Energy bill a solid step forward

Still, it could have been better

IF YOU’RE DISGUSTED BY POLITICS in this country, take heart.  This is Massachusetts.  The state’s clean energy bill, passed in the wee hours of July 31, is an important step forward for the Commonwealth.

The bill requires the state’s utilities to enter into long-term contracts for the purchase of 1,200 megawatts of primarily hydroelectricity and onshore wind—renewable resources that the Commonwealth already uses.  Even more significantly, the legislation requires the state’s electric utilities to purchase 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind.  A well-respected study had argued that a requirement of 2,000 megawatts (which is what the Senate’s version of the bill would have required) would be enough to jump-start an industry.  But the 1,600-megawatt requirement likely gives Massachusetts a fair shot at grabbing the lead on offshore wind—and the jobs that go with it—from other northeast states.

Although there is currently no offshore wind generation in the United States, this is not pie in the sky.  At the end of 2015, Europe had 3,230 offshore wind turbines and a total of 84 wind farms, with prices falling as experience grows.  A five-turbine pilot project off Block Island is scheduled to start generating electricity late this year.

Three experienced companies with significant financial backing are eager to make southern New England the next big play in offshore wind.  The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has leased hundreds of thousands of acres off the Massachusetts and Rhode Island coasts to these developers.  The wind turbines closest to shore would be about 15 miles away, making them barely visible in good weather.  The closest turbines of Cape Wind, the project that is virtually synonymous with offshore wind in the United States and which stalled in the face of endless litigation funded by the bottomless pit of Koch dollars, would have been five miles from Cape Cod.

Here’s a simple way to think about clean energy, which makes clear why the requirements for hydropower and wind energy (together with solar power, addressed by legislation passed separately a while ago) are important.  We use energy mostly for three purposes: for electricity that keeps the lights on and powers our devices; for heating; and for transportation.For electricity, we use renewables along with other resources, while for heating and transportation we use almost exclusively fossil fuels.

Getting to a much cleaner energy system is actually simpler than you might have thought (politics aside).  First, use less energy for all these purposes by using it more efficiently.  Second, increase the amount of renewable energy used to generate electricity.  Third, replace fossil fuels used for heating and transportation with “green” electricity through the use of technologies such as heat pumps and electric vehicles.

Requiring utilities to purchase substantial amounts of renewable resources such as wind energy and hydropower addresses the crucial second point of generating “green” electricity.  It also enables a path to the third—replacing fossil fuels used for heating and transportation with electricity.

Moreover, increasing renewable power does much more than clean up our energy supply and generate jobs. By increasing renewables, the legislation begins to address the reliability concerns that arise from our growing and worrisome overdependence on natural gas for generating electricity.

All of that said, the bill could have been better.  The Senate version—many of whose provisions landed on the cutting-room floor—was a more sweeping and progressive piece of legislation.

In addition to requiring utilities to purchase 2,000 (as opposed to 1,600) megawatts of offshore wind power, the Senate bill would have required an energy audit at the time of the sale of a home, as well as implementation of an energy rating system for homes.  Would you ever consider buying a car with no idea of the number of miles per gallon it gets?  That’s comparable to how you currently buy a home when it comes to energy use.

The Senate also created a mechanism known as “community empowerment,” which would have enabled cities and towns, and not just distribution companies, to enter into long-term contracts for renewable resources.  The municipalities’ enthusiasm for becoming “green communities” under the state’s 2008 energy legislation suggests that many cities and towns would have welcomed this tool for “greening” their energy supply.

And, astonishingly, under current law no agency or other entity has the authority or mandate to conduct comprehensive energy planning for Massachusetts or the region.  This planning gap, which the Senate bill would have filled, has left the Legislature in the position of making difficult choices about energy policy regarding electricity, heating, and transportation without a comprehensive proposal from a trustworthy source.

Senate President Rosenberg is quoted in Commonwealth as saying, “Whatever we don’t get now we will fight for again later.”  As good as the energy bill is, the fight is worth having.  I would add to that fight a provision that emerged in neither the House or Senate versions: the imposition of a price on carbon emissions, to send the correct price signals to achieve the state’s policy objectives.

Meet the Author

Ann Berwick

Former chairman, Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities
Ann Berwick is a former undersecretary for energy and chair of the Department of Public Utilities.  She consults on energy issues.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    Another way the Energy Bill could have been better was by prohibiting the Department of Public Utilities from allowing tariffs on ratepayers bills to finance privately owned fracked gas pipelines. Because that wasn’t done by the state legislature, the pipeline’s owners will enjoy the profits while the ratepayers pick up any cost overruns and under utilized capacity. No one is holding state legislators accountable for not protecting ratepayers.

  • NortheasternEE

    Thanks to policymakers like Ann Berwick, the forced addition of wind and solar on the grid is increasing total capacity. while demand is flat or falling. Without storage, coal and nuclear are forced into early retirement to be replaced by natural gas.

    The transition to a clean energy future will double total capacity, leave the grid vulnerable to natural gas availability for firming wind and solar, and result in skyrocketing rates.

    Replacing coal and nuclear with natural gas avoids little to no carbon, and, if the development of mass energy storage fails to materialize, the transition will become permanent, leaving us with no solution to global warming, and a dysfunctional economy from skyrocketing rates.
    We need to get back to selecting power based on price, without interference from special interests on Beacon Hill.