The Legislature is likely to take up energy legislation this session. Before going into detail about proposals and my preferred approach, it is critical to lay out the context. Three widely acknowledged facts lie at the heart of this conversation: Massachusetts needs to produce more energy, energy here is too expensive compared to other states, and we need immediate action to meet our 2020 and 2050 climate goals.
Much of our energy production capacity is coming off line. Many coal and oil plants have shut down and the coal-fired plant at Brayton Point is scheduled for closure in 2017. Other plants across the region will also be brought offline and the Pilgrim Nuclear Facility will close by 2019. This reduction in our ability to produce “baseload capacity” – the minimum amount of electricity required at a steady rate – requires replacement, even though our best-in-the-nation energy efficiency has reduced demand.
Meanwhile, the past two winters laid bare our vulnerability. 2013/2014 saw heating prices rise to all-time highs, and although last year’s record setting winter saw heating prices fall, the 2013/2014 price spike showed the impact of volatile gas prices (in part due to inadequate infrastructure). Massachusetts residents and businesses are squeezed by the 6th-highest electricity prices in the nation. Many residents cannot afford heat and electricity, the cost of which also verges on prohibitive for some businesses even at normal levels.
Finally, addressing dwindling supply and increasing costs must also mean rising to the challenge posed by climate change. Meeting our 2020 and 2050 climate goals requires substantial investment now in renewable energies.
There are a number of proposals to address our need to produce more energy, lower prices, and meet our climate goals. Among them are two natural gas pipelines, both of which seek to address the inability of current infrastructure to meet demand and anticipate impending loss of capacity. The New England States Committee on Electricity and ISO New England have, along with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, identified the New England market as particularly exposed to price fluctuations and service disruption and believe expanding natural gas capacity is critically important.
I do harbor reservations about these proposals. Both require lands for construction, some of which are in environmentally sensitive areas. Ratepayers, meanwhile, may pay a tariff to fund the projects which are expensive and which some argue provide more capacity than is actually necessary. Finally, I also am mindful of concerns about gas leaks and whether any of the natural gas carried in expanded pipelines will be the generated by hydraulic fracturing. I will work to make any expansion of pipeline capacity equitable and paired with major investment in renewable energy sources.
It is encouraging that other proposals to meet our energy needs center on renewable energy. Specifically, solar, hydropower from Canada, and wind – on-shore and off – are all actively being considered.
Solar will likely have been addressed by the time this piece is published. As I write, a bill in the final stages of negotiation is slated to be taken up this week. While other energy policy will likely be part of a single bill, expediting solar was critically important. Failure to act has stifled a burgeoning industry and led to cancelled projects and lost jobs and federal dollars. I advocated for a solar bill that included substantially lifting the cap on net metering and preserving access to community solar to give every resident of the Commonwealth access to solar energy.
Hydropower – to be imported from Quebec – offers synergy with solar and wind which, while renewable, are intermittent sources of power. Unlike solar and wind, hydropower is a constant energy source that can supplement our baseload capacity. Endorsed as a strategy by Governors Baker and Patrick, hydroelectric power may play a major part in meeting Massachusetts’ energy needs.
Given Massachusetts’ geography and weather, the best source of wind energy likely will be offshore. While the long-discussed Cape Wind project is essentially dead in the water, there is appetite in the Legislature for offshore wind and three significant new proposals from major players in the wind energy market have surfaced.
As a general matter, I favor a strong progressive approach focused on energy efficiency and strong investment in renewable energies. Those of us favoring such an approach may have to accept, as part of a comprehensive bill, some expansion of natural gas capacity in part out of necessity and as a compromise in return for significant new investments in renewable energy. Of course, I will need to review the specific balance of any comprehensive energy bill and will continue to work with like-minded colleagues to influence the legislation.