UPDATE (June 9, 2016): Yesterday the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed the energy bill, which now moves on to the state senate for their take. And, we hope, substantial strengthening in the boldness department. What passed is a good step, but still not the leap Massachusetts needs. We’ll be looking to the state senate now to expand the offshore wind component; broaden the hydro piece to allow wind and other renewable energy technologies to compete more fairly, and increase the overall requirement; accelerate the state’s renewable electricity standard; and add other pieces that make it much clearer where Massachusetts wants to head, and the leadership it wants to exert.
A draft of the long-awaited Massachusetts omnibus energy bill has finally emerged, and the state’s House of Representatives is gearing up to decide on a version of it. So how do We the People decide how good a deal the resulting bill is for the Bay State? Here are five questions that can help us figure that out.
Is it bold enough?
This is the big one. We need to diversify our electricity mix, drive our economy forward, and cut carbon emissions. That calls for boldness.
The draft bill covers long-term contracting for offshore wind and hydro. Both are important technologies that it makes sense to encourage for Massachusetts, and contracting is a way of getting us low-carbon energy in a way that makes sense for us and for developers (of offshore wind, or of the transmission for the hydro).
The draft bill includes a push for hydropower or hydropower-plus-other-renewables, and 1,200 megawatts (MW) of offshore wind power, and those are certainly steps in the right direction.
But we’re looking for leaps in the right direction, not just steps. There’s a real sense that, in offshore wind in particular, bolder is better, that there’s strong value in getting to a bigger level of deployment, to generate and capture the economies of scale for offshore wind that come only with real scale. Too little doesn’t send a strong enough signal to the private sector about what we want from them.
We should be heading for 2,000 MW of offshore wind and beyond, not stopping partway there. And capturing all the land-based renewables we can.
Is it deep enough?
The draft bill proposes to allow other renewables, like land-based wind, to compete for the long-term contracts targeting hydro. That’s really important, including because we have enough recent experience with wind, in particular, to know how low-priced it can be, and it’ll help make sure that the winning bids are reasonably priced.
New England wind farms offer some of the best prospects for steady, low-cost power in the near term. Transmission has been a key constraint, and the long-term contracting for power+transmission envisioned in the bill is an excellent tool for unlocking those resources.
The bill, though, proposes to make wind and other renewables play a secondary role, requiring them to pair with hydro, while allowing hydro to compete solo. It makes much more sense to spell out what we’re looking, in terms of performance, and then let the technologies compete, in whatever combination they want.
Is it broad enough?
Massachusetts also has other tools in its clean energy toolbox, and we’re going to want them, too. For example:
- Accelerating the state’s renewable portfolio standard, which has been an important tool for driving renewables for Massachusetts, would help the state up its game across technologies.
- Solar was the subject of a compromise hammered out in the Massachusetts legislature earlier this year, but that compromise bought us only temporary relief. We need more running room for solar, and stronger attention to making solar accessible for everyone.
- Energy efficiency is another important tool that the state can make more of; even its nation-leading performance leaves plenty of opportunities for Massachusetts.
Does it protect consumers?
The House should keep electricity bills in mind as it thinks about what needs to be in this legislation, but that shouldn’t lead them to think that smaller would be better, that a more constrained approach would be cheaper.
One reason is the benefit of scale, as discussed above for offshore wind.
Another reason is the risks to consumers of not doing enough. More than 60 percent of Massachusetts’s electricity generation last year was from natural gas, as was half of New England’s. The state is definitely in the danger zone for natural gas overreliance.
That means that strong moves toward more clean energy can be a better thing—a great thing—in terms of the economics over the long term, and in terms of consumer protection, along with all the health and economic development benefits that renewables have to offer.
Does it put natural gas in its place?
The draft bill didn’t attempt to codify the moves that are afoot to tie the state’s electricity ratepayers to more natural gas infrastructure. That’s good.
But the department of public utilities is still considering proposals by the electrical utilities (distribution companies) that include such provisions. Those proposals don’t make sense, and the legislature has an ability to weigh in.
We need to be moving toward a more balanced role for natural gas, not a bigger one.
Bold, broad, and beautiful
The real question is whether the energy bill continues Massachusetts’s tradition of leadership in the clean energy space, at a time when other states (think Oregon, California, New York) are making bold moves.
If this bill aspires to “omnibus” stature, as it should, it needs to serve as a model for the region, and the country—on how to launch a whole new industry (offshore wind), on how to incorporate hydro into the mix responsibly, on how to bring to bear a broad suite of clean energy tools.
This is the time for leadership, and we’re counting on the House to show what leadership looks like.
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