Clean Energy Leadership: Next Steps for Massachusetts

January 29, 2018 | 9:41 am
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

In 2016, the Massachusetts legislature laid the groundwork for important progress on clean energy with the passing of the Energy Diversity Act. But now it’s 2018, and there’s a lot more work to be done. And the legislative session is nearing its end.

Fortunately, the path is clear: We need to fix our renewable energy targets, make solar work for everybody, and send clear signals about where we need to head on clean energy and climate.

Increase the renewable portfolio standard to 50×30

Staying on top: Smart, strong policies can keep driving renewable energy in and for Massachusetts (Credit: UCS).

The 2016 law included a requirement that Massachusetts utilities contract for 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind energy over the next decade—an unprecedented and inspiring target (which New York has indeed since been inspired to top, and which New Jersey seems to be inclined to more than double). The energy diversity law also required utilities to sign long-term contracts for large amounts of clean energy, to help drive renewable energy and get low, stable prices for Massachusetts electricity customers.

What the 2016 law didn’t include was a strengthening of the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) to make room for all those new renewables. The RPS specifies how much of the electricity mix of each of Massachusetts’s electric utilities needs to come from renewable energy.

Under the clean energy procurement requirement, the state has just announced that it’s going all hydro, all the time, and large hydro doesn’t count toward the RPS. But if something happens to nix that option (it’s a controversial choice for many), and one of the many proposals with RPS-eligible technologies included gets picked instead, that’ll be more flowing into the RPS.

Just the offshore wind piece, though, is more than enough to eat up all the RPS demand growth between now and 2030. And that offshore wind piece is moving forward.

The new frontier for renewable energy for Massachusetts: offshore wind (Credit: M. Jacobs)

A 2017 study showed the results of the mismatch between the push of the new requirements and the pull of the RPS. A full RPS can’t drive any additional renewables beyond those contracts, and we know we need more.

The solution is a much stronger RPS, and a requirement of 50% renewable energy by 2030 standard fits the bill. That same 2017 study showed that a stronger RPS along those lines would bring more renewables on line, reduce our risks from natural gas overreliance, and mean a lot of extra clean energy jobs in the state.

Upping the requirement is not complicated, particularly for a trailblazer/pioneer like Massachusetts, and other states are already sprinting down the path to targets at least that strong, including California, Hawaii, and New York.

With bills like S.1880 (plus S.1841, S.1876, H.2700, and H.1747), upping Massachusetts’s renewable energy game is an easy thing to check off the legislative to-do list.

Make solar work—for everybody

Another thing on the energy list? Getting solar back on track, and moving forward, not backward, on making it accessible.

Massachusetts has been a solar star, but the policy environment has been cloudy lately—particularly for low-income households. The state’s solar progress has meant that it has kept bumping up against its (self-imposed) caps on how much solar gets to get installed. A “fix” in early 2016, though, actually made solar a worse deal for a lot of people.

The new solar law slashed how much people could use shared or community solar to offset their electricity bills—by a full 40%. Shared solar is the option for the many people who can’t put solar on their own roofs: people with shaded roofs, no southern exposure, or roofs in bad condition; people in multi-family buildings; and renters. Most low-income households fall into one or more of those categories.

So 40% cut for shared solar meant that people who can put solar on their roofs get 100% of the value of their solar electrons, while people who don’t or can’t get 60%.

There’s something seriously wrong with those equations.

There’s more to the Massachusetts solar picture, including continuing problems with caps on how much solar we get to do, uncertainty from a change in state incentives, a bad decision just out of Gov. Charlie Baker’s public utility commission, and Pres. Trump’s decision last week to tax solar panel imports, making solar more expensive.

Here again, the legislature already has a range of bills to address the equity issue, and others. Those include H.3396 and S.1831, which would restore full credit for community solar for low-income households, and others to strengthen solar and solar equity (including S.1824, S.1848, H.2712, and H.3403).

Keep solar climbing, for everybody (Credit: J. Rogers).

Tell us where we’re going on climate change

A third area for legislative action is on our climate goals. The state’s landmark 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act provided for 2020 and 2050 targets for reducing our global warming pollution. Having that 30-year gap between milestones potentially allows for “solutions” that look good in the near term, but won’t serve us well in the long term—with Exhibit A being natural gas (still a fossil fuel, people), which fuels two-thirds of in-state generation already and puts electricity consumers at risk.

What we need is clarity on the waypoints, what kind of reductions we want by 2030 and 2040. Those would be important signals on the road to 2050.

Wouldn’t you know it: There are bills ready to fix this, too: S.1880 and S.479, plus ones that would strengthen our overall carbon pollution policies (including, S.1821, S.1869, H.1726, and H.3473).

And more

When the Massachusetts legislature gets rolling on these issues, there’s a lot more for them to consider in what’s already in other bills, including around:

  • Strengthening environmental justice: 2913/S.426
  • Getting serious about driving energy storage (and Massachusetts’s piece of the jobs and industry): 1746, S.1874, H.2600
  • Empowering communities to drive renewable energy forward collectively: 1745, S.1834
  • Modernizing our electricity grid to lower costs, promote energy efficiency, and protect low-income households: 1725, S.1875

Time is short. Fortunately, however you slice it, the legislature has plenty of opportunities—and plenty of proposals already drafted—for taking the next important steps on climate and clean energy.

About the author

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John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.