“It’s huge,” Christopher Kearns, acting commissioner of the R.I. Office of Energy Resources and a member of the EC4, said in an interview Wednesday. “We haven’t had a funding mechanism for the last decade.” 

Indeed, the interagency council has gone without dedicated funding since it was established in 2014 as part of the Resilient Rhode Island Act. But its responsibilities have grown in number and importance, especially its role in helping the state plan for and meet the decarbonization goals laid out in the 2021 Act on Climate law. 

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Lack of funding hasn’t hampered work toward those goals, said Terry Gray, EC4 chairman and director of the R.I. Department of Environmental Management. The council last December published a 106-page plan – the culmination of a yearlong review including dozens of public input sessions and detailed analysis –  updating years-old state emissions data and defining in broad terms the main areas of focus for the Act on Climate. 

The funding will only further those efforts, Gray said. 

“This definitely creates a level of commitment and a different level of support,” he said.  

But first, the council needs to set up a plan for how to spend its newfound riches. 

In a meeting Wednesday, Gray tasked department directors on the council with drafting their respective priorities, with plans to review a budget proposal — including opportunity for public input — in the late summer.  

The spending plan also will require flexibility. The funding comes from the state’s gas cap-and-trade program, with a $3 million starting point plus up to $1.5 million more in Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative funds a year, depending on how much the state makes off the quarterly credit auctions to power plants and other companies. 

“There is a little bit of uncertainty on revenue so it’s going to be a little tricky in terms of spending and a budget to manage,” Gray said. 

Funding ensures continuation of popular electric vehicle, bike rebates 

One program the council isn’t waiting to fund: rebates for electric vehicles and bicycles. On Wednesday, the council unanimously authorized a $400,000 transfer from its new funding to OER for its Drive EV and Erika Niedowski Memorial Electric Bicycle Rebate programs. The funding serves as a short-term solution that ensures the rebate programs can continue at least through Sept. 30, when the council considers a longer-term spending plan.  

Since launching last year, both rebate programs have seen steadily rising demand from residents and businesses that buy electric vehicles and bicycles, which means there’s not much money left for new applicants. 

As of June 1, OER was down to $65,000 left through its Drive EV program – enough for about 25, $2,500 apiece rebates, according to Sara Canabarro, OER’s administrator of clean transportation programs. The agency has already doled out $1.4 million in rebates to 575 residents and businesses since launching the program last July, Canabarro said. 

Kearns chalked up the strong demand to federal incentives, specifically, the Inflation Reduction Act, which offers tax credits for drivers to buy new and used electric vehicles. That drove appeal for electric vehicles generally, and in turn, for Rhode Island’s program, which is separate from federal tax credits, Kearns said. 

Meanwhile, the state’s e-bike rebate program, which offers $400 to $1,000 per customer based on income, has awarded $282,000 across 349 rebates since launching in October. The remaining $68,000 balance is enough to give out 84 more rebates, according to Canabarro. 

Gray named funding for both electric rebate programs as a top priority for the council’s future spending plan. He also wants to use the money to improve outreach with business leaders and municipalities, two groups whose members’ buy-ins are critical to achieving state decarbonization mandates, but who might not fully understand or be on board with the requirements yet. 

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