Senate climate bill goes granular, ups electric vehicle rebates

Allows some municipalities to ban fossil fuel infrastructure in new construction

SENATE LEADERSHIP unveiled a very prescriptive $250 million climate change bill on Thursday that would direct Gov. Charlie Baker and his successor to boost rebates for zero emission vehicles, allow a small group of municipalities to ban the use of fossil fuel infrastructure in new construction, and set aside $100 million for investments in clean energy infrastructure.

With the filing of the Senate legislation and the debate expected on the bill next week, the stage is set for Beacon Hill to do some serious horse-trading on climate change over the next few months as the legislative session winds down. Baker has proposed using $750 million in federal aid to fund a clean energy investment fund. House legislation would steer millions of dollars in tax credits and money raised from assessments on customer utility bills primarily to offshore wind development.

The Senate bill relies on state surplus funds and/or federal aid to capitalize trust funds from which money would be doled for clean energy infrastructure ($100 million), for bigger rebates for zero emission vehicles ($100 million), and for a statewide charging system for electric vehicles ($50 million).

Sen. Michael Rodrigues of Westport, the Senate’s top budget official, indicated the chamber’s funding approach is more reasonable than what the governor has proposed and would push money out the door more quickly than the House measure, which depends on annual assessments on customer utility bills. House officials take a longer-term approach in their bill, creating a funding stream for offshore wind similar to the funding stream the state provides for life sciences.

While the House and Senate bills appear to be far apart, in some ways they could meld together fairly easily if the Senate were to go along with more funding for offshore wind and the House accepted the many policy proposals contained in the Senate bill.

The Senate’s prescriptive approach suggests the legislative branch doesn’t trust government agencies under Baker or his successor to follow through appropriately on the state’s climate goals. “Unless we move quickly, we’re not going to meet the emissions that were required and the agencies we don’t think are taking the quickest approach that they should be taking,” said Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem of Newton, who chairs the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change.

Senate President Karen Spilka defended the bill’s granular approach. “We wanted the legislative intent to be clear,” she said at a press conference in the Senate Reading Room where 16 of the chamber’s 40 members were present.

Here are the major Senate proposals:

Electric vehicles — Electrifying the transportation sector is a high priority. The Senate bill sets aside $100 million for this effort, boosting rebates from $2,500 to $3,500 on electric vehicles costing less than $50,000 and making the rebates available at the point of sale rather than after the fact. Used vehicles would also become eligible for rebates, and customers who trade in an internal combustion vehicle when purchasing an electric vehicle would get an extra $1,000 rebate.

Sen. Michael Barrett of Lexington, the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy Committee, said if the Senate rebate levels are approved and federal rebates rise to expected levels a car buyer trading in his gas-fueled car could end up paying $27,500 for an electric vehicle with a sticker price of $40,000

The Senate bill would require the state Department of Public Utilities to set electrification and emission-reduction requirements for rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft. It would also bar the sale of vehicles running on fossil fuels by 2035 and require the MBTA to buy only electric buses by 2028 and make its entire bus fleet emission free by 2040.

To ease concerns about vehicle range, the Senate bill creates a $50 million fund to support the installation of electric vehicle charging infrastructure, requires new developments to allocate 10 percent of their parking spaces for electric vehicle charging, and mandates lower electricity rates for off-peak charging.

Clean energy investment fund — The $100 million pot of money would tilt toward offshore wind infrastructure in New Bedford, Somerset, and Salem, but briefing materials indicated more esoteric technologies, including nuclear fusion, would also be eligible.

Offshore wind — The Senate bill makes several key, nitty-gritty changes to offshore wind procurement. House leaders want to spur onshore economic development from the offshore wind industry by doing away with a price cap that requires each successive wind farm to sell its electricity at a lower price than the last one. The Senate proposal would exclude some economic development costs from the price cap calculation while requiring the total cost to rise by no more than 10 percent above the last procurement.

The Senate bill would also remove utilities from any role in selecting the winners of wind farm procurements and cut utility remuneration for administering wind farm contracts from 2.5 percent of the contract’s value to 1.5 percent.

All-electric buildings — The Baker administration is proposing building codes that would allow the continued use of fossil fuel infrastructure with offsetting energy saving initiatives. The Senate bill would allow 10 communities to launch a demonstration project to show whether a ban on all new fossil fuel infrastructure could work. Likely participants in the demonstration project would be Brookline, Arlington, Lexington, Lincoln, Concord, and Acton.

The future of gas — The Department of Public Utilities is currently investigating what the future of the state’s gas industry should look like, but the Senate bill indicates the chamber is wary of where that investigation will lead. The legislation would require the DPU to conduct a longer, more in-depth adjudicatory hearing and require the energy-saving initiative MassSave, which is paid for by utility ratepayers, to limit subsidies for fossil fuel equipment starting with the 2025-2027 plan.

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.

No biomass — The Senate bill would bar biomass facilities not currently operating from receiving state clean energy subsidies.

No competitive electricity suppliers — Attorney General Maura Healey has been trying for several years to convince lawmakers to adopt legislation barring companies from selling electricity directly to customers in Massachusetts, and the Senate bill would give her what she’s been asking for. Studies Healey has conducted indicate customers of these companies have paid far more than they would have if they had just purchased electricity procured for them by their local utility.