Massachusetts’s Clean Energy Economy: What the Legislature Needs to Do Now

, Senior energy analyst | June 12, 2018, 4:59 pm EDT
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UPDATE (6/15/18): Success! Last night the senate unanimously passed a strong, many-faceted energy and climate bill, the kind that a state can be proud of. Now on to the house!

UPDATE (6/13/18): The senate is voting on the clean energy bill and amendments tomorrow (Thursday). If you live in Massachusetts, contact your senator and let your voice be heard. You can e-mail (see here) or, better yet, call (phone numbers are available here).

The Massachusetts legislature is in the final weeks of its two-year legislative session, and there’s finally some movement in both houses on our clean energy future. Here are four things that need to happen to get to the legislative finish line, and why.

But first: some context.

Where the state is coming from

Flowers are blooming on Beacon Hill. Now we need legislation to blossom. (Credit: J. Rogers)

Many of the issues we talked about on this platform a few months ago—what the key issues for next steps on clean energy in Massachusetts were—are still the issues of the day. What’s different now is that we’ve had a project selected by the state and our utilities for sizeable amounts of low-carbon power (Canadian hydro, in this case). And we’ve just selected the first tranche of Massachusetts offshore wind power.

Both of those advances were courtesy of the legislature’s strong action in 2016, when it passed the Energy Diversity Act. What we need now is to fill in the gaps left in that package.

What got left undone

In the lead-up to what became the 2016 law, UCS published an analysis about the risks of natural gas overreliance and the possibility of bringing new and stronger strategies to bear on the problem. That analysis focused on both natural gas risks and carbon pollution, and the prospects for cutting both.

The analysis showed that combining the large-scale renewables procurement, a hefty offshore wind commitment, and a strengthening of the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) could do the trick nicely, and at low cost.

The RPS has been a major driver of renewable energy in and for Massachusetts, and keeping it out ahead of the market—think of it as a carrot in front of the (non-partisan) donkey of energy progress—is what keeps things humming and growing.

Alas, strengthening the RPS was one big piece that wasn’t included in the final version of the Energy Diversity Act. But leaders in both the house and senate pledged to rectify that this session, given that the offshore wind coming will eat up basically all the demand that the growth in the RPS over the next dozen years would otherwise supply. And we need the RPS to drive more than that.

Also needed, but lacking, was a long-term solution to let solar—rooftop, large-scale, or other—keep doing what we need it to do: diversify our electricity mix, increase our energy resilience, and create jobs, jobs, and more jobs.

So, what needs to happen?

1. The house needs to pass strong energy bills

Last month the really important energy committee of the House of Representatives “reported out” a suite of bills that can serve as the basis for strong action by the whole chamber:

  • RPS – Increases our requirement for new renewable energy to 35% new renewable energy by 2030—a nice round(ish) number, though not as strong as what other states have done (50×30; see below), or even our neighbor Connecticut (40×30)
  • Solar – Raises the “net-metering” caps that keep many solar projects from connecting and keep disrupting the growth of our solar economy (though our strong solar economy and interest in investing in solar mean that we’ll hit even those new caps soon)
  • Energy storage – Aims to strengthen our power sector’s resilience with targeted deployments of batteries or other technologies
  • Electric vehicles – Drives EVs with rebates and other policies

There’s also an important bill to take our nation-leading energy efficiency efforts to the next level.

Several of the bills are now in front of the House Ways & Means Committee, so it’s up to that committee to strengthen them and get them to the full house, and quickly. And then it’s up to the full membership to strengthen and pass the lot of them.

2. The senate needs to pass its strong, multi-part bill.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the state house… The Massachusetts Senate Ways & Means Committee passed a solid bill last week. The “Act to Promote a Clean Energy Future” (Senate Bill 2545) includes a range of important provisions to drive progress in the electricity sector and more. A taste:

  • RPS – Increases our requirement for new renewable energy to 50% by 2030—on par with requirements in New York, New Jersey, California, and other states
  • Solar – Removes the net-metering caps, and addresses some other barriers that have been thrown up in utility proceedings
  • Climate progress – Lays out a process for setting targets for cutting our carbon pollution by 2030 and 2040, and makes sure the administration has the tools to address carbon emissions from our transportation sector, and in the commercial and industrial sectors
  • Energy storage – Has the state get a lot more serious about driving innovation in energy storage
  • Plus – More offshore wind, more clean energy procurements, more…

The bill deliberations will also present some opportunities for getting it even more right. On solar, for example, a key issue is making the technology more accessible to a broader swath of our society, in particular with programs aimed at low-income households.

All in all, and particularly with strengthening amendments, a solid foundation for clean energy progress. And the full senate will be taking up the bill any day now. (Watch this space for more info.)

3. The two chambers need to agree on a final version.

Unless one chamber passes verbatim the bill(s) that the other one has approved, whatever comes out of these processes will need to go to a conference committee—basically, a small group appointed by each chamber to hammer out something that will satisfy members of both bodies.

That means the house and senate need to get close enough so that they have something that qualifies for conference. What we can’t have happen is ending up with a suite of bills on one hand and a multi-part bill on the other, and no way to connect the two. That should be an important consideration for the leadership of each chamber.

Once the bills get into conference, and the conference committee does its thing, then the membership of each needs to say, “Aye.”

4. The governor needs to sign.

One last step: The governor. Gov. Charlie Baker has contributed a few pieces to the energy-future discussion, so whatever results from the legislative process is likely to reflect some of his priorities, and likely to earn his signature.

And then?

And then… we make it happen. There will be regulatory proceedings to go through—basically, the process of filling in the blanks, putting meat on the bones of the new statutes, so that people know the rules of the game for implementation.

None of this procedural stuff, on the legislative or regulatory fronts, is entirely easy. But it’s not particularly hard, either. And we know that the technologies are there and ready, and that so are the entrepreneurs, the businesses, and the customers.

So what we need from our legislature, and now, is the framework for progress. Not further reflection. Not studies. Action. That’s what leadership is about.

And that’s what we’re looking for over the next few weeks, as citizens and constituents, residents and ratepayers.

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  • thinkmorebelieveless

    What the Legislature also needs to do is stop their energy bigotry. They should be promoting renewable energy generation and not just a favored technology. There are 3000 surviving dams in Massachusetts yet only 2% are producing power. Many more 21st century design dams could be built but the discriminatory regulations suffocate hydro. They should be doing things like exempting Small and Micro hydro infrastructure from the Wetlands reg’s and direct the Attorney General to sue FERC / US Congress for the blatant discrimination against hydro.

    • ucsjrogers

      Thanks for weighing in, TMBL. Hydro is clearly a piece of the answer, and some policies, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, acknowledges that. Giving environmental protections short shrift isn’t the answer for moving hydro along (or keeping it around). But you’re absolutely right about the potential in existing dams.

      For dams that aren’t going away—dams needed for irrigation, flood control, or water supply, for example—adding turbines or upgrading existing hydroelectric facilities (with more efficient turbines, for example)—“incremental hydro”—can be some of the lowest-impact sources of new low-carbon generation.



      • Ken Egnaczak

        Hello John
        Thinkmorebelieveless asked me to reply to your comment. Thinkmore.. feels that putting a real person’s name to the reply is important.

        The Massachusetts Legislature are truly energy bigots. They promote foreign hydro from Canada while abandoning the local in-state hydro assets. Most of Massachusetts’ surviving dams are very Small and Micro size, they are the original distributed energy generators. Current policies suffocate their development. This size hydro’s infrastructure should be exempt from Wetland reg’s since hydro’s carbon free generation should be considered mitigation of wetland’s GHG CO2 and methane emissions. Wetland policies only consider if an action is a “take” or not and has no consideration for any “give”. I am attempting to re-power a Micro hydro site. The Wetlands delineation cost nearly $7000, of no value added money, for 3.5 acres.

        In order to receive energy credits a hydro must be certified by the Low Impact Hydropower Institute ( aka the Low Impact Hydro Certification Company since LIHI does not advocate for hydro). Of course only hydro has to be certified, apparently cutting trees and paving over open land and farmland for solar PV and the land changes for the other renewables doesn’t have an impact. LIHI told me that the cost for the certification of my Micro hydro was about $3000-4000 initially and then $1000 per year forever except for the periodic re-certification that will cost “something less” than the initial $3000-4000. Again, $thousands more of no value added cost.

        Hydro infrastruture does not destroy, it changes things. There is more biodiversity in an impoundment than in the river that created it. And when the rivers run dry during drought the hydro impoundments provide an aquatic sanctuary. And then there are the recreational opportunities from hydro infrastructure. Here in far Western Mass. almost every waterbody that people enjoy was man made or man-modified for hydropower……but none of these are used to produce power today.

        Hydro doesn’t need storage equipment to provide reliable power. Hydro taps into the natural storage of a watershed that is “recharged” by the water cycle. Of course hydro can be the storage for the intermittent renewables. Unlike non-renewable chemical batteries, pumped hydro provides truly renewable storage that has infrastructure that can last a century or more and has no consumables.

        And lets not settle for only the surviving dams. If the Dept. of Ecological Restoration continues to have their way existing dams will be an endangered species. Why is it that Energy and Environmental Affairs allows these restoration guys to destroy dams without considering their energy potential ? Energy Bigotry ?? We should be building 21st century dams that have fish passage and sediment transport like the US DOE is working on. Keep in mind that small dams can be built from local and renewable items like the wood crib dam in Guilford, Vt..

        We need every renewable energy resource we have working to address climate change, especially the local ones. Lets not abandon the best one that we have, the one that doesn’t quit at sunset or when the wind stops or the one that doesn’t need continual mining, refining, and replacement of chemical batteries to be a major player or the one that has multi-use infrastructure unlike single purpose solar, wind, and chemical batteries. Consider the environmental impacts of “throw away” solar cells, short life wind equipment, constant mining and manufacture of chemical batteries when you compare these to 21st century hydro. You get more than just electricity with hydro.

        Ken Egnaczak
        Cheshire, Ma.