NY-MA Doubleheader on Clean Energy is a Game Changer

August 8, 2016 | 2:45 pm
Ken Kimmell
Former Contributor

The rivalry between New York and Massachusetts is famous: Yankees vs. Red Sox, Giants vs. Patriots, Wall Street vs. Harvard/MIT, glamour vs. provincial charm. Last week, New York and Massachusetts competed to be the Northeast clean energy leader. And in this case, they both won. Actually, we all did.

Massachusetts’ clean energy bill, signed today by Governor Baker, requires utilities and others supplying electricity for Massachusetts consumers to enter into long-term contracts for a combination of hydropower, onshore wind, and offshore wind.  A lot of it.  Enough clean energy, in fact, so that by 2030, Massachusetts will consume approximately 40 percent of its electricity from these renewable resources.  The new law will also launch a job-creating offshore wind industry, and prevent Massachusetts from becoming dangerously over-reliant on natural gas. (The Union of Concerned Scientists played an important role in the passage of the bill by preparing an economic analysis of “going big” on renewables,  publishing op-eds, and engaging our supporters and staff, including me, to urge the state House and Senate leadership to step up the level of ambition.)

Just a day after the move by the Massachusetts state legislature, the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) gave final approval to Governor Cuomo’s plan for New York to obtain 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.  The PSC order establishes an overall legally binding renewables target for 2030, and requires New York state utilities to ramp up long-term purchases of “renewable energy credits” to meet those targets.  The PSC also approved a controversial provision to keep three “at-risk” upstate New York nuclear power plants running, providing financial support pegged at the “social cost of carbon” to incentivize these power plants to stay open.

Here is why these back-to-back initiatives matter so much:

Both states enjoyed bipartisan support for these plans. In a refreshing departure from our polarized national politics on climate change, the Massachusetts bill was supported by Republican legislators and signed by a Republican governor. The New York PSC, which is bi-partisan by law, unanimously approved Governor Cuomo’s “50 by 30” plan. These actions show that substantial bipartisan collaboration and progress is not only possible, but is happening now at the state level.

Both states have gone far beyond federal mandates. The Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan requires states to lower carbon emissions from power plants, but the New York and Massachusetts plans go far beyond this federal requirement. This is an excellent example of our unique system of federalism, in which the national government sets a minimum standard to ensure progress, but states are free to do better, as they have in this case.

With clean energy, there is strength in numbers. With these two victories, New York and Massachusetts join California and Oregon, which also recently set ambitious renewable energy targets and approved policies to achieve them. This broad support punctures the argument that opponents of clean energy often make—that it does no good for one state to go it alone, and states that do so will lose their competitive advantage. These victories promote a counter-narrative of a virtuous cycle in which states build on each other’s successes.

It’s not just the coastal states. While it might be tempting to lump these states together as coastal states that don’t represent the rest of the country, the facts show otherwise.  Consider that Iowa now generates approximately one-third of its energy from wind power, while Texas has ten thousand wind turbines powering over 4 million homes. Tangible and broad-based renewable energy achievements like these across the country prove that renewable energy works everywhere.

What’s next? While much attention is currently focused on the federal election, it may not change the current dynamic of paralyzed, divided federal government on climate policies and many other issues. That’s why, to keep momentum going and raise our national level of ambition to meet the pledge we made under the Paris climate agreement, we need to see more states step up. This is especially important in those states where progress seems stalled due to quarreling over issues such as state budgets or, perhaps, the United States Supreme Court stay on the Clean Power Plan. Bold, bipartisan policies such as those adopted by New York and Massachusetts set an example.

So, who else wants to join in a healthy clean energy rivalry?  Your state will come out a winner if you do, no matter whom you are competing against.