How One State Cut its Carbon and Created Jobs

, , former president | May 16, 2014, 9:32 am EDT
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Last week I started as the new President of UCS, and this week I’m starting as our newest blogger. I couldn’t be more excited. I spent the last seven years as a public official in Massachusetts, including the last three as the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. So it is only natural that my “inaugural” blog will focus on my experience in Massachusetts and, in particular, my state’s remarkable success in cutting carbon and growing a clean energy economy at the same time. Our track record in Massachusetts holds important lessons for the nation.

Under the leadership of a determined Governor (Deval Patrick), and supported by an enlightened legislature, environmental groups, businesses, and labor groups, Massachusetts made itself a leader in this field in just seven years. Here is how we did it.

Cutting carbon with efficiency, renewables, and cap-and-trade

First, Massachusetts passed a law that mandated that our electric utilities pursue “all cost-effective energy efficiency,” meaning, that they invest in energy efficiency whenever it costs less to save electricity than to buy it. The state also required builders to adhere to strict new building codes to make sure that all new buildings are as efficient as possible.

A wind turbine in Hull, MA. Source: Phil LaCombe

A wind turbine in Hull, MA. Source: Phil LaCombe

Second, we provided a wide and thoughtful array of incentives for renewable energy, such as requiring utilities to buy an increasing percentage of electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar, and allowing homeowners and others who have small renewable energy installations (like rooftop solar) to sell excess power back to the electric grid at favorable rates. And to make sure that larger renewable energy projects can get bank financing (a big problem for large wind farms that have high capital costs), we required utilities to enter into long-term contracts with renewable suppliers, and amended the law recently to require a competitive bidding process to make sure consumers get the best deal.

Third, working with our neighboring New England and mid-Atlantic states, we created a regional greenhouse gas cap and trade program known as RGGI. Under this program, power plants in the nine RGGI states can no longer use the air as a free sewer for carbon. They have to buy allowances from the states to emit carbon, and the allowance prices are going up because the nine states are cutting the number of allowances they will sell. And to make the program even more effective, the RGGI states have used most of the proceeds from the sale of these allowances to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy.

The results? Cleaner energy, less carbon

Massachusetts and the eight other states in RGGI have cut carbon emissions from their states’ power plants by about 40 percent since 2005, and are projected to reach approximately a 50 percent cut by 2020.

Massachusetts is now the most energy efficient state in the country, and has been for the last three years in a row, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

In 2007, Massachusetts had about 3 megawatts of solar energy; now it has close to 500 megawatts and the amount of solar energy continues to grow.

In 2007, Massachusetts had about 3 megawatts of wind power; now it has about 100 megawatts. And the state is poised to host the nation’s first offshore wind facility, adding more than 400 megawatts of clean, renewable wind energy to serve its population and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

And what about the economy? It grew.

One of the most important lessons from Massachusetts is the economic impact of these environmental policies. The fact is, Massachusetts has seen explosive growth, not in spite of its environmental policies, but at least partly because of them. The clean energy sector is the fastest growing sector in Massachusetts, adding approximately 5,000 new businesses and 80,000 new jobs in the last seven years.

Solar panels on a library. Source: Chelmsford Public Library

Solar panels on a library. Source: Chelmsford Public Library

Massachusetts residents are keeping an ever higher percentage of their energy dollars local by hiring workers to put solar panels on schools, or changing out pumps at wastewater treatment plants or retrofitting old buildings, rather than exporting those dollars to coal and gas producers. Those workers, in turn, buy goods and services in Massachusetts, so this investment benefits the entire state economy.

This track record is not merely a source of pride—it is a model for the nation. In a few weeks, the U.S. EPA will propose new regulations to cut carbon emissions at power plants. Massachusetts and its neighboring states have demonstrated that a 50 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2020 is not only feasible, but it can make local economies stronger, more efficient, and more diversified. I am excited about what Massachusetts has done, and I am hopeful that the EPA will set a standard that galvanizes other states to follow similarly successful paths.

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