Plugging In

Plugging In

Energy and the Environment

Offshore wind gets a green light

Offshore wind gets a green light

State, nation embark on new energy future

AFTER YEARS of federal delays, Vineyard Wind on Tuesday gained approval from the Biden administration to construct the nation’s first industrial-scale wind farm 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard.

The long-awaited regulatory decision sets the state and the nation on course for a very different energy future, one that relies on offshore wind to help power homes, businesses, and vehicles as they transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Vineyard Wind is the first of what is hoped will be many wind farms up and down the East Coast. Massachusetts wants three big wind farms up and running by 2030 generating as much as 3,200 megawatts of power. By 2050, the state is counting on 15,000 megawatts as it attempts to reach net-zero carbon emissions. The Biden administration is counting on 30,000 megawatts in total by 2030.

“It is a really historic day for offshore wind, not just in Massachusetts but across the United States,” said Kathleen Theoharides, the Baker administration’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, speaking at a press conference in the state’s cavernous wind turbine testing center in Charlestown. “This is the kind of stuff that dreams are made of.”

Lars Pedersen, the CEO of Vineyard Wind, a joint venture of Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Renewables, also tried to capture the potential of what lies ahead.

“This is not about a single project,” he said. “This is about an industry that is going to revitalize waterfronts up and down the eastern seaboard, create well-paying jobs, and bring clean, affordable energy to households while the states are transitioning from fossil and nuclear power plants to a green future.”

Nearly all of the equipment needed to build the Vineyard Wind wind farm will come from overseas, using the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal as a staging area. General Electric is supplying up to 62 of its giant Halides X turbines from a manufacturing facility in France. The blades on the Halides are 351 feet long (the equivalent of 1 ½ football fields) and capable of generating with one turn enough electricity to power a home for a day. The ships used to install the turbines will come from overseas, as will most of the platforms and other gear.

“Most of that equipment you can’t buy here,” said Pedersen. “There is no supply chain.”

Pedersen said Vineyard Wind will create 3,600 jobs over the life of the project, most of them in construction. Once Vineyard Wind receives a few final permits over the next two weeks, he said, the company will secure its financing and begin construction. Work is expected to finish inn 2023.

Vineyard Wind

The Baker administration, in the procurement process for the state’s first two wind farms, has focused primarily on paying a low price for the power. Other states have placed a greater emphasis on onshore investments by the wind farm developers that may lead to permanent jobs and a new industry.

The long-term expectation is that as the industry grows and matures it will become economical to manufacture more and more of the wind farm components here in the United States, near where they will be used. States are trying to position themselves to grab large chunks of that emerging industry.

After all the delays and study by the Trump administration, the final environmental analysis of the project did not differ greatly from what was submitted originally. The biggest difference is the number of turbines. By going with much larger turbines that were originally planned, Vineyard Wind was able to reduce its footprint from more than 100 turbines to 62.

The turbines will be oriented on an East-West orientation with one mile separating each turbine.

Fishing interests had pushed for a travel navigation lane through the middle of the wind farm, but the Biden administration rejected that approach because it would require more research and end up delaying the project. The regulatory decision said the delays were inconsistent with the Biden administration’s 2030 offshore wind goals as laid out in an executive order on climate change.

The Responsible Development Offshore Alliance, a broad coalition of fishing industry associations and companies, accused the Biden administration of running roughshod over the industry’s concerns.  The alliance accused the Biden administration of engaging in a “scattershot, partisan, and opaque approach that undermines every lesson we’ve learned throughout environmental history.”

Anne Hawkins, executive director of the alliance, said fishermen have repeatedly been met with silence as they have raised concerns during the environmental review process. “From this silence now emerges unilateral action and a clear indication that those in authority care more about multinational businesses and energy politics than our environment, domestic food sources, or US citizens,” she said.

Baker administration, Vineyard Wind schedule announcement

Baker administration, Vineyard Wind schedule announcement

Focus is 'future of offshore wind in Massachusetts'

THE BAKER ADMINISTRATION scheduled a press conference for Tuesday with top officials from Vineyard Wind “to discuss the future of offshore wind in Massachusetts,” prompting speculation that the offshore wind developer’s federal environmental impact statement has secured its final approval.

In a media advisory issued at 9:15 p.m. Monday, the Baker administration said a press conference with Lars Pedersen, the CEO of Vineyard Wind, is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon at the Wind Testing Technology Center in Charlestown.

No announcement was made on the website of the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Vineyard Wind acquired a lease area 14 miles southeast of Martha’s Vineyard in 2005 and won a contract from Massachusetts utilities to provide them with power in 2017. The company subsequently filed a construction and operations plan with the federal government in December 2017.

A year later the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management issued a draft environmental impact statement on the project, which was pulled back after the agency decided it couldn’t review the project in isolation from a host of other wind farm projects being proposed up and down the coast.

A supplemental environmental impact statement was issued in June 2020, but it was never finalized and Vineyard Wind ultimately withdrew its application on December 1 to explore use of a bigger wind turbine generator. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management terminated work on the environmental impact statement on December 16, a decision that was reversed by the Biden administration on February 3 after receiving word from Vineyard Wind that its proposal didn’t need tweaking. Just over a month later, on March 8, the Biden administration issued the final environmental impact statement and indicated final approval would be forthcoming soon.

State begins 3d procurement for offshore wind

State begins 3d procurement for offshore wind

RFP seeks bids for up to 1,600 megawatts

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

THE STATE’S ELECTRIC utilities and the Baker administration are back in the market for another offshore wind contract, this time seeking up to twice as much power as in previous rounds.

Under a request for proposals released Friday, bids are due by September 16, with plans to select the winning bid or bids December 17 and have contracts filed with the Department of Public Utilities by April 27, 2022.

The 140-page RFP seeks bids of “at least 400 MW and up to 1600 MW of Offshore Wind Energy Generation,” and says the evaluation team will consider proposals of at least 200 megawatts. It says there is no preferred bid size.

A 1,600 megawatt procurement would just about double the amount of energy that Massachusetts utilities have contracted for so far since a 2016 clean energy law kicked off the state’s foray into the offshore wind world. Two projects, Vineyard Wind I and Mayflower Wind, are under contract for roughly 1,600 megawatts combined.

State energy officials said last year that one larger solicitation, rather than two procurement rounds of 800 MW each, “would give developers maximum flexibility to use transmission infrastructure efficiently, thereby helping ensure the Commonwealth receives the best possible suite of bids that minimize the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of siting offshore wind structures in the ocean and on land and achieve many of the potential benefits of the independent transmission solicitation without the added costs and risks.”

Officials from the Department of Energy Resources, attorney general’s office and the electric distribution companies — Unitil, National Grid and Eversource – published a draft RFP in March, and the drafting team received comments from 23 stakeholders that the administration said prompted revisions strengthening criteria around environmental justice, diversity and inclusion.

For the first time, the administration said, the RFP will require bidders to submit diversity, equity and inclusion plans, including a workforce diversity plan and a supplier diversity program plan. The RFP also asks bidders to describe potential positive and negative impacts on environmental justice populations and host communities.

“This new solicitation will not only procure more affordable offshore wind energy for residents than ever before, but will also direct greater investment in economic development while requiring offshore wind developers to create comprehensive plans to ensure the Commonwealth’s environmental justice and minority communities share equitably in the benefits of this growing industry,” Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides said in a statement.

Theoharides described wind power as a “critical backbone” of clean energy efforts in Massachusetts. She said the new solicitation increases the emphasis on economic development in the scoring of contracts and aims to “build a workforce that’s representative of the people of the commonwealth.”

The solicitation says that the nominal levelized price of any proposal must be less than $77.76 per megawatt hour, in keeping with the DOER’s interpretation of an offshore wind price cap, put in place by the 2016 energy law, that restricts the price of power from new procurements to no higher than the price of the previous contract.

Between the 2016 law and a 2018 law, Massachusetts lawmakers authorized the procurement of a total of 3,200 MW of offshore wind power, a threshold that would be reached by a new 1,600 MW procurement. A climate bill Gov. Charlie Baker signed in March authorizes an additional 2,400 MW of offshore wind energy by 2027.

In dealing with climate change, don’t forget solar, storage

In dealing with climate change, don’t forget solar, storage

60,000 acres of ground-mounted solar seen needed

LAST MONTH, Gov. Charlie Baker signed landmark climate change legislation. Press coverage that focused on the sparring between the governor and the Legislature over the details obscured the bigger story, which is that both the Legislature and the Baker administration are aligned on the need for Massachusetts to set – and meet – a goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

In December, the Baker administration released its 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap. The plan is a rigorous analysis of how to reach net zero across all sectors of the Massachusetts economy. Its sister report, the Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2030, goes into further detail on the actions the Commonwealth needs to take over the next decade to stay on track.

The good news is that Massachusetts is already off to a good start: overall, even as the state’s population and teconomy have grown significantly, emissions have declined more than 20 percent below 1990 levels, driven by a 50 percent reduction in emissions from the electricity sector. But with lots of electricity sector emissions left to tackle, and little decarbonization progress so far in the transportation and building sectors, net zero remains a long way off.

That’s why we’re concerned that the 2030 Climate Plan charts a course that is harder and more uncertain than it needs to be. And, most importantly, given the urgency of the climate crisis, a course that is longer than it needs to be.

As a package, the legislation, the 2050 roadmap, and the 2030 plan signal a significant new phase in this administration’s battle against the climate crisis, and a very welcome one. Paired with the Biden administration’s aggressive leadership on climate, we now have powerful, aligned signals at the federal and state level. What’s odd, however, about this recent burst of state policy-making, is that it describes a slowing pace on the renewable resources that have been the most successful so far—proven technologies with mature markets that are viable today and ready to scale: solar generation and energy storage.

The 2050 roadmap shows an annual build rate of solar so small it’s barely visible on the chart between now and 2035, before ramping up to 1,300 megawatts per year from 2040 onward. Massachusetts added 571 megawatts of solar in 2017, our peak year, before retreating to 237 megawatts in 2019. Solar is already cheap and readily available; what are we waiting for?

Our best guess is that there are two main issues at play.

The first reason the administration’s plan may have put off solar deployment is the difficult question of where to put it. Even with the 2050 roadmap’s heavy reliance on offshore wind and imported hydropower from Canada, the plan estimates that we’ll need at least 60,000 acres of additional ground-mounted solar in Massachusetts, about 1 percent of the Commonwealth’s land.

As the 2050 roadmap also acknowledges, all forms of renewable generation and transmission face siting challenges (let’s not forget what happened recently to Eversource’s Northern Pass transmission project in New Hampshire or the Cape Wind project off of Cape Cod), but solar has run into more siting roadblocks because solar has been more broadly adopted so far in Massachusetts.

Second, the distributed solar projects that have made up the bulk of the solar buildout in Massachusetts so far have been facing increasingly difficult—and costly—challenges to interconnection with the distribution grid. As more and more distributed generation has been built, a system that was built to deliver power in one direction from a few large power plants to customers is being asked to accommodate an increasing number of small generators sending power in many directions—something the grid was never designed to handle. Here again, all forms of renewable energy, and all pathways to net zero, will change the way we use the grid, and it will take planning and investment in transmission and distribution infrastructure to make that transition go smoothly. The Department of Public Utilities  is actively pursuing changes to the way the power grid is planned and the way upgrade costs are shared, but in the short term grid interconnection is a major drag on decarbonization.

 These are real challenges and understandable reasons why Massachusetts might look to new ideas and new technologies. But new ideas and new technologies won’t solve these problems, just put them off. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, delaying dealing with roadblocks to decarbonization isn’t something we can afford to do. On the contrary, we need to figure out how to frontload decarbonization as much as possible, because the extent of the disastrous consequences we face from climate change are determined by the cumulative amount of excess greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, not the amount we are emitting at any point in time. It matters very little whether we emit new carbon dioxide on Jan. 1, 2050; what matters is the total amount we add to the already warming atmosphere between now and 2050.

Yet the climate plan still projects 4 million megatons of emissions from the electricity sector in 2030 because it relies on strategies that are still commercializing and under-invests in strategies that are already working. The plan assumes an enormous role for offshore wind and Canadian hydroelectric generation, which are surely essential to a decarbonized future. But because of long timelines and serious challenges on the horizon for those resources, we should not have all our eggs in those baskets.

We can and should confront the challenges of siting and interconnecting solar and energy storage head on. The 60,000-acre benchmark for ground-mounted solar provides a useful foundation for the constructive conversation that is needed. We can shift the conversation from where solar shouldn’t go to where it should, and then figure out how to fine-tune incentive programs or direct additional investment in the grid in order to facilitate solar development in the “right” locations. A bill introduced this session by Rep. Carolyn Dykema of Holliston would seek to do just that by establishing “solar opportunity zones” to minimize land use conflict and coordinate utility upgrades.

Interconnection issues must also be tackled head-on, even more urgently than land use. Better system planning is urgent because many of the grid investments—new substations, upgraded transmission lines—that are necessary for a decarbonized grid, no matter what mix of renewables is powering it, will take years to complete.

The Department of Public Utilities is developing a new protocol for grid planning and cost sharing, and if an interim update is implemented this year, we can avoid losing years of effort and millions of dollars of investment that have gone into the projects currently applying for interconnection. The Legislature also has a role to play, and took an important step in the climate bill by requiring that the DPU take climate change into account in its decision-making.

A bill filed by Rep. Thomas Golden of Lowell would build on that progress and overhaul the interconnection process by capping interconnection costs, setting incentives and penalties to ensure that utilities adhere to reasonable timelines for interconnection, and requiring utilities to proactively upgrade the grid to facilitate decarbonization. These are all necessary measures if we are to achieve our climate goals.

The Legislature and the Baker administration have set the Commonwealth’s sights high with the climate bill and the 2050 roadmap. We can’t afford to waste any time in getting down to business on decarbonization, which is why we shouldn’t slow our pace on solar and energy storage, two resources that are cost-effective and available now. Siting and interconnection aren’t trivial challenges, but they aren’t unique to solar, and they can and should be solved.

Jessica Robertson is director of policy and business development for New England and Dan Berwick is general manager of development at Borrego Solar in Lowell.

Throwing up roadblocks to Quebec hydroelectricity

Throwing up roadblocks to Quebec hydroelectricity

Ballot question, Seabrook upgrade pose threats to clean energy pipeline

OFFSHORE WIND appears to be slowly getting back on track, but Massachusetts’ other big bet on clean energy – hydroelectricity from Quebec – is far from a sure thing.

A proposed transmission line carrying the hydropower down into New England is facing two potential roadblocks — a ballot challenge in Maine this fall and a looming deadline for a needed equipment upgrade at the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant in New Hampshire.

Both would-be roadblocks can be traced back to NextEra, a Florida-based energy company that believes the transmission line will be bad for its business. The company has spent millions financing signature-gathering for the Maine ballot question and, as the owner of Seabrook, appears to be slow-walking the upgrade.

The situation illustrates the risks of the high-stakes approach Massachusetts has taken to reducing its carbon emissions. The state has bet big on offshore wind and Quebec hydroelectricity, but in each case has encountered obstacles that are beyond its ability to control. Offshore wind was delayed for two years by federal inaction on the part of the Trump administration, and the importation of Quebec hydroelectricity is facing hurdles created in large part by a company likely to be squeezed financially by the Bay State’s freelancing on clean energy procurements.

Kathleen Theoharides, Gov. Charlie Baker’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, is watching the situation nervously. The nearly $1 billion project to run an extension cord to Quebec is not only being financed by Massachusetts electric ratepayers, but it is also an integral part of the state’s bid to reach its greenhouse gas reduction goals, which became legally binding with passage of the climate change law in March.

“This project and the clean energy it will provide are very critical to reaching our 2030 goal and later the 2050 goal,” Theoharides said. She said the hydroelectricity that would flow over the transmission line would represent nearly a fifth of the state’s electricity load. In climate terms, the line is the equivalent of taking 413,000 cars off the road, all at the very reasonable cost of 5.9 cents per kilowatt hour, she said.

But bringing all that hydroelectricity into New England is likely to be very disruptive for the region’s existing electricity generators. For decades, regional wholesale electricity markets have functioned fairly smoothly, with generating plants competing to supply power at the lowest possible price. Electricity generated using natural gas slowly backed more expensive coal and oil plants out of the region, but renewable energy failed to make inroads into the market.

Massachusetts and other states, trying to reduce their carbon footprints, decided to procure clean energy on their own outside the wholesale market. Massachusetts has signed contracts with two offshore wind developers and another with Hydro-Quebec, which plans to deliver its power using a transmission line running from the Quebec border to Lewiston, Maine. The New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line is being built by Central Maine Power Co. and its corporate parent, Avangrid.

Once the transmission line starts operating, the expectation is that the imported electricity will displace power currently being supplied by the existing wholesale market, which will shrink in size and see price levels fall as supply outstrips demand.

NextEra is one of the nation’s leading energy companies. It owns Florida Power & Light Co. and is a major developer of wind and solar power projects. But it also owns the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire and an oil-fired power plant in Yarmouth, Maine, both of which could be hurt financially by imports of hydroelectricity from Canada.

NextEra has taken a number of steps to block or slow down the transmission line. It filed court challenges in Massachusetts and Maine, which were unsuccessful. The company has also spent millions bankrolling referendum campaigns to block the project; the first referendum effort was derailed on constitutional grounds in 2020 and a second is slated to go before voters in the fall if it survives legal challenges.

Another point of leverage fell in NextEra’s lap. Matthew Kakley, a spokesman for ISO New England, the operator of the New England power grid, said an analysis of the transmission line carrying hydroelectricity from Canada concluded a circuit braker at Seabrook Station would need to be upgraded to accommodate the influx of electricity.

Kakley said it’s not unusual for the addition of power in one part of the grid to require an upgrade in another part. Typically, the company bringing in the new power is required to pay for the upgrades. “It’s up to the two parties to figure it out,” Kakley said. “In this case, the situation has obviously turned litigious.”

Both companies declined comment, but in filings before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission it’s clear the two firms haven’t been able to agree on much. Avangrid accuses NextEra of slow-walking the upgrade to undermine the transmission project. NextEra says the upgrade is much more complicated and costly than Avangrid says.

Avangrid had hoped to have the upgrade completed this fall, but the prep time to meet that deadline has come and gone. The next best opportunity to do the work is the next time the nuclear power plant is shut down for regular maintenance in the spring of 2023, which is roughly the same time the transmission line is supposed to come online. Avangrid says the 2023 work at Seabrook can only be completed if planning starts now, which NextEra shows no signs of doing.

Looming over this food fight between two competitors is a broader policy issue – what would happen if the opening of the transmission line from Quebec knocks the Seabrook plant out of business? Nuclear is a very controversial form of energy production, but it is also one of the region’s major sources of carbon-free electricity.  Gaining hydroelectricity from Quebec but losing Seabrook would not help the region gain ground in meeting its greenhouse reduction targets.

Thorn Dickinson, president and CEO of New England Clean Energy Connect, said in an affidavit filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that NextEra executives reached out to him offering to “reduce NextEra’s opposition” to the transmission project if Avangrid would agree to buy roughly 28 percent of Seabrook’s power output for 15 years at an inflated price.

Dickinson wants no part of that sort of bargain. “If NextEra is allowed to continue to act unreasonably and in bad faith, the New England Clean Energy Connect project is unlikely to meet its targeted in-service date, which would be costly for Avangrid and New England Clean Energy Connect Transmission and bad for the environment, the state of Maine, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” he said in his affidavit.

The real work begins now on climate change

The real work begins now on climate change

Passing legislation was only a first step

THIS SPRING, as flowers and trees begin to bloom in New England, our clean energy industry is also ready to blossom after decades of delays and setbacks.

Last month Gov. Charlie Baker signed one of the strongest climate bills in the nation, committing to reduce emissions 50 percent by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Boston, Massachusetts’ largest city, launched a municipal energy program to expand access to renewable energy for residents, including low-income families, and is considering nation-leading regulations to address carbon emissions from our biggest source – large buildings. Worcester has committed to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.  Even smaller towns across the Commonwealth, like Arlington, Melrose, and Natick, are developing plans for net-zero emissions by 2050.

Our private sector is also stepping up with major hospitals such as Mass General Brigham and Boston Medical Center committing to “do no harm” by setting ambitious carbon neutrality goals.  Even resource-constrained nonprofits like Mass Audubon have been leading by example for years through purchasing green electricity, installing solar on-site, and implementing other initiatives that have cut their carbon emissions by 50 percent since 2003.

All of this adds up to Massachusetts committing to do our part to meet or exceed the goals of the historic Paris climate agreement, which President Biden rejoined earlier this year.

There is much to celebrate this spring, but as any farmer will tell you, spring is when the hard work really starts. And when it comes to tackling climate change, that has never been more true. Globally, pollution levels aren’t falling nearly fast enough to prevent the worst impacts of climate change – extreme storms, droughts, heatwaves, and rising sea levels to name a few. Years of inaction or worse under the previous administration have left us badly behind where we need to be.

That is why it is so important that the Biden administration is moving forward with permitting the Vineyard Wind project off of New England’s shores as a first step toward the goal of installing 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030. These new offshore wind farms will create huge amounts of affordable clean electricity and will be a powerful new tool to achieve our carbon goals. The benefits extend well beyond decarbonization. Developing offshore wind at scale will make our region healthier by replacing polluting power plants that contribute to heart and lung disease with the most cost-effective source of clean energy available in New England.  And ,as an added bonus, economic development will soar through new jobs, new businesses, and new investments to our region which will be brought in in an equitable manner thanks to the new legislation.

This is a tremendous opportunity to make a big positive change for our health, economy, and our environment at a critical time for all three. To take full advantage, it must be done right. That means developing the resource responsibly to protect our vital ocean ecosystems, investing in workforce development to ensure that the economic benefits extend to communities of color that are too often shut out from economic opportunity, and investing in the infrastructure to establish our region as the hub of this new industry.

It also means leveraging the power of private sector actors to drive the growth of offshore wind and the pace of decarbonization. While it is important that our utilities buy into offshore wind, as mandated by the state, we can and must go further. Many businesses and nonprofits in our state already go outside of their utility to source electricity to achieve their financial and environmental goals, and with the rise of municipal aggregations, such as Boston’s Community Choice Energy program, many communities are doing the same. Open access to low-cost offshore wind will help unleash the full power of our businesses, institutions, and communities to achieve our climate goals, and help ensure that everyone can contribute to, and benefit from, the clean energy revolution blooming off our coast.

Winston Vaughan is Massachusetts director of Health Care Without Harm and Heather Takle is CEO of Power Options.

Angry Somerset residents elect ally to select board

Angry Somerset residents elect ally to select board

With town’s future unclear, Smith claims 69-29 victory

SOMERSET VOTERS, angry about noisy and dirty businesses operating out of an industrial site that was supposed to be a staging ground for the state’s offshore wind industry, elected an ally to the Board of Selectmen on Monday.

Allen Smith racked up a huge victory, defeating David Berube by a margin of 69-29 percent. Smith’s election gives disgruntled neighbors of the Brayton Point Commerce Center – the former site of a massive coal-fired power plant – a second, solid supporter on the town’s three-member Board of Selectmen.

Now that the nasty election is over, the question is where the town goes from here. Somerset, a community of 18,000 people across the Taunton River from Fall River, is in tough shape. The coal-fired power plant, once the community’s largest taxpayer, is gone. Millions of dollars in stopgap aid from the state have stopped flowing. The offshore wind industry, thought to be the replacement for the power plant, is just emerging from a long regulatory hiatus. And residents, divided and angry, seem unable to reach consensus on what to do until wind farms actually start getting built.

Smith said he wants to help bridge the community divide. He said residents want to see a buildout of the Brayton Point Commerce Center, but not with businesses that spew noise and dust into the nearby community. He doesn’t have a plan yet for making that happen, but his first priorities are keeping open lines of communication and making the workings of town government more transparent.

Rep. Patricia Haddad, the local state rep, said a number of people have approached her about trying to bring the town’s factions together. She is giving that some thought, but she said state and federal officials could also play a key role in pumping funds into the community for infrastructure projects.

“One of the problems down there [at Brayton Point] is access, one road in and one road out,” she said. “What if we were able to build another way to access the property?”

Scrap metal is piled high at the Brayton Point Commerce Center, waiting for a ship to arrive to take it to Turkey. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

Jon Mitchell, the mayor of New Bedford, said earlier this week that there are only a handful of waterfront sites along the East Coast where the manufacturing of offshore wind components could take root. One of those sites, Mitchell said, is Brayton Point, where waterfront acreage is plentiful and it’s accompanied by an existing connection to the regional power grid.

But getting to that clean energy future won’t be easy. When the Trump administration put Vineyard Wind on hold in 2019, it left St. Louis-based Commercial Development Inc. in limbo. The company, which bills itself as North America’s leading brownfield developer, had purchased Brayton Point for $8 million and invested $20 million tearing down the old power plant’s cooling towers and cleaning the site up.

With the offshore wind industry on hold, Commercial Development found itself sitting on an empty piece of property with no revenue coming in. So the company scrambled to rent space to other types of businesses. Scrap metal was trucked in from the surrounding area and then shipped out to Turkey. Another tenant imported road salt, which was hauled to local towns during the winter.

Residents were not happy with the big trucks coming and going to the Brayton Point site via a two-lane road, and they bristled at the noise and dust coming from the scrap metal business.

Commercial Development largely ignored their complaints, so the residents began mobilizing politically. They convinced the Zoning Board of Appeals to reject Commercial Development’s bid to expand operations to include other commodities, a decision that Commercial Development is challenging in Land Court.

Last year, Lorne Lawless ran for the Board of Selectmen against Berube, who was perceived as sympathetic to Commercial Development. Lawless eked out a victory, but only with the help of voters in precinct five, the one closest to Brayton Point.

In this year’s election, Smith trounced Berube in every precinct, but especially in precinct five, where he garnered 78 percent of the vote.

“It just shows that people the town of Somerset are looking for a change,” Smith said. “People get frustrated when they don’t feel they’re being heard.”

Commercial Development had little to say. Steve Collins, executive vice president of Community Development, issued a statement saying “we look forward to working with the newly elected leaders of Somerset and building a great future for the town.”

New Bedford mayor calls offshore wind ‘generational opportunity’

New Bedford mayor calls offshore wind ‘generational opportunity’

But Mitchell worries about losing out in race for onshore investments

NEW BEDFORD MAYOR Jon Mitchell is of two minds about Vineyard Wind, which after lengthy regulatory delays seems poised to finally get underway.

The mayor is excited about the potential for offshore wind farms to transform New Bedford the way they have many older European port cities, but he also worries that Massachusetts may be missing the boat when it comes to capturing the true value of the industry.

 “Offshore wind is really a generational opportunity for a city like ours to leverage its competitive advantages in a way that brings in investment, creates jobs, and improves a city’s quality of life,” Mitchell said on The Codcast

 “We’re looking at roughly a $3 billion capital expenditure with this project,” he said. “That means a considerable amount of local procurement here in New Bedford from things as simple as hotel rooms and restaurant food to welders to any number of things. But it also means the more that the industry settles in here, the higher the likelihood that there will be investment in operating facilities and permanent enterprises. That really is, for us, the ultimate goal, to have an industry cluster here like we have with fishing.”

 Mitchell said New Bedford, with its fishing port, is well-positioned to support the offshore wind industry, but it is unlikely to snare manufacturing operations because the city’s waterfront is so densely packed already. Even so, New Bedford has been expanding beyond the state-built New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal to provide more space for offshore wind development. The mayor also said he hopes to tap federal infrastructure funds proposed by President Biden to modernize the city’s port facilities.  

 Vineyard Wind is likely to import most of the components for its wind farm from Europe, but Mitchell said eventually companies will start building a supply chain in the United States once the pipeline of projects reaches a critical mass. Mitchell said there are not many locations along the East Coast that can accommodate manufacturing operations on the water.

 “The most suitable sites for manufacturing in Massachusetts are along the Taunton River in Somerset and Fall River. The one that stands out the most is the old Brayton Point power plant site in Somerset,” he said. “That would be a good manufacturing site.”

 Yet Mitchell is worried that Massachusetts is lagging behind other states in pursuing offshore wind manufacturing operations.

 “My concern over time has been that Massachusetts has stood out among the eastern seaboard states that are procuring offshore wind contracts in its refusal to aggressively incentivize industry investment here,” he said. “The reality is that the likes of New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island – really every state down the eastern seaboard – has made it a point to say, look, if you’re going to do business with us you have to invest in our state. Massachusetts has not taken that tack and, frankly, I think it hurts New Bedford more than any other place in Massachusetts.”

 The mayor said offshore wind developers have pledged to modernize port facilities in many other states and New Jersey has secured a commitment to build foundations for wind turbines there. Vineyard Wind has pledged to use New Bedford as its main staging site, but he said most of the key players locally in offshore wind have their headquarters in Boston.

 “As much as offshore wind has always been about dealing with climate change, it has been for us an economic development initiative and so, in that light, it’s been a little bit frustrating that we’re only seeing private investment in Boston,” he said.

 Mitchell has pushed the need to incentivize offshore investment through the procurement process – basically taking a higher price for power in return for greater onshore investments. But that plea has largely fallen on deaf ears, as both the Baker administration and the state’s utilities, which handle the procurements, have prioritized lower power prices over onshore investments. “That process has not yielded to my mind public interest outcomes,” Mitchell said.

 The mayor is also the rare public official concerned about shrinking coverage of local news. He has raised the issue a lot over the last several years, as the New Bedford Standard-Times has shrunk, and urged local community leaders to focus on the problem. That effort has led to New Bedford Light, a nonprofit digital news operation that is expected to launch soon.

 Mitchell said the city explored ways to help fund local journalism, including a Community Preservation Act-type of assessment on property transactions, but ultimately decided the best approach was news supported through philanthropy, primarily from the business community.

 The mayor said many people wonder why an elected official would invite more public scrutiny, but he says it’s necessary if the city is to move forward. 

 “The reality is no city can function properly in the absence of a trusted and functioning media source,” he said. “Trusted news sources are responsible for telling the narrative of a place. In order for people to come together and tackle what’s in front of them collectively, they need to have a sense of identity that can only be facilitated in my mind by having some entity that is a trusted arbiter of the truth. Many cities around the country are losing that.”

Municipal Light Plant elections loom large

Municipal Light Plant elections loom large

‘Local utilities’ oversee 14% of state energy mix

WHEN GOV. CHARLIE BAKER signed the Next Generation Roadmap bill, Massachusetts became legally required to reduce its emissions 50 percent by 2030, and be net-zero by 2050. The backbone of achieving those mandates is electrifying our transportation and building systems and powering these systems with clean electricity. But 14 percent of our state’s energy mix is under the control not of the state or utilities, but local Municipal Light Plant boards (MLPs). Never heard of an MLP board? You’re not alone.

 In 41 communities across Massachusetts, these little-known governance bodies have significant mandates. They are responsible for choosing their town’s sources of energy, supplying customers with power, setting electric rates, and implementing energy efficiency programs (the state’s Mass Save program is not available in MLP towns). Comprised of just three to five members, even one effective climate leader can have profound impacts on our state’s ability to combat the climate crisis.

 Typically, the local elections for these boards are held on various dates throughout the spring, resulting in some of the lowest voter turnout of any elections in Massachusetts. In other words, a small group of voters chooses an even smaller group of board members who make big decisions about whether their town – and our state – is successful in its efforts to combat climate change. And these MLPs are lagging behind the rest of the Commonwealth in integrating clean energy. According to the MA Climate Action Network, not one MLP was meeting the Renewable Portfolio Standard as of 2017. With the signing of the Roadmap bill, all MLP towns must now comply with the state emission reduction mandates and implement climate mitigation measures.    

 It’s time for these municipalities to take action, and thankfully, committed local residents from across Massachusetts are stepping up to lead. Lisa Wolf, a teacher from Marblehead was elected to her town’s MLP last year, and was instrumental in getting the board to commit to net-zero emissions. A new member of the Hull Municipal Light Plant, small business owner Jacob Vaillancourt, recognized the vulnerability of his coastal town to climate change and worked with his board to increase the resiliency of their energy supply. This year, the Environmental League of MA Action Fund endorsed seven candidates who are running for their MLP Board to bring meaningful changes like these to their towns.

Poll after poll has shown that voters across Massachusetts want their elected officials to implement climate policies that match the urgency and scope of the climate crisis. The barriers to progress are a simple lack of awareness that these boards matter — and that they are on the ballot this spring. Too often, voters do not understand the role that MLP boards can play in reducing emissions and protecting our environment.   Many of these elections see 12-15 percent turnout. Increasing turnout this year could have major impacts on each MLP community and the state overall. Recent legislation has allowed for mail-in ballots through June 30 for all elections. The ELM Action Fund is supporting get-out-the-vote campaigns in MLP communities to inform voters why this election matters and how to participate. 

 A record number of voters showed up last November to send a message that we need elected officials at all levels that invest in clean energy, fight climate change, and support a green and just economy. While these elections have less fanfare, they could be just as consequential in our state’s fight against climate change. From Middleborough to Hingham to Princeton, get out and vote.

Clare Kelly is the executive director of the Environmental League of Massachusetts Action Fund.

Baker pulls plug on Springfield biomass power plant

Baker pulls plug on Springfield biomass power plant

DEP cites construction delay, health and environmental impacts

THE BAKER ADMINISTRATION pulled the plug on a controversial biomass power plant in Springfield on Friday amid growing pushback from opponents who viewed the burning of wood to produce electricity as a threat to public health and the environment.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection sent a letter to Palmer Renewable Energy telling the company it was revoking its 2012 air plan approval for the 35-megawatt power plant because construction had not commenced within two years of the granting of the permit. The letter also cited “more recent health-related information and the heightened focus on environmental and health impacts on environment justice populations from sources of pollution during the intervening years.”

There was no explanation in the letter, signed by Michael Gorski, regional director of DEP’s western regional office, for why the agency waited roughly seven years after the two-year deadline was up before revoking the permit.

There also was no mention in the letter that Palmer Renewable Energy had been waiting for final approval of new regulations developed by the Baker administration that would have made the biomass plant eligible for renewable energy subsidies from utility ratepayers. It’s unclear whether those regulations, which were considered key to the financial viability of the project, are now being scrapped.

A source in the Baker administration said the plant was no longer compatible with the governor’s current focus on climate change, symbolized by his signing of climate change legislation recently.

Palmer Renewable Energy can challenge the DEP’s decision, but Kathleen Theoharides, the governor’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, issued a statement suggesting the company would face a very high bar.

“As part of the Baker-Polito administration’s commitment to environmental justice and air quality, in any new permit process MassDEP would require Palmer Renewable Energy to demonstrate the proper air controls are in place, and consider air quality impacts on the surrounding environmental justice community,” Theoharides said.

Sen. Eric Lesser of Longmeadow issued a statement saying the administration’s decision was long overdue. “The plant should never have been considered for that location in the first place,” he said. “The idea of citing a biomass facility in the asthma capital of the United States lacked common sense or regard for equity, and I am relieved that MassDEP issued its decision to revoke the permit. This is a major victory for our region and everyone who has stood against this project.”

Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren issued a joint statement hailing the decision, calling it “a victory for Springfield residents, the health of our communities, and our fight for a livable planet.”

Laura Haight, US policy director at the Partnership for Policy Integrity, said it’s unlikely the plant will ever resurface. “While Palmer can appeal the MassDEP’s decision, and can also reapply for both the operating permit and the building permit, they are not likely to prevail, in part because of zoning changes at the local level, and the new environmental justice provisions included in the climate bill that Governor Baker signed last week,” she said in an email. “MassDEP’s decision to revoke the permit makes the likelihood of the Palmer biomass plant being built in Springfield vanishingly small.”

Vic Gatto, the chief operating officer of Palmer Renewable Energy, could not be reached for comment. In an op-ed in CommonWealth on February 27, he argued that his plant was very different from other biomass plants because it relied on wood that had been cut down for other reasons and would have rotted on the ground if it wasn’t burned. He said science was on his side.

“We are hopeful those who have been so vocally opposed to our project will take the time to read and understand the facts and science and come to the same conclusion as every regulatory and judicial body that has reviewed our project: namely that this waste wood biomass facility will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, lower carbon emissions using local resources, and do so in a way that does not pose a threat to public health.”

In a rebuttal op-ed, Mary Booth of the Partnership for Policy Integrity questioned the accuracy of all of Gatto’s arguments. She said the proposed biomass power plant would burn a ton of green wood chips every minute, requiring a smokestack more than 20 stories high to disperse fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic chemicals, and heavy metals such as mercury and lead.

“To demonstrate real climate leadership, the Commonwealth should stop subsidizing wood-burning entirely and focus on truly clean energy solutions.” Booth wrote.