Plugging In

Plugging In

Energy and the Environment

Jan. 13, 2018

Will developers block clean energy standards?

State must not allow builders off the hook

LATE IN THE last session, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a landmark climate bill targeting zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and mandating several mechanisms to achieve the goal. Gov. Baker vetoed the bill on the ground that it would make construction too expensive, echoing concerns raised by contractors and developers. The Legislature then passed the identical bill in late January and Baker has sent it back with amendments that will let developers off the hook on moving quickly to high-efficiency building standards. Although the language in the bill could use some clarification, these standards should be non-negotiable.   

The legislation would require the state to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This goal would be achieved by increasing energy-efficiency requirements in transportation, buildings, and appliances; and increased reliance on offshore wind and solar power. A key provision would allow cities and towns to adopt net zero codes—meaning that a building is very energy efficient and completelypowered by renewable energy produced either on- or off-site. But this aroused the opposition of real estate interests. Both NAIOP (the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties) Massachusetts and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, came out against the legislation. (On an array of issues, including rent control, the strategy of developers and landlords has been to use state law to block home rule.) 

The irony of the veto is that the climate bill builds on existing policies enacted under Baker, though it does add more teeth. The Commonwealth’s current three-year energy efficiency plan, governing measures from 2019-2021includes tax incentives and subsidies for developers for both market-rate and low-income housing to build to passive house standards.  

The Massachusetts Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2030, which is now open for public comment, will be adopted soon. It calls for the Department of Energy Resources to develop a high-performance stretch energy code in 2021 for submission to the Board of Building Review and Standards for cities and towns to adopt in 2022. 

Many state and city programs are supporting these policies. The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, the state economic development agency accelerating the growth of the clean energy sector, has subsidized several successful projects to acquaint developers with the techniques of highly efficient buildings. Currently, Mass Save offers certification and performance incentives to builders and developers of residential buildings of five or more units and offers 50 percent registration reimbursements for certification courses on construction techniques for achieving the passive house standard. Last year, the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development added bonus points into its scoring system for developers in its Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program if they build projects to passive house standard. Cambridge’s 2015 Net Zero Action Plan provides a 25-year roadmap to achieving a 70 percent reduction in emissions by 2040.  

The terminology of green buildings can be confusing for those not engaged in the policy. It all started with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). Although its various levels of certification prevail in many cities, it is not the standard to get us to net-zero carbon by 2050. For that, cities and states need to move to passive house, net zero emissions, or zero net energy (ZNE), which are complementary standards. Buildings meeting these standards produce significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions and save their owners money on utilities over time.  

The passive house standard can reduce the need for heating by up to 90 percent, while increasing construction costs by no more than 3 percent, on average. 

Net zero emission standards require buildings to offset any emissions they produce through carbon removal processes, such as investing in forest restoration projects or direct air capture and storage. A zero-net energy building produces enough renewable energy onsite or offsite to equal to the annual energy consumption of the building. These buildings can produce surplus renewable energy that feeds back to regional electrical grid.   

Massachusetts developers are finding all three standards cost efficient. In Fall River, the 50,600-square foot Bristol Community College John J. Sbrega Health and Science Building was constructed in 2016 to ZNE standards without impacting its $31.5 million construction budget. The Commonwealth’s largest net-zero emissions building is the 273,000 square foot complex of the King Open and Cambridge Street Upper School in Cambridge. The complex, comprising two school buildings, a library, and two outdoor swimming pools generates 60 percent of its energy onsite from solar and geothermal sources.   

These are not just one-off examples. Nationwide, all three standards are becoming more common. California required all new residential construction to be zero net energy (ZNE) by 2020 and all new commercial construction by 2030. The state also requires that half of all commercial buildings and major renovations of state buildings be retrofitted to ZNE by 2030. New York City placed carbon caps on new and existing buildings over 25,000 square feet, about 60 percent of the city’s building stock, and offers assistance to meet these benchmarks. The city offers industry professionals technical trainings for meeting standards like passive house and loan financing up to 100 percent of upfront costs for retrofitting commercial and residential buildings. New York state has at least 169 residential, commercial, and institutional passive house buildings, only 96 of which were new construction projects.   

Many states offer subsidies or incentives for achieving or getting close to these standards—particularly for low-income housing. Passive House Institute US, Inc. (PHIUS) lists roughly 16 states that offer incentives and subsidies for passive house development like the ones in Massachusetts mentioned above. The incentives vary in the extent to which they stimulate development, but that’s a matter of tinkering with policy.  

Gov. Baker should sign the bill as it stands rather than focusing on precise definitions of net-zero. An easy net-zero code has already been submitted to the Board of Building Review and Standards that does not require all buildings to meet the standard. It will have exceptions for labs and other types of high energy use buildings. The immediate need is to move the development and construction community quickly to much higher standards of building efficiency. The climate bill will do that.  

Joan Fitzgerald is professor of urban planning and policy at Northeastern University. Her latest book is Greenovation: Urban Leadership on Climate Change (Oxford University Press, 2020). Greg Coppola is a graduate student in environmental science and policy at Northeastern and part of the Energy Affordability and Equity Team at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.   

 

State environmental official resigns over climate comments

State environmental official resigns over climate comments

Ismay apologizes for ‘inability to communicate clearly’ in recent remarks

THE STATE’S UNDERSECRETARY of environmental affairs for climate change, who has come under fire for comments made to an environmental panel last month, resigned his post Wednesday night. 

David Ismay, in a letter dated Wednesday to Kathleen Theoharides, the secretary of energy and environmental affairs, wrote, “It is with great regret that I submit my resignation, effectively immediately.” 

Ismay became the focus of attacks from the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative advocacy group, which pointed to comments he made last month to the Vermont Climate Council in which he zeroed in on the need for Massachusetts residents to change their energy use practices in order to achieve significant reductions of carbon emissions in the state. 

In comments during a Zoom conversation with the Vermont state panel, Ismay said 60 percent of all carbon emissions in Massachusetts are tied to residential heating and passenger vehicles. To achieve the state’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050, he said, 3 million homes need to transition to clean energy and 5 million vehicles need to be replaced with zero emission cars.

“There is no bad guy left, at least in Massachusetts, to point the finger at, turn the screws on, and break their will so they stop emitting,” Ismay said, apparently referring to big industrial or commercial sources of emissions. It comes down to “you and me,” he said, to “the person across the street, the senior on fixed income.” 

“We have to break your will,” Ismay said, adding in the recorded conversation, “I can’t even say that publicly.”

Mass. Fiscal slammed Ismay’s comments and called for his ouster. The group’s spokesman, Paul Craney, said it was “frightening to think an official so high up in the Baker administration is bragging to an out-of-state group about the economic pain he wants to inflict on the very people who he’s supposed to work for.” 

Asked about the comments last week, Gov. Charlie Baker said, “no one who works in our administration should ever say or think anything like that, ever.” Baker denounced Ismay’s comments again this week, and brushed aside a suggestion that Ismay had merely stated, with poorly chosen words, the fact that environmental gains to combat climate change will involve tradeoffs and some costs that will be borne by residents.  

The Baker administration’s Transportation Climate Initiative, for example, will lead to increases in the retail price of gasoline. 

“The comment on that video last week did not speak for the administration in terms of tone, substance, style, or anything else,” Baker said on Wednesday. “No one speaks for me if they say this one is going to be the loser and this one is going to be the winner,” Baker said. “In six years, this administration year after year has worked extremely hard to find common ground and balance when we make decisions among competing interests. I get the fact that there’s always going to be competing interests when we get into any of these issues. But that’s the way we should make policy.”

This week, eight state representatives — seven Republicans and one Democrat — sent Baker a letter calling for Ismay’s dismissal

In his resignation letter to Theoharides, Ismay, a former attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, apologized for his remarks to the Vermont group and suggested they were misinterpreted.

“I would like to apologize, again, for my comments at last month’s Vermont Climate Council meeting,” he wrote. “My inability to clearly communicate during that discussion reflected poorly on the Governor, on you, and on our hardworking staff. Although my comments were interpreted by some as placing the burden of climate change on hardworking families and vulnerable populations, my intent was the opposite. In the entire[t]y of my remarks, and as I have elsewhere, I was urging caution in order to minimize such impacts out of a sincere concern that overly aggressive emissions targets may have unintended and harmful consequences on those we most need to protect.”

Mayflower Wind cutting its price 10%

Mayflower Wind cutting its price 10%

Offshore wind tax credit triggers reduction

MAYFLOWER WIND is cutting its price for delivering electricity to Massachusetts customers by roughly 10 percent with the help of a new federal tax credit included in the recent COVID-19 stimulus package.

Under the terms of its 20-year contract with the state’s three utilities, Mayflower agreed to an average price of 7.77 cents per kilowatt hour but also agreed to lower that price if the federal investment tax credit for offshore wind, which was being phased out, was retained and/or improved.

The recent stimulus package contains a host of new incentives for renewables, including a 30 percent investment tax credit for offshore wind projects that begin construction by December 31, 2025.

With the bigger tax credit, Mayflower is cutting its price to 7 cents a kilowatt hour, which will save ratepayers roughly $25 million a year. The Mayflower price is well below the 8.7 cents per kilowatt hour Vineyard Wind is charging the state’s utilities.

The announcement comes at a time when offshore wind development is stalled but big changes appear to be on the horizon. Both the Baker administration and the Legislature are calling for a major expansion of offshore wind development to deal with climate change. The upcoming change in administrations in Washington also is likely to alter the regulatory environment in favor of renewables.

Two projects for offshore wind farms off the Massachusetts coast have won contracts with state utilities, but federal permits have not been approved for either project. Mayflower expects its 804 megawatt offshore wind farm to be operational by the mid-2020s.

In its bid for a contract with Massachusetts utilities, Mayflower offered three options – a low price option, an option with a slightly higher price and more onshore development, or an option with an even higher price but onshore manufacturing of components. The Baker administration, much to the chagrin of South Coast officials who preferred more onshore investments, opted for the low-price option, which contained the provision to cut the price more if the investment tax credit was retained.

“We were mindful of what the administration wanted,” said Seth Kaplan, the director of government and regulatory affairs for Mayflower Wind,  referring to maximum carbon reduction at the lowest possible price.

Baker is wrong to subsidize wood burning

Baker is wrong to subsidize wood burning

4 scientists say using wood to generate electricity will worsen climate change

GOVS. CHARLIE BAKER of Massachusetts and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan were featured US officials at the fifth anniversary celebration of the Paris Climate Agreement. Their presence demonstrated that state leaders, from both political parties, are actively battling the climate emergency.

It is therefore baffling that the Baker administration just released new regulations that directly undermine the governor’sand Legislature’s goal to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The regulations allow wood-burning electric power plants that currently fail to meet Massachusetts’ environmental standards to receive subsidies from ratepayers. But burning wood to generate heat or electricity is unnecessary, will increase carbon emissions, and worsen climate change.

By removing trees from our forests, the proposed regulations also reduce the ability of our forests to remove carbon from the atmosphere. This undermines the governor’s net zero emissions plan that relies on our forests to soak up carbon emitted by any fossil fuels we still use in 2050.  As Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides has noted, “The conservation of the Commonwealth’s forests is critical to meet our ambitious target of net zero emissions by 2050.”

The Department of Energy Resources justifies weakening the existing standards by falsely arguing that burning wood instead of natural gas will reduce carbon emissions.  Wood burning releases more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than any fossil fuel – 75 percent more than natural gas. Therefore, generating heat or electricity with wood immediately increases greenhouse gas emissions more than fossil fuels, worsening climate change.

Eventually, regrowth might remove enough carbon to equal the additional carbon emitted when the wood is burned. But regrowth takes time. New England forests take upwards of a century or more for additional growth to capture enough carbon to breakeven with fossil fuels. Break-even times are far longer for wood bioenergy compared to wind and solar, even after counting  the emissions from making and installing the turbines and panels.

Trees harvested for bioenergy may not grow back. Forest land may be converted to other uses. Wildfire, insect damage, disease, and extreme weather may limit regrowth. Even if forests eventually remove the previously emitted carbon, the extra carbon in the atmosphere until removed accelerates global warming. Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets then melt faster, sea level rises higher, wildfires become more likely, and storms intensify more than if wood had not been burned. Eventual full forest recovery will not replace lost ice, lower sea level, undo climate disasters, or bring back homes lost to floods or wildfires.

Net zero is insufficient. To achieve a safer climate, we must reduce our carbon and other heat-trapping emissions as rapidly as possible and our forests must remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they do now by allowing more of them to continue growing. Burning more of our forests for energy undercuts both goals.

Burning wood for electricity also threatens our health by increasing air pollution, which is particularly harmful to children and adults with asthma and other respiratory and cardiac conditions, including those with lung damage from COVID-19. It primarily affects the poor and communities of color where wood burning plants are often located.  The American Lung Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and other leading public health groups “oppose policies that would encourage or expand the use of biomass for electricity production.”

Wood-fired electricity is unnecessary and more expensive than wind or solar, and these clean energy technologies, and energy efficiency, are already cheaper than fossil fuels in many places. A new study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found energy efficiency is cheaper than using natural gas to produce power. With today’s proven technologies—solar and wind, air- and ground-source heat pumps, smart grids, energy storage, net-zero and passive buildings—we can stay warm in winter, cool in summer, keep the lights on, and power our economy without burning fossil fuels or our forests.

Investments in energy efficiency and clean energy generate “co-benefits” by creating jobs and improving health and economic welfare throughout the Commonwealth, especially among low-income and historically disadvantaged communities.

Under the Baker administration’s proposed regulations, utilities will be charging electricity users – all of us – to burn more of our forests, worsen climate change, harm our health, and erode social justice. We urge Baker to preserve his reputation as a champion for climate, health, and justice by withdrawing these flawed regulations. The legislature should also eliminate wood bioenergy from the energy sources eligible for subsidies in the climate legislation they are now considering, and support climate-friendly energy instead.

William Moomaw is professor emeritus of Tufts University, John Sterman is a professor at the Sloan School of Management at MIT and co-director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, Juliette Rooney Varga is a professor and director of the climate change initiative at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Richard Birdsey is a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth.

Climate bill would clear up solar tax confusion

Climate bill would clear up solar tax confusion

Assessors, solar developers hammered out deal

THE MASSACHUSETTS LEGISLATURE is set to clarify a confusing and outdated tax law, which had been stymying solar projects around the state.

A compromise hammered out between the state’s assessors and solar developers has made it into the final version of a climate change bill. The bill was reported out of a conference committee on Sunday and is expected to be passed by the Legislature Monday and sent to Gov. Charlie Baker.

The compromise clarifies that residential and small commercial solar projects will be exempt from property taxes, but larger commercial solar arrays will have to either pay municipal property taxes or reach a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOT, agreement with the municipality.

“It’s hugely important to get an understanding between the solar industry and the assessors, and I think it does that,” said Concord town assessor Lane Partridge, past president of the Massachusetts Association of Assessing Officers, who was involved with the negotiations.

David Gahl, senior director of northeast state affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association, a national lobbying group for the solar industry, called the compromise a reasonable framework. “I think it’s going to provide clarity to the tax law, and it should help provide certainty to large and small solar firms,” Gahl said.

The confusion stemmed from a 1970s-era law that exempted solar installations that are the primary power system for a property from having to pay municipal property taxes.

The law worked for years as it was intended, giving a tax break to homeowners who installed solar panels to power their homes.  As commercial solar farms developed, some paid taxes and others took advantage of a separate legal provision allowing them to enter into PILOT agreements, negotiated agreements with the town in which they paid set fees in lieu of taxes.

But between 2014 and 2017, the state’s Appellate Tax Board made several rulings finding that some large commercial solar developments were also exempt from property taxes. This opened the door to numerous appeals and created disputes between towns and solar developers as they tried to determine what the value is of a solar project and how much a developer should pay to the town.

A recent report by Auditor Suzanne Bump said the confusion was making it harder for solar developers to reach agreements with municipalities, and was leading to some hesitancy among towns in permitting new solar projects.

Bump, in a statement, commended the Legislature for their work on the compromise. “This bill resolves uncertainty that has stymied the expansion of solar energy and strained municipal budgets,” Bump said. “This is a meaningful step toward more clarity on the taxation of solar facilities in our state.”

The compromise language says any solar or wind-powered system that generates no more than 125 percent of the annual electricity needs of the property where it is located, or additional property in the town under the same ownership, will be tax exempt. Any solar or wind system that generates less than 25 kilowatts in capacity will also be tax exempt. These two exemptions will likely cover all residential solar systems and some systems that power small businesses, like a small retail shop or office.

Any system that is bigger than that – generally, large commercial or community solar arrays – will be subject to property taxes unless the landowner and the municipality reach a PILOT agreement.

Existing PILOT agreements will be honored and will not have to be renegotiated.  Small systems that have previously been deemed tax exempt can retain that exemption as long as they produce less than 150 percent of their property’s electricity needs. Larger projects that are currently tax exempt will lose their exemption.

Partridge and Gahl both said there were some items that each side wanted that were ultimately not included in the compromise. But Partridge said he thinks the final language successfully codified the intent of the original law, while taking into account later Appellate Tax Board decisions.

Gahl said there have been questions about whether solar systems are exempt for a long time. “For the Legislature to take this step to clarify this gives developers a better sense of what the rules of the road are,” Gahl said. “That’s going to help provide clarity and should help solar firms deliver a better product to their customers.”

Baker emissions roadmap sets ambitious targets

Baker emissions roadmap sets ambitious targets

Calls for energy retrofits of 1m homes, 750,000 electric vehicles over next decade

This story was updated at 2:30 p.m.

THE BAKER ADMINISTRATION on Wednesday rolled out a draft plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade that calls for energy retrofits of 1 million existing homes, higher efficiency standards for all new construction, the deployment of 750,000 electric vehicles, preservation of the region’s nuclear power plants, and a dramatic expansion of the state’s offshore wind industry.

In broad strokes, the Baker administration’s plan for reaching net zero emissions by 2050 calls for stepped-up energy conservation efforts and much greater electrification of the state’s transportation and building sectors, which currently account for more than two-thirds of emissions.

As part of electrification, the state will have to increase the production of renewable, low-emission electricity by building a large offshore wind industry, expanding the production of solar power, and reorienting the region’s transmission network to allow more imports of renewable power from outside the state and the region.

“If we’re going to meet our ambitious climate goals and achieve net zero by 2050, then this is really the decade for action,” said Kathleen Theoharides, the secretary of energy and environmental affairs, in a briefing with reporters.

Theoharides called for a 19 million-ton reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, which would render a 45 percent reduction in emissions compared to 1990 levels. The state is expected to hit a 25 percent reduction compared to 1990 levels by 2020.

Theoharides said her office looked at 40, 45, and 50 percent emission reduction targets for 2030, and concluded the 45 percent target, which would be legally binding on future administrations, provided the best balance between reaching the emissions goal and keeping costs in check.  Going above 45 percent, she said, would have driven up costs too fast. “It would be an unnecessary disruption to the economy,” she said.

Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said the Baker administration should have been more aggressive, pushing for at least a 50 percent emission reductions target for 2030. “Given the urgency of the climate crisis, this is not bold enough,” Henry said in a statement.

Since passage of the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2008, Massachusetts has focused most of its emissions-reduction attention on obvious targets, like the electricity generation sector, where a relatively small group of businesses operate. But, as the state moves forward, it is now targeting the millions of individuals who drive cars and heat their homes and businesses. According to the state’s 2030 report, 5 million light-duty cars and trucks generate 60 percent of the state’s transportation emissions and 3 million residential households generate 60 percent of emissions from buildings.

“The strategies to achieve emissions reductions in the 2020s necessitate influencing millions of smaller transitions over the next 10 years,” the report said. “It will take action at all levels of government and in all sectors of the economy.”

The 2030 plan calls for energy retrofits (“green” heating and insulation) of 1 million existing homes and 350 million square feet of commercial property. It also calls for the development of a new building code emphasizing energy efficiency for new construction. The secretary said the governor intends to establish a Commission on Clean Heat.

“The number of buildings using natural gas, fuel oil, and propane for space and water heating must begin to steadily and permanently decline, and the deployment of heat pumps and building envelope improvements retrofits must become widespread,” the report says, noting that customers who heat with gas may see a price hike in the short term.

The 2030 plan envisions 750,000 electric vehicles on the road by the end of the decade, which would be a huge increase from current levels. Administration officials said there are roughly 30,000 electric and hybrid vehicles on the road currently.

By 2030, the state wants zero emission vehicles to account for half of all light duty vehicle purchase. By 2035, Theoharides said, only zero-emission light-duty vehicles will be sold in Massachusetts under the proposed plan.

The secretary said the state’s participation in the regional transportation climate initiative, which caps emissions from vehicle fuels and also raises funds for clean energy investments by putting a price on the carbon contained in the fuels, is expected to play a complementary role by reducing vehicle emissions over time.

The Baker administration plan also calls for reducing commuter vehicle miles traveled by 15 percent, which aides said was the equivalent of reducing overall vehicle miles traveled by 4 percent.

Theoharides and her aides said the target was doable given the surge in telecommuting kickstarted by the coronavirus pandemic, but historical trends are not promising. Since 1990, according to the state’s report, vehicle miles traveled in Massachusetts have steadily increased and vehicles have gotten bigger and bigger, boosting emissions and wiping out gains from higher vehicle fuel efficiency standards.

The state’s electric grid has become a lot greener over the last two decades, but it still has a long way to go if electricity is going to be the fuel that powers the economy of the future. As of Wednesday afternoon, the region’s power grid operator reported that 62 percent of New England’s electricity was being generated by power plants fueled by natural gas, 21 percent by nuclear, 9 percent by renewables ,and  8 percent hydro.

Theoharides wants to dramatically expand the development of renewable, clean energy. She said the goal for this decade is to bring online the current 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind that have been procured already and authorize additional procurements. By 2050, she said, the state needs to have 25 gigawatts of offshore wind in place, 15 times the amount the state hopes to have in operation by 2030.

Theoharides and her aides said the existing nuclear power plants in Seabrook, New Hampshire, and Millstone, Connecticut, need to be preserved. “Keeping those resources online is very important,” Theoharides said.

If offshore wind fails to grow as fast as expected, Baker administration officials say new nuclear power plants may be needed. According to the Baker administration long-range 2050 report, “If offshore wind resources cannot be fully realized, new nuclear resources would be an economically viable alternative for supplying low carbon electricity, but concerns about safety and the disposal of radioactive waste make it unlikely that new nuclear resources would be sited in New England in the future. Future breakthroughs in small modular reactor technology or even fusion technology could change both of these dynamics, but neither technology has been, or appears likely to be, commercialized and affordably deployable.”

Dan Dolan, the president of the New England Power Generators Association, said the administration’s plan is a good first step. “Today’s analysis is important in laying out a vision for the future, but it does not tell us how to get there,” he said. “The New England Power Generators Association strongly believes that there are two guideposts to chart the path forward. First, we must work to internalize the costs of climate change into the economy to support new investments and guide consumer choices. That should be done through putting a meaningful price on carbon emissions in the electricity, transportation, and heating industries. Second, the New England electricity markets should be improved to better account for the services that will be needed in this changing economy.”

In her presentation to reporters on Wednesday, Theoharides repeatedly referenced how the role of the state’s utilities – Eversource, National Grid, and Unitil – will change over the coming decades as customers transition away from natural gas and increasingly embrace electricity. Just as utilities act as middlemen for the state in negotiating contracts with offshore wind developers, Theoharides suggested the companies may play that same role with homeowners and businesses transitioning to new heating systems. Utilities also may play a role in building out the electric vehicle charging infrastructure needed for drivers to embrace electric vehicles.

By 2050, Theoharides said, the Baker administration does not envision the elimination of all emissions. She said the state hopes to offset a certain amount of emissions by sequestering carbon in new forests, wetlands, and other offsets.

Theoharides said the administration’s draft plan will be open for public comment until February 22.

Wait, we’re number 2?

Wait, we’re number 2?

Time for Massachusetts to try harder on efficiency standards

LIKE THE FAMOUS Avis commercial says: when you’re number two, you gotta try harder! When it comes to energy efficiency policy, that is the unfamiliar position Massachusetts now finds itself in.

For years –– nine years to be precise –– the Commonwealth led or tied as the most energy efficient state in the nation, according to the leading metric from the non-profit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). Their state energy efficiency scorecard now ranks California ahead of Massachusetts.

But Massachusetts has strong utility savings programs and vehicle emissions standards, robust electric vehicle incentives and energy-smart building codes, you say. Why did we lose our top slot? Two words: Appliance standards.

Massachusetts received strong marks in other areas, but received zero points for this key and often overlooked sector of energy policy. Appliance efficiency standards might not sound all that exciting, but they pack a punch. After all, using products that consume less energy and water can translate into big savings.

Reducing energy consumption isn’t just a clear win for our environment, it’s good for our pocketbooks, too. After all, the cheapest and greenest kind of energy is the energy you don’t use in the first place. Smart energy efficiency policies can also help create jobs and improve grid reliability.

But when it comes to appliance standards, Massachusetts received the same score as states ranking at the very bottom of the list, including West Virginia, North Dakota, and Alabama, according to the ACEEE scorecard.

We can do better! And that’s the good news.

There’s an easy way for Massachusetts to make progress on appliance standards and reclaim our top spot. It’s called the Mass. Energy SAVE Act. This bipartisan legislation has earned an unusual coalition of support, including leading utility companies, environmental and consumer advocates, and business groups.

They all understand that when smart energy policy aligns environmental benefits and economic incentives, we all win. Appliance standards ensure that the products we purchase use less energy and water while preserving quality and affordability. And since energy costs have a disproportionate impact on lower income consumers, efficiency standards can also have an even greater impact for those who most need assistance.

Many consumers are already familiar with programs like EnergyStar or WaterSense that promote efficiency performance and savings. The Energy SAVE Act effectively extends this same logic to a broader array of products including water faucets, showerheads, computers, monitors, and water coolers.

The non-profit Appliance Standards Awareness Project estimates that by 2025 state consumers and businesses could save more than $100 million per year if these new standards were in place, while at the same time reducing our carbon emissions by 113,000 metric tons.

The Energy SAVE Act has already earned strong bipartisan support in both the Massachusetts House and Senate. A conference committee drawn from the two branches is now working to reconcile a major climate bill and it’s vital that the Energy SAVE Act language remain in any final version of this bill when it comes for a vote.

Here in Massachusetts we can rightfully be proud of our leadership in energy efficiency programs. Our prior top ranking did not happen by accident. It was the result of a concerted and cooperative effort by the Legislature, administration, and advocates to support investments in efficiency programs and pass forward-thinking energy policies

Losing our top spot to California in the energy efficiency scorecard may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. It serves as a welcome wake-up call that we must always continue to innovate and advance in order to stay on top. Massachusetts has been a leader in the past and now it’s time to pass the Energy SAVE Act to update our standards to keep pace with changes in the marketplace.

Like Avis, when you are number two you have to try harder. Here’s to hoping that next year we can adopt the slogan of rival Hertz: We’re Number One!

Charlie Harak is a senior energy attorney for the National Consumer Law Center. Josh S. Cutler is state representative for the Sixth Plymouth District.

Solar revolution is stalled, needs to shift into gear

Solar revolution is stalled, needs to shift into gear

Lawmakers need to move on climate action bill

AFTER FOUR YEARS of denying climate science and downplaying its consequences, the federal government is on the cusp of a new era. Although deep political divides persist on many issues, there is one thing that Americans are united on – and that’s a desire for a national transition to clean, renewable energy.

A resounding 82 percent of voters say 100 percent clean energy should be our national goal. President-elect Biden’s plan for a $2 trillion national stimulus for clean energy and infrastructure, with 100 percent clean energy by 2035, also has overwhelming public support. The Biden-Harris administration is poised to spur new clean energy investments and innovation over the next decade, which is a much-needed ray of hope for solar and other renewable technologies that played second fiddle to fossil fuels during the Trump Administration.

With the United Nations warning of irreparable harm to the planet unless governments take decisive action to reduce carbon pollution in the next 10 years, the new administration’s commitment to clean energy is huge progress in and of itself. It is further strengthened by Biden’s promise to target 40 percent of the administration’s proposed climate-related investments to disadvantaged communities – a strategy designed to ensure that we all share the health and economic benefits of a clean energy future, regardless of zip codes.

Washington’s new focus on renewable energy should motivate state leaders here in Massachusetts to think and act big on climate. Our state has an opportunity to set an ambitious and aggressive climate agenda that can right the environmental injustices that many of our communities have suffered while investing in the clean energy economy that benefits all residents. These twin goals demand a return to the bold leadership Massachusetts has shown before. There is no time or excuse for incrementalism, especially when Massachusetts’ once thriving clean energy sector is slowing, and the consequences of underinvesting in energy-burdened communities has been laid bare.

We can reverse that trend. Not long ago, during the last great recession, state policymakers wisely chose to rebuild the Massachusetts economy by investing in clean energy and putting the state on a path to meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reductions. The steps lawmakers took then sparked a clean energy revolution, with solar power leading the charge.

Driven by passage of nation-leading clean energy legislation in 2008, Massachusetts went from roughly 3 megawatts of installed solar energy to 2,500 megaewatts in just over a decade. The suite of laws and policies implemented during that period not only led to the retirement of many fossil fuel power plants but made Massachusetts the logical place to grow a clean energy business. Hundreds of companies – ours, included – took hold, creating thousands of local jobs.

Fast forward, however, and this success has proven to be far from complete. By failing to guarantee inclusion for low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, the Bay State’s much-touted clean energy revolution effectively left these communities out. Moreover, the revolution itself has stalled. Regulatory delays and missteps are pushing solar energy from center stage to the sidelines at exactly the time we should be both increasing deployment of emission-free energy and safeguarding the jobs of those who install it. Recent years have seen the state’s solar workforce shrink by a third – nearly 4,400 jobs, as new solar installations have dropped by half. Last year, the least amount of solar energy was installed in Massachusetts since 2013 – a 40 percent decline since 2017.

Meanwhile, the climate clock keeps ticking, as a global pandemic continues to wreak havoc on some of our most vulnerable communities. Compounding these two tragedies is the economic disaster that our collective effort to slow the pandemic has wrought. Massachusetts is currently battling back from an unemployment rate that was the highest in the country and higher than any jobless rate the Commonwealth has experienced in over a generation. With the election over and a clear national mandate from voters on climate and clean energy issues, the Massachusetts Legislature must make progress on these fronts before the end of the year.

While more ambitious legislation was possible earlier in the pandemic, a bill that acknowledges the challenges we face and creates a framework for recovery is currently being negotiated by a conference committee in the Legislature. It includes measures to support the solar industry, and a roadmap to meaningfully reduce pollution. With swift passage and implementation, it could create new local jobs and drive much-neededinvestment in the Massachusetts economy.

While this bill is not nearly as bold we would like, its focus on increasing solar access for low-income households and communities of color is notable, and one of the reasons we are proud to support it. It is precisely these communities who bear the highest risk for health impacts from fossil fuel-based power generation – including higher risk for COVID-19 – and who spend the largest percentage of their income on home energy costs. While not outright preventing installation of solar on rooftops of three-deckers and other urban homes, previous state energy policy shortchanged families in older urban centers.

The climate bill before the Legislature would protect access to solar for low- and moderate-income households, create exemptions for arbitrary net-metering caps, and create worker training programs that prioritize women and minority businesses, environmental justice community members, and workers transitioning from fossil fuel jobs.

But we can and must go further. Legislators should add language to the current draft that holds state officials accountable for meeting an ambitious net zero carbon emissions commitment. Real, volumetric solar goals for systems serving low-income and environmental justice communities could remove financial barriers to solar in these communities, which would spur creation of good jobs in hard-hit neighborhoods. A reimagined state policy designed to close the gap between solar haves and have-nots would establish an on-ramp for high school and community college graduates to segue into careers building a clean energy future in the places where they live.

At a time when the US is poised for bold climate action, this legislation can put Massachusetts back on the road to national clean energy leadership. The Massachusetts House and Senate rose to this challenge before. They must rise and meet the moment again.

Benjamin Downing is vice president for new market development for Nexamp. Ben Underwood is the Co-CEO and founder of Resonant Energy.

Confusion over tax status stymies solar projects 

Confusion over tax status stymies solar projects 

Municipalities worry about lost revenue 

AN OUTDATED LAW and a series of rulings by an obscure tax board are throwing the state’s landscape for solar projects into disarray. 

The question revolves around whether commercial solar projects should be exempt from paying municipal property taxes. The lack of clarity is threatening to take revenue away from municipal budgets – and stymie the progress of the solar industry, by making some municipal officials hesitant to cut deals with solar developers. 

“It’s a confusing landscape, and that’s created a lot of uncertainty for the companies, and there are a lot of questions about how we can get this resolved,” said David Gahl, senior director of northeast state affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association, a national lobbying group for the solar industry. 

Massachusetts legislators are considering passing a law – the subject of lengthy negotiations between municipal officials and solar developers – that would eliminate property tax exemptions to large solar developers. The proposal is in a legislative conference committee that is considering a broader climate change bill.  

On Thursday, Auditor Suzanne Bump is releasing a report highlighting the confusion around existing laws and urging the Legislature to clarify the situation. 

“I do not believe that the Legislature would have knowingly and deliberately put the large solar developers in a position of avoiding property taxes almost altogether,” Bump said. “So the law needs to be updated to reflect the reality.” 

The issue is particularly important on the South Coast, in Central Massachusetts and in Berkshire County, where many large solar farms are located.  

A law established in the mid-1970s created a property tax exemption for solar installations that are the primary power systems for a property. The intent was to help residents who wanted to install off-grid rooftop solar panels to power their homes. 

For decades, the property tax exemption was used in primarily that way – by residential homeowners to power their homes.  

As commercial solar farms began to be developed, some paid taxes. Others took advantage of a separate provision in state law that lets municipalities enter PILOT, or payment in lieu of taxes, agreements with solar generation facilities to make regular payments instead of taxes on solar energy installations. The idea was to create a structure where solar producers could anticipate the size of future payments, while ensuring municipalities would not lose tax revenue. 

However, between 2014 and 2017, the state’s Appellate Tax Board ruled in several cases that the property tax exemption applies to both residential and commercial solar installations. In one key case in 2016, the Appellate Tax Board ruled that a Swansea solar farm – which powered the owners’ nearby home but sold 98 percent of its energy to local bank branches –- was eligible for a property tax exemption. The town of Swansea ultimately negotiated a PILOT agreement with the solar developer. 

Concord town assessor Lane Partridge, past president of the Massachusetts Association of Assessing Officers, said the problem is that the law was written so long ago “that it doesn’t have anything to do with current technology and the current way we do things.” 

The tax board’s rulings threw the state’s solar landscape into uncertainty. While Appellate Tax Board rulings only apply to the particular cases under dispute, the decisions opened the door for additional appeals. According to Bump, the Appellate Tax Board now has 71 pending appeal cases related to tax exemptions for solar projects.  

If a decision is appealed to the state Appeals Court, a ruling there could have statewide implications. While observers say some municipal officials are contemplating appeals, due to the high cost – and potential risk – of litigation, no decisions have yet been appealed. 

For now, municipal officials are hoping the Legislature will resolve the issue. The assessors’ group has been negotiating compromise language with the solar developers’ association – and both sides say they are close to a compromise but not quite there yet.  

Partridge said he is hopeful Bump’s report urging legislative action “helps us get over the finish line” in getting a bill passed. 

Rep. Jeffrey Roy, a Franklin Democrat, and Sen. Michael Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat, both introduced legislation that would clarify the tax status of solar arrays by limiting the property tax exemption to smaller solar arrays – generally those that produce enough power for the property they are located on. Roy’s language is included in the House version of a climate change bill that is in conference committee.  

Roy’s amendment, which could be changed by the conference committee, would exempt from property taxes only residential solar projects that produce no more than 125 percent of the energy needed to power the property where they are located. (Rodrigues’s proposal would also include commercial solar projects, but it similarly caps eligibility to smaller projects that power their own or an adjacent property.) “It’s just taking it back to what the original legislation was intended to do, to help homeowners power their homes using solar energy,” Roy said. 

Gahl said solar companies have numerous concerns about the details of Roy’s proposal. Overall, the industry thinks residential and small business installations should be tax-exempt, while larger installations should execute PILOT agreements – ideally in a format that is more standardized than it is today.  

With no clarity, municipalities and developers have struggled to reach agreements on how solar installations should be taxed. While a municipality can still negotiate a PILOT agreement with a solar developer, the state tax board rulings mean municipalities have little leverage, and the value of solar property may be considered lower. There have been increasing numbers of disputes over assessments and tax abatements. 

“If a solar developer can go to the Appellate Tax Board and be told they’re exempt from taxation, why would they negotiate a PILOT?” Bump asked. 

Some communities have placed a moratorium on new solar installations. Granby, for example, passed a solar moratorium in 2019 because officials worried that solar developers would be exempt from property taxes. Charlton, which has 25 solar facilities, placed a temporary moratorium on solar facilities, then put in place new zoning rules and a 30-facility cap.  

Charlton assessor Kathleen Stanley said communities like hers are “in limbo.” Charlton has not negotiated PILOT agreements with its solar facilities, but had been taxing them. Now, the community has had several solar project owners appeal to the Appellate Tax Board, and municipal officials are trying to negotiate settlements. Stanley said with the Appellate Tax Board’s recent decisions, “a lot of communities are making agreements for what they feel might be less than full and fair cash value because the exemption is being held over their heads.” 

John Robertson, legislative director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said municipal officials are particularly worried about a loss in revenue if they can no longer tax large solar installations. If solar developers pay less in taxes, other taxpayers will have to pick up the slack. “Everyone thought they knew what the rules were, then when the Appellate Tax Board case was decided, all of a sudden the rules were upended,” Robertson said. “We want to return the rules to the way they were before.” 

In 2019, the number of new solar installations was half than what it was the previous year. While the decline can be attributed to multiple factors, including concerns about land use and a restructuring of state incentive programs for solar energy, Bump said the property tax situation “works as a disincentive for communities to permit facilities if they are going to lose large chunks of revenue.”  

From a solar industry perspective, Gahl said it is difficult for companies to estimate their project costs when they do not know what taxes will be included and how much they will have to pay municipalities. PILOT agreements often differ greatly between communities. (Bump’s audit also recommends that the state Department of Revenue establish clearer guidelines for what should be in a standard PILOT agreement.) Ultimately, it drives up the amount of time it takes to get these projects through to completion,” Gahl said. 

Partridge, the Concord assessor, said negotiated PILOT agreements that vary between communities should not be a substitute for legal clarity in the law, and relying so heavily on PILOTs is difficult for developers and assessors. “We’ve been doing contracts to do what needs to be done, instead of having the law tell us what’s supposed to be done. That’s a tough process to go through,” he said.  

Weymouth settles compressor fight, collects $10m

Weymouth settles compressor fight, collects $10m

Hedlund: 'The clock has run out on us'

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

THE TOWN OF WEYMOUTH will drop its ongoing legal fight against a controversial natural gas project, and energy giant Enbridge will pay the municipality $10 million as part of a newly reached host community agreement that immediately drew condemnation from opponents of the compressor station.

With the compressor station already built and awaiting permission to advance after recent emergency shutdowns, municipal and company officials announced a joint agreement Friday, ending years of courtroom battles.

Enbridge will pay Weymouth $10 million within 30 days. Town officials said in a press release that the money will go toward a range of public safety, infrastructure, and environmental uses.

The company will also help the town seek changes to the state tax structure in an attempt to avoid a “less favorable property tax structure from being applied to the compressor station upon operation,” the town wrote in a press release. If successful, Weymouth could collect up to $28 million more in property taxes over the next 35 years.

Enbridge, Weymouth, and the state Department of Environment Protection agreed to place a permanent air-monitoring station on town-owned land off of Monatiquot Street, which officials said is “the closest to town residents, providing the most accurate information about the air residents breathe.”

Weymouth municipal leaders had been vocal opponents of the proposed facility for years, joining with environmental, public health, and community groups in attempts to sink its approval or get permits overturned.

Attorneys warned that they are unlikely to succeed on any outstanding lawsuits, according to the release, which appears to have pushed town officials into accepting a deal smaller than the $47 million that Enbridge predecessor Spectra offered in 2016.

“The natural gas companies have all the permits necessary to operate,” Weymouth wrote in its release. “There is almost no chance these remaining lawsuits will cause the compressor station to stop operating and stay stopped. Just like the recent pause, the Town may be able to pause operations temporarily, but again, the compressor station will operate (unless) three remote possibilities simultaneously occur.”

Weymouth Mayor Robert Hedlund told the Patriot Ledger that the town will not pursue appeals on any remaining lawsuits.

“The clock has run out on us and we have a fully permitted facility that we know is going to start up very soon,” he told the Ledger.

Hedlund stressed, however, that the agreement does not prevent the town from future legal action if Enbridge “steps over the line.”

“Town public safety, emergency management, and health officials will remain vigilant in
monitoring the operations of the facility and hold the gas company accountable if there is
any deviation from the aforementioned plans or from any mismanagement of this facility,” he said.

The facility has long been a source of controversy, drawing criticism from a range of advocacy groups and from virtually every lawmaker representing the area. It received all required state and federal permits, however, and Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration has upheld those approvals after appeal processes.

The Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station group blasted Hedlund for reaching the agreement with Enbridge, calling it “hush money.”

“Four years ago, Enbridge came to Weymouth with a $47M offer, half of which was predicated on a state level tax code change,” FRRACS President Alice Arena said. “Now, with their threat of the compressor almost fully realized, they offer one fourth of the amount at a time when the Town needs even more to cover the cost of additional fire and police training and equipment due to the siting of their toxic and dangerous facility. We have no faith that this tax code change will ever occur.”

“This paltry sum will never make the community whole after Enbridge has taken our health — and possibly our property and lives — away,” Arena continued. “While we thank the Town for their legal efforts up to this point, we are more than disappointed that the Town did not consider what the life of even one citizen is worth. FRRACS will continue to fight the operation of this facility.”

Enbridge’s compressor station, located on the banks of the Fore River near densely populated neighborhoods, is fully built and had been poised to start service until two emergency shutdowns and natural gas releases in September promptedfederal regulators to shut it down.

Max Bergeron, a spokesperson for the company, said Friday that the company is still working with the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to meet required corrective actions.

He declined to say when Enbridge would seek permission to start compressor service shipping natural gas northward to utilities in Maine and Canada.

“The Host Community Agreement was reached in order to strengthen our relationship with the Town of Weymouth moving forward, and ensure we are well-positioned to be a good neighbor and a positive presence in the community,” Bergeron said. “The agreement helps nurture a collaborative relationship with local officials and community leaders, as we make progress toward safely placing the Weymouth Compressor Station in service.”