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

June 12, 2018 | 4:59 pm
Credit: J. Rogers
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

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.

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.