Mass. Senators Offer Plan To Accelerate Clean Energy Growth

The Mass. Legislature released a new energy bill Monday that includes a smorgasbord of proposals touching on virtually every sector of the state's energy marketplace. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Mass. Legislature released a new energy bill Monday that includes a smorgasbord of proposals touching on virtually every sector of the state's energy marketplace. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A comprehensive and complex bill written by a leading climate change activist in the Senate proposes to accelerate the state's transition to renewable energy by banning new natural gas infrastructure, setting new targets for emission reductions, and using the market to curb fossil fuel consumption.

The omnibus bill unveiled Monday includes a smorgasbord of proposals touching on virtually every sector of the state's energy marketplace, specifically seeking to eliminate caps on reimbursements for solar energy production, pursue energy storage technology, and expand the state's offshore wind power goals.

It directs Gov. Charlie Baker's administration to use "market-based" strategies to reduce carbon emissions in the transportation, commercial and residential building sectors, which could include carbon fees or a regional cap-and-trade system similar the one Massachusetts participates in for power generation.

Sen. Marc Pacheco, the chair of Senate's Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, said the legislation would put Massachusetts on track to exceed the goals of the Paris climate accord and be competitive with states like New Jersey and New York, which are aggressively moving into the wind power market.

"We believe this act, if it is enacted, will protect our public health here in the commonwealth, create jobs, literally thousands upon thousands of new jobs in the commonwealth, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially," Pacheco said at a State House press conference on Monday, when he rolled out the bill.

While a number of the ideas contained within the bill have found traction in the Senate in prior years, the House and Baker have been slow to warm to many of the major components of the plan, and it remains to be seen whether the bill can find a place in a shared agenda for the Legislature over the remaining months of the session.

It is also likely to face opposition from some in the energy field. The New England Power Generators Association said it was "extremely concerned with proposals to further carve up the market for individual resources."

"Such policies drive up prices for consumers and threaten power plants that drive one of the lowest emitting generation fleets in the country," NEPGA spokesman Dan Dolan said, suggesting the focus of enhancing carbon reduction efforts should be squarely on other sectors like transportation.

Last week, business groups called for increasing access to natural gas supplies, launching the Mass Coalition for Sustainable Energy. Executives told state leaders they believe the state is risking its economic viability and needs to take more seriously the responsibility of ensuring that power generation sources are ready to deliver and affordable. The groups -- including the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Mass. Business Roundtable and Associated Industries of Massachusetts -- delivered letters to Baker and legislative leaders in which they cited regional grid operator ISO New England's recent warning that the state could be vulnerable to rolling blackouts and controlled power outages.

The bill will move now to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and Pacheco said getting it through the Senate, House and governor's office will require a sustained lobbying effort. He said it garnered bipartisan support in his committee.

"You will see, I believe, the type of activism around this issue that this building has not seen in many years. That is my prediction," he said. "You will see people taking to the streets and coming to the State House and being in the corridors of the State House and demanding that we move forward because it is urgent that we do so."

The Taunton Democrat also addressed a concern raised late last month by Rep. Jennifer Benson, a sponsor of carbon pricing legislation in the House, that the Senate appeared to be circumventing the joint committee process, and therefore the bill might be looked upon dimly by House leaders.

The two lawmakers have spoken since about the process the Senate is using.

"This is not a standalone bill that was dreamt up in the middle of the night by the Senate," Pacheco said, noting that the Global Warming Committee used several bills that had moved favorably through joint committee as the basis for its omnibus proposal.

The bill, according to the committee, would ban the construction of new gas pipelines and protect electric ratepayers from having to pay any type of "pipeline tax" to pay for infrastructure.

It would also set new emission reduction targets for 2030 and 2040, as well as a target for energy storage of 1,766 megawatts by 2025.

"Quite frankly, we thought the administration's energy storage goal was inadequate," Pacheco said.

The proposal would impose a 10-year moratorium on fracking, require the state's pension fund to divest all fossil fuel company holdings, and ramp up the state's conversion to clean energy by increasing the rate of growth in the amount of renewable energy utilities are required to purchase to 3 percent a year, from 1 percent.

On the solar front, the bill would remove caps on the amount of solar power that customers can sell back to the grid and establish a target for solar energy production of 20 percent of the state's total electricity generation by 2020 and 30 percent 2030.

The committee has also proposed to delay the implementation of a minimum bill for solar producing costumers to 2020, postponing a policy pushed for by utilities to have customers that sell more power back to the grid than they consume to still contribute for the upkeep of transmission systems.

Public housing residents that utilize solar would become exempt from minimum billing and qualify for reimbursement for solar power at retail rates, under the bill.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, co-chair of the Senate Global Warming Committee and author of several bills that made it into the final package, called it the "boldest, most visionary clean energy bill in 10 years," and said he hoped for "quick" action in the Senate.

"There is no bigger challenge this century than combating climate change," Eldridge said.

The bill proposes to reduce the amount of the time between procurements of offshore wind power to 18 months from 24 months, designed in part to take advantage of federal subsidies that Pacheco said will begin to expire in the next year and a half.

Massachusetts faces new competition since passage of its offshore wind and renewable energy procurement legislation last session from states like New Jersey and New York who are moving aggressively to go even further than the 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind contemplated by lawmakers in the state's law.

"We give the executive branch the option as long as we're lowering greenhouse gas emissions, to move forward with future procurements and we have an aspiration goal of getting to five gigawatts of offshore wind by 2035, and I believe we can do it even sooner than that," Pacheco said.

The two senators were also critical of the Baker administration's efforts to facilitate the growth of electric vehicle usage on Massachusetts roads. Eldridge said the administration has "not moved fast enough" to implement existing law, and the bill proposed to codify the MOR-EV rebate program and prioritize transportation "corridors" for the installation of charging stations.

Drivers of electric vehicle would also be entitled to certain perks, such as use of high-occupancy-vehicle lanes, under the bill.

While the committee did not fully embrace Sen. Michael Barrett's pitch for a system of carbon pricing that would have put a new fee on gasoline in an attempt to influence consumer behavior, various forms of carbon pricing remain on the table.

Pacheco said the committee is proposing to leave intact a provision of the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act that gave the administration the authority to implement "market-based compliance mechanism" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Neither Deval Patrick's administration nor Baker has used that authority, Pacheco said, but the Senate bill would no longer make it optional. A market-based system to reduce emissions would be required by 2021 for the transportation sector, by 2022 for the industrial sector and by 2023 for residential. development.

Pacheco said he knows the administration has opposed the idea of a "carbon tax," but believes it might be more amenable to a cap-and-trade system similar to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative or some other structure.

"We have left it up the administration in this proposal, but we have no longer left it up to them whether they do it. We've waited long enough. We've waited 10 years," he said.

Bill Ravanesi, of Health Care Without Harm, said pursuing policies such as those in the committee's climate change bill would not only create clean energy jobs, but lower health care costs.

"When we eliminate air pollution associated with carbon dioxide emissions, we greatly reduce some of our most expensive health care challenges, chronic bronchitis, asthma, emergency room visits, lost work and school days, premature death and much more, while protecting brain and lung development in the very young," Ravanesi said.

RENEW Northeast Executive Director Francis Pullaro said tripling the renewable energy portfolio growth rate would send a signal to project developers that Massachusetts is open for investment.

"The amount of renewable energy that the utilities and the retail suppliers will have to procure under this bill will spark a revolution here in Massachusetts. It will displace more and more of the fossil fuel units that are running here and around the region today with carbon-free resources," he said.

David Ismay, of the Conservation Law Foundation, which successfully sued the state for failing to address emissions from the transportation sector under the Global Warming Solutions Act, said the Senate committee's bill hits across all sectors.

"Every element of this bill, and Sen. Pacheco laid out many of them, will work to either directly reduce greenhouse gas emissions or to protect our people from the devastating impacts from climate change, impacts we're unfortunately already living with," Ismay said.

This article was originally published on February 12, 2018.



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