Decisive action needed on Northern Pass

Baker administration must step up and play bigger role

FRIDAY’S NEWS OF a stalemate among the Commonwealth’s utilities about what to do next regarding the denial of a crucial siting permit for Northern Pass highlights the shortcomings of the state’s procurement process and emphasis on the role of the utilities as key decision-makers in the selection of a winning bid.  As Attorney General Maura Healey argued in a letter last week, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) and the independent evaluator must play a more active role in the selection process to ensure that the resulting procurement is fair, transparent, and the best deal for the Commonwealth.

A lot is at stake for Massachusetts. With recent setbacks like the approval of new charges to solar customers and a double-digit percentage decline in solar jobs in the last year, the Commonwealth risks losing its national and global leadership position in the transition to a clean energy future. In 2016, Gov. Baker and the Legislature made great strides towards continuing that leadership with the Energy Diversity Act, a bold initiative to deliver on the vision of using a competitive process to deliver the largest amount of affordable clean energy resources the Commonwealth has ever procured, potentially transforming our energy mix for the better.

As the Energy Diversity Act intended, the procurement produced 46 proposals—a diverse and competitive menu of energy options including onshore and offshore wind, solar, storage, hydro, and biomass—to be connected into the electricity system through a variety of transmission proposals. The procurement selection committee’s choice of a single source of energy and single project—from one of the state’s largest utilities—raised strong concerns about the appearance of self-dealing as two of the Commonwealth’s electric utilities—Eversource and National Grid—were allowed to be on both sides of the selection process as project proponents and members of the selection committee. The almost immediate denial of a crucial New Hampshire siting permit further highlighted these issues and raised questions about the transparency of the selection criteria and independent oversight of a process that had utilities on both sides of the table.

The Energy Diversity Act made clear that the selection process needed to consider the economics, diversity, and reliability of the energy resources, as well as their environmental impacts and local benefits, in addition to a project’s ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to meet Global Warming Solutions Act requirements.  The law also intended for the competitive solicitation to result in strong consideration of competitive proposals to meet the Commonwealth’s annual renewable energy growth goals, including both energy sources such as wind and solar that qualify under the Renewable Portfolio Standard, and large hydropower —the “combo platter” that Gov. Baker often proclaimed as his goal.

The initial selection of a single hydro project with no wind or solar included is another reason that this selection needs to be reconsidered. DOER and the independent evaluator are the only entities who can right this ship and reassess the selection of the most valuable projects that meet the goals of this important clean energy procurement.

Fortunately, the Commonwealth has in hand a very strong portfolio of diverse proposals, but the Baker administration must step in quickly and oversee a resolution that reconsiders the substantial work invested in 46 proposals and reselects the strongest proposals for contracting. This next step should emphasize transparency about the selection criteria – including project timelines, viability, and contribution to meeting renewable energy targets – and the evaluation process.

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DOER should take the lead in selecting one or a combination of other projects that can be permitted and constructed in a timely fashion to take advantage of robust competition to meet its renewable, clean energy and environmental policy goals and ensure that developers with viable proposals to advance the Commonwealth’s clean energy goals and customers maintain faith in a fair and competitive process.  Fortunately, there are numerous options in the remaining 45 bids to enable this groundbreaking clean energy generation procurement to be successful.

Peter Rothstein is president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council.