Coakley skips solar debate

Coakley skips solar debate

The Democratic candidates for governor all support renewable energy, but the real issue is at what cost

The Boston Globe reported earlier this week that Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to expand solar power development in Massachusetts will drive up the cost of electricity, adding about $1 to $1.50 to the typical customer’s monthly bill. The story made the front page, but it’s not exactly news. (CommonWealth reported the cost estimates back in October.)

The real news is that the governor’s proposal is actually an attempt to rein in the cost of solar subsidies. Over the last few years, the Patrick administration lavished subsidies on solar power to help get the industry launched. Now the administration is walking a tightrope, trying to scale those subsidies back a bit while keeping the industry growing. The struggle over solar mirrors a wider political debate: Everyone wants the environmental benefits of renewable energy, but at what cost?

In comments filed on the administration’s proposal, the solar industry was generally supportive, while the region’s major utilities said the initiative remains way too costly and oversells the expected benefits. One voice missing from the debate was that of Attorney General Martha Coakley, who represents the state’s electricity consumers in utility proceedings. She filed no comments on the administration’s final solar proposal, even though she questioned some aspects of it in the early stages of the proposal’s development. Her office declined comment on the absence of a filing.

Charlie Baker, a Republican candidate for governor, said Coakley’s failure to file comments on the solar proposal was a missed opportunity. “Growing Massachusetts’ green energy sector and increasing renewable consumption are worthy policy goals, but we have to pay attention to the impact on our ratepayers,” he said in a statement. “High energy costs are a huge driver of why it costs so much to live and to operate a business here. It seems pretty clear the consumers have been left out of the current equation.”

Coakley, a Democrat who is considered the early frontrunner in the race for governor, took flak from the environmental community in 2011 when she raised concerns about the cost of compliance with the renewable energy initiatives envisioned in the Green Communities Act. She also raised eyebrows in 2012 when she didn’t sign on to or vocally support a Patrick administration deal that required NStar to buy a chunk of Cape Wind’s power output in return for the needed state approvals for a merger with Northeast Utilities.

But lately on the campaign trail Coakley has been talking a green streak. At an event at Suffolk University on Tuesday, she hailed the Green Communities Act and singled out the solar industry for special praise. When someone in the audience asked if she would oppose the construction of any new fossil fuel power plant, she demurred, saying “we need energy.” But she assured the questioner that the message was being heard. “We need to continue to reduce our use of carbon,” she said. At an event featuring the five Democratic candidates for governor on Thursday, Coakley was asked the same question and responded the same way, adding that introducing more competition to the energy market would lead to innovation which in turn would lead to lower costs and less use of fossil fuels.

Joseph Avellone, one of the other Democrats running for governor, said at the Thursday event that he supported a tax on carbon as a way to discourage the use of fossil fuels and give a lift to renewables. He said revenue raised from the tax would be used to reduce dollar-for-dollar personal and corporate income taxes.

The Patrick administration’s solar proposal calls for installing 1,600 megawatts of solar power by 2020, more than four times the existing level. Mark Sylvia, the commissioner of the Department of Energy Resources, estimates the solar subsidies needed to reach that target will cost between $1.5 billion and nearly $2 billion. But he estimates those subsidies will be more than offset by savings gained by avoiding the construction of new power plants and transmission lines. Overall, Sylvia says, the solar initiative will result in savings of $138 million to $571 million.

Dwayne Bregor, the director of renewable and alternative energy development at the state energy department, said one major goal of the new initiative is to steer more subsidies to smaller residential solar projects and fewer subsidies to large-scale projects that generally need less financial support. The other major goal of the initiative is to reduce the cost of subsidies overall for electricity ratepayers by ratcheting downward year by year the cost of the solar price supports.

Northeast Utilities, in its comments on the solar initiative, said the Patrick administration’s framework doesn’t introduce enough competition into the process, resulting in costs that are two to three times higher than what ratepayers in Connecticut are paying for solar generation. Jeffrey Waltman, the manager of planning and power supply for Northeast, estimated the state could save a minimum of $800 million by patterning its initiative after the one in Connecticut. Massachusetts regulators say they intend to launch a pilot project to see if such savings are possible.

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.

Waltman also said the state’s projected savings from not building new power plants and transmission lines is way overstated, suggesting the program, as currently drawn, won’t be cost effective. Northeast urged state regulators to scrap the initiative and start over.

Solar industry officials, by contrast, generally praised the administration’s initiative, although many disagreed with the dramatic shift toward smaller, residential projects. Many industry officials said they favored larger projects because they were more cost efficient and generated far more clean power.