The 1 Thing Massachusetts Needs in its Clean Energy Bill

July 23, 2018 | 1:39 pm
Photo: Emmanuel Huybrechts/Flickr
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

Massachusetts is at a pivotal point in its lawmaking trajectory and its clean energy path. With just one week remaining in this legislative session, where we head on clean energy is up to a polydactyl handful of lawmakers tasked with coming up with shared language in the next few days for a bill that takes the state to the next level on climate and energy. The good news is that there’s just one thing we need to see in what they come up with.

Our journey and our guides

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have passed clean energy bills, and a group of three representatives and three senators is working on hammering out a version that represents the best of each.

The make-up of that “conference committee” is auspicious, in terms of clean energy action:

  • The lead conferees are Rep. Tom Golden of Lowell, the house head of the joint senate-house energy committee and an advocate for energy storage, and Sen. Michael Barrett of Lexington, a strong, tireless voice for climate action economy-wide.
  • Also representing the senate is President Pro Tem Marc Pacheco (Taunton), a long-time advocate for moving on climate change, and author of the state’s landmark 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA).
  • The conferees also include House Speaker Pro Tem Patricia Haddad (Somerset), who last session came out swinging hard (and successfully) for offshore wind, and who is behind some of the important house pieces of what’s in play this time around.
  • Rounding out the committee are Sen. Patrick O’Connor (Weymouth), the sole Republican member of the senate’s global warming committee, and House Minority Leader Brad Jones (North Reading), who has led his fellow Republicans to unanimous votes on virtually every major climate and clean energy bill of the last decade (and co-signed a recent house letter urging clean energy action this session).

The secret of our success

So what should that special sextet do in the next few days?

It’s easy to picture a really solid bill emerging from what has already passed one chamber or the other. It should certainly include these elements:

Photo: J. Rogers

  • Strong boost for new renewable energy. The state’s requirement that utilities use increasing amounts of new renewable energy (the main class of the renewable portfolio standard, or RPS) is currently set at 13%, and set to grow 1% per year.
    • Status: The house and senate agree that it’s in need of an increase—it’s unfinished business from the otherwise impressive clean energy bill from last session—so all they need to do is agree on how much. The senate’s version takes us to getting half of our electricity from new renewable energy by 2030, the same level that leading states, including California, New York, and New Jersey—are headed toward. That’s the one that belongs in the combined house-senate bill.
  • Barrier-busting for solar energy. Massachusetts has been a major solar success story for most of the last decade, and solar has been a major driver of clean energy job growth in the state. But policy uncertainty and the caps that earlier laws put on its growth caused the industry to actually lose jobs last year. And Massachusetts fell from the #5 state in new solar in 2017 to #9 in the first quarter of 2018. Those are self-inflicted wounds we could well do without. We also need the legislature to knock down barriers that are keeping low-income households from adopting solar.
    • Status: The solar bill in the house hasn’t made it through the full chamber yet, but the conferees should adopt the senate language that does away with the caps, nixes unfair utility practices that hurt customers who use less electricity, and expands access for low-income solar.
  • Stardom for storage. Leading states are pushing their utilities to embrace storage at really meaningful levels, which will help drive innovation, cut pollution, and make our electricity grid more flexible and resilient.
    • Status: House language would encourage innovation, and senate language would set specific targets for utility progress. The conferees should embrace both chambers’ language.
  • The next leap for energy efficiency. Massachusetts has been the #1-ranked state on energy efficiency policy for 7 years in a row, and it’s ready for the next level. New technologies, like efficient heat pumps for home heating and cooling, are willing and ready partners.
    • Status: The house has two strong bills to power that next leap. One would keep the momentum going by broadening programs to incorporate new technologies. Another would drive appliance efficiency standards to new heights (especially important in the absence of sufficient federal progress). Both those house efforts should be in the final bill, along with senate language worth incorporating.

And there are plenty more pieces potentially in play and certainly worthy of strong consideration, around 2030/2040 targets for cutting carbon pollution under the GWSA, for example, and around climate action in sectors other than electricity. Both houses have language to expand the offshore wind push that last session brought too, so including those should be slam dunk.

The guiding star

Those are the pieces that, if wisdom prevail, will come together to form Massachusetts’s next strong step forward on clean energy and climate action.

And the way to get there, in part, is to think not just about the particulars—those elements that will make for a great package—but also about one overarching concept, the one thing we really need from this package. At a time when our president has willfully abdicated American leadership on climate and clean energy (and so much more), when some in our state are calling for a “wait and see” approach to further progress (rebutted nicely here), what we need, here and now, is leadership.

Since it restructured the way electric utilities operate, two decades ago, Massachusetts has taken the lead in so many ways. From its establishment of the first statewide renewable portfolio standard way back when, to its strong push to show how solar could work even in northern climes, to its prominence in energy efficiency, to its nation-leading commitment to offshore wind in 2016, the Bay State has blazed trails for others to follow.

The thing about leadership, though, is that it takes effort to stay out in front. On offshore wind, for example, Massachusetts’s strong commitment was followed by a stronger one in New York, and an even stronger one in New Jersey.

Other states have seized the mantle of leadership.  And we want it back.

To be clear, we want leadership not just for leadership’s sake. Our trailblazing has led us to a vibrant clean energy economy. Offered the prospect of economic renaissance in areas of the state where new energy is building on energy experience stemming back to the days of whale oil. Brought us cleaner air and water, with the health and economic benefits that come with those. Made energy so much more affordable because of the power of energy efficiency and our ability to do more with less.

But America does need leadership from the laboratories of democracy that are the states, needs shining cities on the hill that demonstrate the next steps, that inspire action commensurate with the scale of the challenge and the opportunity.

Lead on

In the next few days, then, we need leadership. From the six members of our legislature who must hash things out. From their legislative colleagues who can weigh in in support of the strongest possible package for progress. From the leaders of the house and senate who aren’t on the conference committee.

And we need the voices of the citizens of Massachusetts to ring in the ears of those elected officials, helping them understand how much we value what we’re so close to achieving. If you’re a Bay Stater, and particularly if your senator or representative is on the conference committee or in leadership, now’s the time to make your voice heard on clean energy.

Leadership takes work. And it is so worth it.

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.