Ingredients for climate success

Ingredients for climate success

We have the technology to meet our emissions goals

MASSACHUSETTS HAS A STRONG RECORD addressing climate-changing pollution. In the early 2000s, Massachusetts was a founding partner in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a multi-state, bipartisan cooperative that has contributed to a 50 percent drop in power plant emissions.  Passage of the Green Communities Act in 2008 led to nation-leading energy efficiency policies that reduce energy waste and save consumers billions of dollars. Last year, the Baker administration and the Legislature collaborated on landmark legislation to launch the US offshore wind industry, enable further growth of onshore wind and solar power, import Canadian hydroelectricity, and place the Commonwealth at the forefront of the booming energy storage industry.  Most recently, Gov. Charlie Baker committed Massachusetts to the United States Climate Alliance, a partnership of 13 states honoring the tenets of the Paris Agreement.

The Commonwealth must follow through on policies and commitments to achieve a 25 percent reduction in carbon pollution by 2020, which is legally mandated under the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA). The GWSA additionally requires an 80 percent reduction by 2050, which will require the replacement of virtually all fossil fuels with clean, renewable electricity to power and heat buildings, and to “fuel” electric vehicles.

Acadia Center’s recently-released EnergyVision 2030 describes the technology and policy benchmarks that Massachusetts and the broader region will need to achieve over the next 13 years to stay on track for deep emissions reductions. Massachusetts is already making progress toward most of these goals, aided by declining technology costs, changes in consumer preferences, and policy leadership.

Here’s what needs to happen next:

Set ambitious renewable energy targets – The Renewable Portfolio Standard determines the share of renewables in Massachusetts’ (and the region’s) energy mix, and should be doubled from the current 25 percent requirement by 2030 to 50 percent  or more.  Renewables displace carbon pollution from fossil fuel power plants and stabilize costs, and cleaner electricity provides greater emissions savings from electric vehicles and heat pumps (more below). 

Bulk up on clean energy — Large-scale, long-term contracts are needed to finance the up-front cost of developing clean energy projects and move energy to demand centers. Massachusetts is implementing separate procurements for 1) land-based renewables and hydroelectricity, and 2) offshore wind. Partnering with neighboring states to implement these procurements will achieve greater economies of scale, and, encouragingly, Rhode Island and Connecticut have taken steps to join the solicitation issued by Massachusetts utilities to develop the region’s world-class offshore wind resource. Additionally, Massachusetts should jump-start efforts to build a renewable-ready bulk transmission grid to unlock potential for onshore wind in northern Maine and New York, and to facilitate continued development of offshore wind as more states commit to harvesting the abundant energy resource and capturing a share of the economic development that will follow.

Set solar free – Caps on solar net metering (the rate compensation mechanism for solar energy sent back to the grid) are stifling deployment and should be removed. Legislation in 2016 made changes, including reducing solar incentive payments to account for lower technology costs and providing options for the Department of Public Utilities to establish payment mechanisms to support grid maintenance. Acadia Center takes issue with some of these changes, but regardless of policy details, lower incentives and assured payments for grid upkeep mean that net metering caps are no longer justified.

Put a price on pollution — Climate pollution imposes significant costs on society, and pricing pollution to reflect these costs will drive changes in market behavior while raising revenue to reinvest in complementary programs and/or rebate to consumers. By charging power plants for pollution permits, the successful RGGI program has helped clean up the air while raising billions of dollars for Massachusetts and other states to reinvest in energy efficiency programs. Building on this success, Massachusetts should continue leading regional partners to set ambitious targets for the program through 2030. Pollution pricing must also be expanded beyond the power sector. This can be achieved through innovative carbon pricing proposals that packed a Statehouse auditorium at a recent hearing. Regional progress on transportation emissions can simultaneously be achieved through the Transportation Climate Initiative, a multi-state collaborative to reduce transportation climate pollution through market-based policy and other means.

Get off gasoline — With current sources of electric generation, driving on electricity already reduces pollution, and as the share of renewable generation increases the climate benefits of electric vehicles increase in step. Massachusetts has committed to putting 300,000 EVs on the road by 2025. To achieve this target and accelerate uptake of EVs through 2030, the Commonwealth will need to ensure long term funding for consumer rebates, implement a robust public charging network, and enact discounted “off-peak” electricity rates, which will both reduce strain on the grid and lower fueling costs for EV drivers.

Electrify heating — Modern, efficient heat pumps—a form of efficient electric heating for residential and commercial buildings—are now capable of heating buildings during the coldest New England winters, providing a substitute for natural gas and oil. Heat pumps are also more efficient than traditional air conditioners, providing year-round savings. Heat pumps are offered within MassSave energy efficiency programs and through state grants, and the benefits of this mature clean technology should be extended to more customers through targeted low-income programs, contractor education, and through inclusion in the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard. Switching from oil to heat pumps does not require expensive and disruptive construction of natural gas mains, and by drawing ‘fuel’ from an increasingly clean grid, heat pumps produce significant GHG reductions.

Modernize the grid — Massachusetts needs a modern, flexible grid that can accommodate new consumer-based resources and can rely on clean local technologies over centralized power stations and traditional utility infrastructure. Utility financial incentives set by regulators should be structured to promote innovation, consumer empowerment, and reduction in overall energy system costs. Forward-looking utility proposals for electric vehicle charging infrastructure and energy storage should be encouraged within the context of broader efforts to modernize the grid. Massachusetts’ existing Grid Modernization proceeding has produced inadequate and inconsistent utility proposals. Legislation to promote local energy investment and infrastructure modernization would ensure consistent state-wide planning for a modern grid and level the playing field for clean, local energy resources.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Avoid unnecessary pipelines — Putting Massachusetts and the region on the EnergyVision 2030 track would reduce demand for natural gas heating and demand for electricity from natural gas power plants such that no additional pipeline capacity would be needed. By lessening the region’s dangerous overreliance on natural gas, the Commonwealth would reduce pollution and protect consumers from risks of cost overruns, price volatility, and stranded expenditures associated with subsidized natural gas pipelines.

We have the technologies, and we know the policies needed to achieve a sustainable, low-pollution energy system. 2030 will be here before we know it, so let’s get to work.

Peter Shattuck is Massachusetts director and Jamie Howland is director of the Climate and Energy Analysis Center at Acadia Center, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization committed to advancing the clean energy future. This opinion is also published on Acadia Center’s blog.