Everybody aboard the energy omnibus

House preparing comprehensive electricity bill

House officials are busy crafting an omnibus energy bill, setting the stage for one of the more interesting legislative debates on Beacon Hill in a long time.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo has been talking about an omnibus energy bill for some time, apparently on the theory that when you’re dealing with a lot of controversial yet related issues, the best approach is to throw them all together and start horse-trading.

The approach has advantages. From a policy perspective, it makes sense to tackle the state’s energy issues in a comprehensive rather than piecemeal fashion. Solving the state’s energy and climate issues is a lot like solving a puzzle. How do you make the pieces fit together to accomplish the desired outcome?

The all-together approach also has political appeal. Gov. Charlie Baker wants hydroelectricity from Canada. A key House leader wants offshore wind. The Senate by and large is a big fan of solar power. Could all three branches of government find common ground somewhere in the middle so they all get something out of the deal?

The downside of the all-together approach is the danger that a stalemate over one piece of the legislation could stall everything.

Rep. Thomas Golden Jr. of Lowell, the House chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, said he’s working on a comprehensive bill that should be ready in February. He declined to discuss details.

Rep. Patricia Haddad of Somerset, the House’s speaker pro tempore and the driver behind a special carve-out for offshore wind development, said she thinks an omnibus bill makes sense. “Looking at everything all together gets us to a better place,” she said. “I’m confident that something good is going to come out.”

The big question is what will be in the bill. Hydroelectric imports from Canada are likely to be included. So will the carve-out for offshore wind. New natural gas pipelines are a big issue for the state and region, but their approval is largely a federal matter. However, one issue that could pop up in the energy debate is whether to overrule the Baker administration’s push to have the state’s electricity customers foot the bill for new natural gas pipelines.

Solar is the big wild card. There is growing consensus that the financial incentives for solar development are too lavish and need to be adjusted downward, but the House and Senate are far apart on how big the adjustments need to be.

Just before the close of last year’s session, the House and Senate stalemated over the issue of net metering, which is the way solar developers are compensated for the electricity they feed into the grid. The current net metering price is 18 cents a kilowatt hour. The House wanted to cut it to 5 cents and the Senate countered with tiered rates for various types of projects, with prices ranging from 9 to 12 to 18 cents a kilowatt hour.

A conference committee consisting of members from the House and Senate was appointed to resolve the different net metering approaches of the two branches, but there has been little progress. Many think net metering and the whole issue of solar incentives may be tossed into the omnibus pot.

One source said it will be interesting to see if the House pushes for special incentives for offshore wind at a time when it is trying to cut incentives for solar. Both renewable energy technologies hold the promise of developing new industries of the future, but both require, at least for now, heavy ratepayer incentives to work financially.

George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said he has heard an omnibus energy bill is coming but he has no idea what will be in it. He hopes solar is included because he didn’t like either the House or Senate versions of net metering legislation that appeared at the end of the last year’s session.

Bachrach, an environmental advocate, said he has no problem with offering incentives for both solar and offshore wind. Indeed, he finds it ironic that so many Beacon Hill lawmakers are concerned about the high cost of the two forms of renewable energy yet have no qualms about spending as much as $150 million to lure General Electric’s headquarters and 800 jobs to Boston. He notes the solar industry already employs nearly 15,000 people in Massachusetts and the offshore wind industry could employ thousands as well.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“We are protecting the jobs of the past and not the future,” he said.

  • NortheasternEE

    State mandates for wind and solar are distorting the wholesale market for electricity. The forced integration of wind and solar power on the grid is forcing the early retirement of coal and nuclear. Each megawatt of intermittent and variable power from wind and solar needs a firming megawatt of flexible natural gas. Hence the mandates instead of replacing dirty fossil fuel coal with wind and solar, in reality it is also replacing clean nuclear power with dirty natural gas.
    When all is said and done, rates are skyrocketing, and carbon emissions are continuing. The energy bills that come from Beacon Hill do not serve the public. Skyrocketing rates to pay for ineffective wind and solar power hurt the economy and the poor.

    • Bill Sullivan

      who is going to foot the bill for overseeing the safety of the spent fuel rods that remain radioactive for the next 25,000 years

    • Jan Galkowski

      Actually, @NortheasternEE (good to see you again, with your standard utility-defending tripe in hand!), most of the “natural gas” (actually, EXPLOSIVE METHANE) plants sit completely idle most of the time, just in case they are needed for that last 1% out of 100% contingencies. AND their owners and builders get handsomely rewards for providing this “essential service”.

      I do agree, however, that the “energy bills that come from Beacon Hill do not serve the public”. They do not understand the goals, or the market, or the competition for clean energy provided by adjoining states. A major high technology business I’m familiar with lost the bid for two contracts BECAUSE Massachusetts could not provide 100% zero Carbon sources of energy to power them. That trend will continue into the future and, if not addressed, will result in the exit of high tech business to states which are capable of supplying such power.

      Rates are NOT “skyrocketing”, unless one burdens taxpayers with paying for the building of pipelines, a cost which any free market person would say should be borne by the investors seeking them. Relatively wealthy people will do fine, whether or not the Commonwealth subsidizes their local energy or not. Who will be hurt will be apartment dwellers and condo owners and low income residents who, given the proposals on Beacon Hill, will be shut out of the economies that the zero Carbon energy revolution will provide, tieing them to dirty, expensive, and price-volatile fossil fuels. The people who are early adopters, because they can afford to be, will ride the efficiencies of zero Carbon energies to the point where they are independent of the utility companies and the grid. The difference Beacon Hill will make is whether or not they will cooperate and help Massachusetts become zero Carbon in its energy sources, or hoard their electrons onto themselves, with battery storage in a few years, and local grids. Why would not they do that if they are charged a minimum monthly fee?

      Energy utilities are Stalinist cooperatives which exist solely because the government says they can. Anyone with any kind of conservative heart should work for and wish for their dismantling.

      • NortheasternEE

        The cost of building unnecessary pipelines and transmission lines, no matter how financed, will increase rates. After the premature closure of coal and nuclear, they will have monopolistic power to price their service.

        As for skyrocketing rates, I rely on “expert” predictions:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HlTxGHn4sH4

    • Jan Galkowski

      Oh, and recall, that if ANYONE is serious about addressing climate disruption, the goal is achieving ZERO EMISSIONS, not FEWER emissions, which is what these proposals suggest. There’s a Carbon budget. It’s about CUMULATIVE EMISSIONS, not emissions rate. Anything that stops short of that reality is not doing anything to further the goal.

      Note that this plan, of having a transition fuel like methane, would have been a fine plan for 1990. But it’s now 2015, and a lot of Carbon has been emitted since 1990, and we can no longer afford these methane emissions if the +2 degree Celsius target is to be taken seriously, in any way. On the present course, we are either heading for +4 degree Celsius, or for paying trillions and trillions of dollars, on a recurring basis, for Carbon capture and storage technology that will need to be kept up for centuries, and we don’t even know will work. Now *that’s* a future that’s worth looking forward to!

  • Mhmjjj2012

    Actually, there are a least two issues on Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline that could be part of the legislature’s energy debate. Besides Governor Baker’s effort to have Massachusetts electricity customers pay for the KM pipeline there’s also the issue of the pipeline crossing Article 97 conservation land. That’s open space land protected by Article 97 of the Articles of Amendment to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. State Rep. Garrett J. Bradley, D-Hingham is the sole sponsor of H.3690, the bill giving permission for Kinder Morgan to lay its pipeline across Article 97 land. The bill was authored by Kinder Morgan but the company couldn’t find one state legislator in the districts the pipeline would cross to sponsor the bill so Rep. Bradley stepped up. Rep. Bradley is on House Speaker DeLeo’s leadership team. Since its introduction on 7/13/2015 it’s been on a fast track. It has an “Emergency Preamble” and ten days later rules were suspended to move it through the legislative process. While a one month notice was given for its 11/10/2015 public hearing, State Rep. Bradley was a no show. He sponsored it but wouldn’t speak on it. Rep. Bradley also refuses to speak to the property owners and taxpayers in the western part of the state fighting the pipeline. The approval of two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature may seem like a big hurdle for Kinder Morgan to overcome but in reality there’s been so little coverage on what’s going on in the state legislature that approval could happen by putting it in some big energy legislation. It will be interesting to see how far Rep. Bradley’s bill will get this legislative session.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    By the way, according to the Boston Herald that $150 million Massachusetts used to lure GE’s headquarters to the state includes $25 million in tax relief from the City of Boston. The same City of Boston whose schools are facing a $50 million shortfall. Which City departments will absorb that $25 million cut? Strictly the schools?

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