Massachusetts Can Lead On Clean Energy. The Nation Should Pay Attention.

, former president | April 7, 2016, 11:21 am EDT
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Massachusetts now stands at a crossroads in planning for its energy future, and the state’s choices will have ramifications far beyond its borders. The question now before state officials: with the closure of many coal plants in the state and region, and the scheduled retirement of the Pilgrim nuclear power plant, what sources of electricity should replace them?

As a resident and former state official, the state’s choices matter a lot to me. But they should matter to you too, even if you don’t live here, because the nation as a whole benefits when states like Massachusetts demonstrate the benefits of clean energy.

That’s why the decision now before the Massachusetts legislature over a comprehensive energy bill is so consequential.

Two energy paths

In essence, the legislature must choose between two energy paths. One is to build extensive new gas pipelines and gas-fired power plants (some of it with electricity customer money). It’s a strategy that seems easy in the short run and one we are already close to pursuing.  But if we continue down this path, the state will become dangerously dependent on a single fuel source.

Massachusetts is now one of only eight states that generate more than half of their electricity from natural gas, and if gas were to replace all of the electricity from the Pilgrim nuclear plant, the state would become 77 percent dependent on one fuel.

Talk about putting all of your eggs in one basket!

Becoming overly dependent on natural gas exposes consumers to unpredictable price hikes when natural gas prices soar (as they have done before). The strategy also prevents the state from meeting the ambitious goals set by Governor Baker to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and it continues to drain state energy dollars out of the region.

A better option

Another path is to invest in clean and renewable energy. A lot of it.

Hydropower from Canada, onshore wind from upper New England, and offshore wind from the vast wind resource right at our doorstep in the Atlantic Ocean.  Plus generating much more solar energy across the state.

UCS has just completed a detailed economic analysis of this latter path. We sought to answer this question: how much would it cost the average consumer if we were to cut our natural gas risk and make significant progress on reducing carbon emissions by procuring about half of the state’s energy needs from hydropower, wind, and solar?

The answer: about $3.00 per month for the average household that now spend more than $100 per month on electricity. Approximately the cost of a doughnut and coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts.

Is this worth it? Of course it is. Just as a sensible family planning for retirement diversifies its portfolio, this strategy would ensure that state energy portfolio comes from multiple sources.  Hydropower, solar, and wind are particularly helpful in mitigating risk because they can be purchased via long-term contracts that have stable and predictable prices, unlike the often-dramatically fluctuating price of natural gas.

The investment in clean energy would also help Massachusetts meet the ambitious goal of reducing emissions 35-45 percent by 2030 that Governor Baker put forth last year with his fellow New England Governors and Canadian premiers. Our modeling shows that this strategy alone gets the state about one-third of the additional reductions it needs to meet this goal.

And rather than shipping our dollars out of the region to pay pipeline owners and oil and gas companies, Massachusetts would keep more of its energy dollars in the region by employing workers to build turbines on land and offshore and to install solar panels. In fact, one especially attractive part of the package is the chance for Massachusetts to jumpstart jobs and careers in a whole new area—offshore  wind—by establishing the state as a national leader.

Add to that the global and regional public health benefits of fossil-fuel free energy, and you end up with a very appealing package.

Getting on the path

So how do we accomplish this?  It’s not as hard as you might think. The Massachusetts legislature is expected to vote in the next several months on a comprehensive energy bill. There is strong public support for provisions that would allow utilities to enter into long-term contracts for clean energy sources, subject to competitive bidding and review by the Department of Public Utilities to ensure that consumers are protected.

Our analysis shows that we can do this, we can afford it, and we get more benefits if we do it on a large scale.

So, no excuses. It’s time for the Massachusetts legislature to act and show the country how a responsible and forward-thinking state replaces its coal fleet, finds a balanced role for natural gas, and transitions to clean energy. It’s an important chance for the state to “think big” and serve as national model, as it has done so ably in the past.

Photo: Ad Meskens

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  • Tom Moran
  • Thanks for all your comments.

    Solodoctor, I’ll start with your comment to say yes, it would be very helpful if UCS members contacted
    the Governor and legislators. Here is an action alert we put out last week.

    JRT 256, Grid operators use a range of tools to handle variability of supply and demand, as
    we talk about here:

    I do agree with you that wind and hydropower can complement each other very well as
    the flexibility of hydro can make up for the fact that wind is a variable
    resource. This could prove to be particularly useful if transmission lines
    were constructed to transmit both hydropower and wind energy, with the balance
    of the two resources changing to account for wind conditions. That being said,
    the high capacity factor of offshore wind in particular makes it a very
    promising resource, as strong offshore winds tend to coincide with
    periods of peak demand, such as hot summer days. As for nuclear, I am not
    sure what you mean by “reregulation.” UCS does support an
    across-the-board carbon price, and if designed correctly this mechanism could
    make nuclear more competitive with natural gas. On the costs of different
    options, it’s important to keep in mind that offshore wind has a strong history
    of coming down in price, while nuclear’s trends have consistently been in the
    other direction. That cost-reduction potential is part of what’s so
    exciting about the potential for offshore wind in Massachusetts.

    Garrett, the 2013 New England Governors-Canadian Premiers
    blueprint document does generally call for a boost in imports of hydropower,
    wind and solar, but it is not as specific as UCS’s proposed approach.

    Joe, while UCS holds out the possibility of biomass complementing
    other sources such as hydropower, wind and solar, there are serious questions
    being raised in the scientific community about how to properly account for the
    carbon dioxide emissions that come from burning wood and how to ensure that
    biomass is a genuine improvement over fossil fuel combustion. I note that the Scientific Advisory Board to
    the United States EPA is grappling with these important questions.

  • JRT256

    Some of this makes sense. If coal fired power plants could be closed and replaced with Canadian hydro power that would be an improvement that few could disagree with.

    However, what is said about having to spend the ratepayers money to replace the power with natural gas power makes no sense. I have no doubt that this would be the case and it is what nuclear advocates have been saying will happen when existing older nukes are closed. Since your suggested alternate will also cost money, perhaps Massachusetts should first make needed modifications to a poorly designed electric utility “deregulation” so that it doesn’t put nuclear baseload power at a disadvantage — perhaps even taking the step of reregulation of at least nuclear power — because a system that was supposed to save consumers money but is going to cost them more was not designed correctly — designed by people that don’t correctly understand economics.

    Installing wind to reduce Carbon emissions should raise the question of what will be used for backup. This wind power will have a Capacity Factor [CF] of about 40% (perhaps a little higher for off shore) so it will not be able to provide power all of the time. People always neglect this issue and think that wind and solar can just be connected to the grid with no regard to the fact that they produce variable and intermittent power. Even if both are installed, the CFs add up to less than 100% and there is some overlap.

    So, were you planning to use Canadian Hydro for backup? Otherwise, it will still be necessary to build the natural gas fueled plants only they won’t be used as much of the time. Pipelines might still be needed depending on how wind and solar perform in really cold weather. The important point here is that once you install wind, you might be committed to fossil fuel backup which will limit further reductions in Carbon emissions.

    It is even possible that a new nuclear power plant would be a better choice than offshore wind. Everything that I read, most importantly the EIA projections, indicate that offshore wind is still more expensive than nuclear. However, no company will build a new nuke in a “deregulated” state.

  • solodoctor

    Would it help if UCS members who reside in Mass sent letters or emails to their elected reps in the state legislature asking that they support this kind of plan? I hope UCS will foster such efforts at the appropriate time.

  • Garrett Menard

    What was the “2013 regional climate change overview & blueprint” referenced in the NE governor’s & eastern Canadian provinces conference suggestions that were agreed too ? How were they different from those put forth by the UCS ?

  • Joseph Zorzin

    Ken, what about woody biomass? It’s local- and it’s not fossil fuel.

  • Wind turbines are a much better idea than more fracking and pipelines.