Massachusetts Clean Energy Bill 2018: Continuing the Journey

August 9, 2018 | 10:42 am
John Rogers
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

On Massachusetts’ journey toward a clean, fair, and affordable energy future, the energy bill that just passed is an important waystation. But it can’t be an endpoint—not by a long shot, and not even for the near term; we need to get right back on the trail. So here are the successes to celebrate, the shortcomings to acknowledge, and why we need to saddle up for next year.

The good

The Massachusetts legislature ended its two-year session last week with a flurry of activity. So, where’d we end up, in terms of clean energy? The best news is that we got a bill (even that was in doubt). And there’s certainly stuff to celebrate in An Act to advance clean energy:

The bill also includes various other pieces. Some clarifications about what kinds of charges Massachusetts electric utilities are (or aren’t) allowed to hit solar customers with (given bad decisions earlier this year). A new “clean peak standard” aimed at bringing clean energy to bear (and avoiding the use of dirty fossil fuel-fired peaking plants) to address the highest demand times of the year. A requirement that gas companies figure out how much natural gas is leaking out of their systems.

An RPS increase and another move on offshore wind—two pieces worth celebrating (Credit: Derrick Z. Jackson)

The… less good

Equally notable, though, is what’s not in the final bill. And particularly stuff that was in the bills passed by one chamber or the other:

  • A strong RPS – The leading states are a whole lot more ambitious, RPS-wise, than Massachusetts, even with the bump-up: California, New York, and New Jersey all have requirements of 50% renewables by 2030. In Massachusetts, the senate’s version had a strong target, increasing the requirement 3% per year, which would have surpassed even those states’. But the final ended up basically where the house was: 2% per year. (And, though 2030 is a long way away, having the “compromise” bump the annual increase back down to 1% after 10 years is particularly irksome.)
  • A strong storage requirement – It’s good to have something storage-related on the books, something stronger than “aspirational”. The top states for energy storage, though, are up at 1,500 megawatts (MW) by 2025 (New York) or 2,000 MW by 2030 (New Jersey), and the NJ level of ambition is what the Massachusetts senate’s bill would have gotten us. Note, too, the units in the final Massachusetts bill: megawatts vs. megawatt-hours. If we’re looking at storage being available for something like several hours at a pop, simply dropping the “-hours” piece—having the requirement be in MW, not MWh—would have made the 1,000 number a much stronger target.
  • Solar fixes – Rooftop solar systems larger than residential ones (think businesses, municipalities) are stuck in much of the state because of the caps placed on how much can “net meter”, set as a percentage of each electric utility’s peak customer demand. There are also issues and opportunities around expanding solar access to lower-income households. Here again, the senate included great language on both… and that’s where it ended: with various barriers to solar firmly in place.
  • Appliance efficiency standards – Helping our appliances do more with less was the subject of a good bill that passed the house, but also fell by the wayside en route to the negotiated final.

Then there’s the fact that the clean peak standard is an untested concept, toyed with in a couple of other states but never actually implemented. Trailblazing isn’t always bad, and dirty peaks are an issue, but there are probably better/simpler ways to tackle the problem (see, e.g., “A strong storage requirement”, above).

And there’s all kinds of important stuff around carbon pollution in sectors other than electricity, and around climate change more broadly, that didn’t make it. The new clean energy bill missed the chance to tackle transportation, for example, which accounts for 40% of our state’s emissions.

Why put the brakes on solar (and solar jobs)? (Credit: Audrey Eyring/UCS)

When measures come up short

There are certainly things to celebrate in the “good” list above. But it’s also true, as the “less good” list presents, that Massachusetts could have done much better than that. UCS’s president Ken Kimmell said, “Massachusetts scored with the energy bill passed today, but this game is far from over.” Other reactions were less favorable (see here and here, for example).

Ben Downing, the former state senator who was an architect of Massachusetts’s impressive 2016 energy bill, had some choice words on the process itself, the end-of-session crunch that he points out gives “special interests defending the status quo… an outsized voice.” Those special interests’ interests were certainly reflected in the bill’s “measured approach” to energy progress.

It’s telling that the chair of the house’s climate change committee, Rep. Frank Smizik, who has been a solid voice for climate action for at least the dozen years I’ve known him (but is retiring), couldn’t bring himself to vote for the bill, and cast the lone dissenting vote the bill received in either chamber, and was less than flattering in his characterization of the bill.

But the senate climate champions who worked out the compromise (and were clearly not pleased with what got left on the cutting room floor) had comments that were particularly on point in terms of next steps.

Sen. Michael Barrett, a champion of carbon pricing, made it clear that this bill isn’t the endgame—and that energy now needs to be an every-session kind of thing.

And Sen. Marc Pacheco, the lead author of the very strong senate bill that fed into the compromise, promised that “The day after the session ends, my office will be beginning again to pull together clean energy legislation for the next session.”

Next stop? (Don’t stop.)

And those points should be the main takeaway. We’ve got what we’re going to get from the Massachusetts legislature for the 2017-2018 session, and we’re glad for what did make it through the sausage-making. The successes are a testament to UCS supporters, who sent thousands of messages to their legislators, and to the work of our many allies in this push, in the State House and far beyond.

But we should all be hungry for a whole lot more. Every single time the legislature meets. Including next year.

The energy sector is evolving so quickly, and climate impacts are too (including in Massachusetts), that if we’re standing still, we’re losing ground. There’s no way we should accept any suggestion that, because the legislature dealt with energy in one term, they shouldn’t the next term.

At the state level, as elsewhere, progress on climate and clean energy is a journey, not a destination. There’ll be waypoints along the way, steps forward—like the new Massachusetts energy bill. But none of those should be invitations to take off our boots and kick back. This stuff is too important to leave for later.

We’re not done till we’re done, and there’s no sign of doneness here. Saddle up.

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.