By Sarah Boone
On Thursday June 9, business leaders filled the conference hall at Brown Rudnick for a panel discussion on the clean energy transition in Massachusetts. With our partners Environmental Entrepreneurs and E4TheFuture, the event brought together the local business community, clean energy experts, and policymakers. Located on the 18th floor of the Financial Center, the room afforded panoramic views of the Boston skyline: South Boston spread out before the Bay on one side; the skyscrapers of the Financial District and the waterfront on another. But the real draw was the podium at the front of the room, the three panelists who took turns behind it, and the discussion that followed.
One point rang true for everyone in the room: Massachusetts doesn’t need additional natural gas pipelines. Christophe Courchesne, Chief of the Environmental Protection Division in the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, presented the methodology and findings from AG Maura Healey’s recent study that refuted the need for new natural gas infrastructure. Additional gas pipelines would increase our carbon usage, when we need to be decreasing emission rates if we are to meet our targets in the coming years. As Christophe noted, “There are cheaper, less carbon intensive ways to keep the light on in New England” such as local clean energy imports and energy efficiency.
Peter Shattuck, Director of the Clean Energy Initiative at Acadia Center, spoke about the economic risk posed by sea level rise and the policy mix we need to mitigate these impacts. According to research commissioned by the Boston Green Ribbon Commission, the city of Boston will likely see a 7.5 foot sea level rise by the end of the century. During his talk, Peter focused on the importance of electrifying the economy. “The electric sector needs to lead the way. It is the backbone of getting clean energy off the ground.” While he applauded Massachusetts energy policy, he noted we are falling behind as states like California seek 50% renewable energy by 2050. Peter recommended an increase of our Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS). He also referred to energy storage as the “Big Papi” of renewable energy, as it is the only form that can harness and later use excess power generated during low energy periods.
Matthew Morrissey, the Executive Director of Offshore Wind: Massachusetts, educated the room on the vast wealth of offshore wind energy potential lying just off the coast of Massachusetts. As Peter Shattuck mentioned before, though Massachusetts is lacking in traditional energy sources, “What we do have is consistent winds offshore; some of the best resources in the world.” Specifically, several areas of about 250,000 square miles just below the Vineyard, each containing 1,500 megawatts of offshore wind energy potential. These areas are now prequalified by the government for wind turbine use and have been de-risked from a commercial perspective. “When people say we are the Saudi Arabia of wind out here, this is why,” Matthew remarked.
The timing of this discussion could not be more perfect. Just 18 hours prior, House Representatives voted 154 to 1 on a pivotal “omnibus” energy bill. The bill requires the state to procure 1,200 megawatts of offshore wind by 2027. While this is an historic commitment, it falls short of the 2,000 MW needed to capture the full economic benefits of the industry, as identified in a University of Delaware cost study.
The bill included a gas leak amendment to create a framework for timely repairs and/or replacement of leaks in natural gas infrastructure. Another amendment implemented property-assessed clean energy (PACE), a model for financing energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements for commercial and residential buildings. However, subject to interpretation, the provision may only allow for energy efficiency improvements, not renewable energy installations.
While this is a big win for Massachusetts, the House bill fell short in a few ways. The promised “omnibus” bill was much less comprehensive than anticipated. The bill did not put in place a comprehensive adaptation management plan (a policy otherwise known as “CAMP”), an important tool to mitigate climate change impacts and protect the local business community. The bill could have offered provisions to provide a more even playing field for onshore wind projects, instead of allowing hydro projects to dominate the bundled procurement market. An amendment that increased the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) rate from 1% to 2% was also withdrawn.
The House bill is an important victory, nonetheless. “It’s not the solution but it’s a step in the right direction,” said Steve Cowell, CEO of E4TheFuture. But in order to remain a clean energy leader, and not fall behind states like New York and California, Massachusetts will have to take a step further. As the bill moves to the Senate, we hope lawmakers will go bigger and better.