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What to know about the amended climate bill on Gov. Baker’s desk

The turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Though the 2021-2022 Massachusetts legislative session has come to a close, the drama over the future of a big climate and clean energy bill continues.

Late last month, lawmakers sent Gov. Baker a sweeping bill that tackled everything from offshore wind to the future of natural gas in the state. Baker left much of the bill intact, but sent back a dense 19-page document outlining his preferred amendments.

The legislature accepted some of his suggestions, but also rejected quite a few. It sent an amended version back to the governor on July 31, and Baker has until Aug. 11 to sign or veto the legislation.

Putting the "will he" or "won't he" drama aside for a moment, there’s a lot of important policy in this amended bill. And if it’s passed, lawmakers and environmentalists say it will go a long way toward helping Massachusetts reach its 2050 climate goals.

So here, in plain English, is what you should know about the latest version on Baker's desk:

Clean energy

Invests in offshore wind industry

There's a lot in this bill aimed at growing the offshore wind industry in a way that maximizes — and equitably distributes — economic and environmental benefits in Massachusetts. And with the exception of eliminating the so-called "price cap," not much has changed from the legislature's first draft of the bill.

The "price cap" is the controversial rule that required every new offshore wind project to deliver cheaper electricity than previous projects. While supporters of the cap said that it helped protect ratepayers, opponents like Gov. Baker eventually won out, arguing that the provision had outlived its usefulness and may cause more harm than good.

Beyond that, the bill says that when the state is selecting new projects, it must give more weight to bids that promise manufacturing investments, employment opportunities for low income and minority workers, supply contracts with minority and women-owned small businesses, job training opportunities, project labor agreements and other environmental and socioeconomic benefits.

It would also change the solicitation process for offshore wind projects. No longer would the big investor-owed utilities like National Grid and Eversource help select winning bids. That power would now be solely in the hands of the Department of Energy Resources and an independent evaluator.

To help invest in the sustainable future of the offshore wind industry, the bill puts the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center in charge of making sure the state has the necessary infrastructure and training programs. To that end, the center would oversee the administration of new tax incentives, grants, loans, and other investment opportunities to help build a domestic supply chain, support new technologies and establish more job training programs.

The bill also directs the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to help schools across the state establish pilot programs for offshore wind job training. As part of this work, the department needs to track the number of low-income, English-language learners and students with disabilities who complete a certificate program.

Solar panels in a field at Knowlton Farm, Grafton, Mass. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Solar panels in a field at Knowlton Farm, Grafton, Mass. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Updates solar rules

The bill takes aim at several solar “loopholes” in the current state law. Right now, only one solar installation per property can qualify for net metering. The bill would not only scrap that rule, but allow homeowners to be compensated for up to 25 kilowatts of solar power instead of just 10.

The bill would also make it easier for farmers and ranchers to put up solar panels in fields where they grow food or raise livestock. And it would establish new incentives for solar projects that are paired with pollinator-friendly plants.

Catalogs energy storage

From various batteries to pumped hydro, the bill directs the Department of Energy Resources to catalog all of the energy storage technologies available and under development in the state, and to issue recommendations by the end of 2023 about how to add more storage capacity to the grid.

The department must also set battery storage benchmarks for future Climate Roadmap plans. And if it deems it “beneficial to the commonwealth,” the department may issue solicitations for up to 4,800 gigawatt-hours of storage — a substantial increase over what Massachusetts currently has in operation.

Invests in the electricity grid

Building renewable energy projects is one thing, but getting that power to households across the region is a whole other issue. New England's transmission system — the high voltage wires that carry electricity long distances — is not ready for the energy transition legislators are banking on. So the bill does a few things to address this.

It establishes a Clean Energy Transmission Working Group to study the best ways to work with other New England states to build new transmission capacity or upgrade existing lines. And it establishes a Grid Modernization Advisory Council, which will help ensure utilities make proactive and cost-effective transmission upgrades.

The bill also authorizes the Department of Energy Resources to start soliciting bids from companies that want to build an offshore transmission system to help bring power from offshore wind projects to shore.

Declares biomass electricity isn’t renewable

Whether to give renewable energy credits to wood burning biomass facilities has been a contentious topic in Massachusetts over the last few years. The original bill the legislature sent to Gov. Baker would have prevented any woody biomass facility from getting renewable energy credits for the electricity it generates, unless it was already getting those credits as of January 1, 2022. This means that two small combined-heat and power facilities in the state could continue to qualify.

Baker didn't like that provision and suggested an amendment to exempt all existing facilities. The legislature rejected this proposal, and the original language stands.

If Baker signs the bill, it would mark a big win for environmental advocates who have long argued that biomass isn't clean or renewable.

That said, biomass would still be eligible for energy credits under a different state program that rewards generators of "clean heat."

Invests in other carbon-free energy

The bill creates an investment fund that the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center can use to help support clean energy research, build relevant infrastructure and otherwise assist the growing industry.

It also, for the first time, gives MassCEC the ability to help companies working on nuclear fusion, networked geothermal and deep geothermal energy technology. And, in an effort to help people in underserved communities access clean energy jobs, the bill aims to help MassCEC expand its workforce development programs.

A rider boards the 23 bus in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A rider boards the 23 bus in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Transportation

Bans internal combustion vehicle sales

If this bill becomes law, Massachusetts would join the growing list of states banning car dealerships from selling new gasoline or diesel-powered vehicles after 2035. (Used internal combustion engine vehicles can still be sold.)

Increases EV rebates

The current state rebate for a new electric vehicle is $2,500. The new bill increases this amount to $3,500 for new and used vehicles costing $55,000 or less, and throws in an extra $1,000 for residents who trade in a gas powered car or truck. There will also be some incentives for medium and heavy duty zero-emission vehicles.

Adds more EV chargers

The bill makes it clear that in order to get more people to use electric vehicles, the state needs more charging infrastructure. To that end, it would create a single state council to oversee the deployment of charging infrastructure, with an eye toward building it out in an equitable and accessible way.

If passed, the state Department of Transportation will be required to install chargers at all Mass Pike service plazas, five commuter rail stations, five substation stations, and at least one ferry terminal. The department will also need to collect and report data about issues with charging infrastructure.

Expands access to EVs

Electric vehicles aren’t cheap. Beyond the new rebates described above, the bill allows lower-income residents to get an extra $1,500 on new and used EV purchases. It also mandates that the state do more outreach about EVs in lower income neighborhoods in and places with a lot of vehicular air pollution.

The state will need to track this effort and report annually about EV adoption among low- and moderate-income households and people of color. It will also need to build a website to help people find available EVs at car dealerships.

Greens public transit

If this bill becomes law, the MBTA can only buy zero-emission vehicles beginning in 2030. And by 2040, the entire fleet must be zero-emission vehicles.

What’s more, the MBTA needs to prioritize putting zero-emission vehicles on the road in environmental justice communities, and it needs to start factoring emissions and climate resiliency into its capital planning.

Outside of the MBTA, the bill requires various state agencies to help regional transit authorities develop electrification plans, study the challenges of electrifying all school buses and oversee emissions reductions from ride hailing programs like Uber and Lyft.

Pipes at the Weymouth gas compressor station. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Pipes at the Weymouth gas compressor station. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Fossil fuels and buildings

Lets some cities ban fossil fuels

One of the more controversial aspects of the original bill sent to Baker was a provision giving 10 municipalities the ability to ban fossil fuel hookups in new construction. The governor has been clear that he doesn't support this effort, and his amended version of the bill included a lot of changes in this section.

The legislature ignored his suggestions, and the pilot program remains the same: Only cities and towns that have met the state’s 10% affordable housing target can qualify, and the requirements won't apply to health care facilities and science labs.

Additionally, if this bill becomes law, participating municipalities must collect and report detailed data about emission reductions, construction costs and utility bills.

Incentivizes electric appliances

Most of the language about the future of the Mass Save program remains the same since the first draft of the bill, with one notable exception. The earlier version said that beginning in 2025, Mass Save could no longer offer incentives or rebates for fossil fuel powered heating and cooling systems, unless they are a backup to an electric heat pump. In the new version, there are also exceptions for hard to electrify buildings, like some commercial or industrial spaces, and low-income households.

The bill still mandates that Mass Save to step up in lower income neighborhoods and publish data annually about this work. And it requires utilities to establish off-peak rates for electric vehicle charging — meaning you’d pay less for electricity you used to charge an EV when demand is low.

It also directs the Department of Public Utilities to find ways it make it easier for residents and communities to install geothermal heating and cooling systems.

Targets large buildings and school

The bill requires that all buildings over 20,000 square feet report their emissions annually. The state must also explore ways to make K-12 school buildings all electric, more energy efficient and with improved indoor air quality.

Addresses future of natural gas

The bill takes aim at the Department of Public Utilities’ ongoing work on the future of natural gas in the state. The department has been criticized for letting the utility companies write their own plans, and this bill would give environmental groups and the public a bigger role in the planning process, while also making the whole procedure more transparent and open.

The bill also explicitly directs the Department of Public Utilities to ensure that it's program to replace aging and leaking natural gas pipelines doesn’t run counter to the state’s decarbonization goals. And for the first time, it enables utilities to use money from the program to install big geothermal heat projects.

Other gas related measures include a provision barring commercial, industrial and multifamily building owners from using the state’s Commercial PACE program loans to upgrade natural gas heating systems, or switch from oil to natural gas boilers. As well as new language requiring utilities experimenting with networked geothermal projects to submit detailed plans about how they could decommission their natural gas infrastructure throughout the state.

Editor's Note: This post originally described the House and Senate's compromise climate bill. The updated version reflects amendments proposed by the governor and accepted by lawmakers.

An earlier version of this story misstated the governor's deadline and some details about the biomass provisions. Those have been corrected.

This article was originally published on July 22, 2022.

Related:

Miriam Wasser Twitter Reporter, EarthWhile
Miriam Wasser is a reporter for WBUR's environmental vertical.

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