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

April 7, 2016 | 11:21 am
Photo: Ad Meskens
Ken Kimmell
Former President

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.