Feds launch probe of Mass. renewables plan

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, February 17, 2020

The U.S. International Trade Commission launched an investigation this week into how Massachusetts’ goals for sourcing renewable power would affect consumers and climate goals across New England.

The analysis of the “economic effects” of the state’s renewable goals puts the Trump administration in the middle of a contentious policy debate over whether increased imports of Canadian hydroelectricity would help Northeast states meet their climate targets.

The investigation will consider the state’s “most recent renewable energy goals and commitments,” as well as the “renewable energy goals and commitments in other New England states, and the potential available resources to meet those goals,” according to a USITC document. The House Ways and Means Committee requested the inquiry.

Officials in several New England states, as well as in New York City, support plans to secure additional supplies of hydropower, which they see as a century-old zero-carbon complement to wind and solar.

But opponents — including Massachusetts’ attorney general, some prominent environmental groups and renewable producers — argue that buying more Canadian hydroelectricity wouldn’t actually reduce emissions, if considered on a regional basis. They say it would simply divert the utility’s sales from other markets, causing fossil fuel plants to fill the gap, while imposing new costs on power consumers.

Last month, the prospective supplier in Canada, Hydro-Québec, accused the authors of one critical analysis of acting in bad faith, calling their conclusions “shamefully irresponsible” (Energywire, Jan. 29).

The USITC analysis, due in January 2021, won’t consider “proposed or pending renewable transmission projects,” an apparent reference to power lines under review in New York City and Maine.

That omission came at the request of Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.).

In a January letter to USITC, Neal asked for the investigation into the economic and climate impact of Massachusetts’ renewable procurement aims but backed off his previous month’s request to evaluate new imports from Hydro-Québec. Neal’s office did not respond to E&E News queries about why.

Still, USITC said that a main focus of the investigation would be the role of imports — including hydropower imports — in meeting Massachusetts’ renewable commitments. It will also consider case studies from “other states, regions or countries” that imported hydroelectricity.

The investigation could give voices on both sides of the issue their first chance to make their arguments face to face, at a federal public hearing scheduled for May 15.

USITC’s fact-finding investigations, which the president or legislators can request, don’t end with specific recommendations on policy. That makes them different from investigations like the one that resulted in solar tariffs.

A ‘positive sign’

Hydro-Québec has not sent representatives to state-level hearings over siting new transmission lines — prompting some critics to question whether the utility is presenting all the facts about its ability to meet new demand without diverting some supplies.

Serge Abergel, a spokesman for Hydro-Québec, said the company was looking forward to making its case to USITC. “This we see as a positive sign,” Abergel said.

The investigation would provide the chance to explain the company’s potential value to the region’s energy system, rather than focusing on the local impacts of a transmission line, he added.

“It’ll be an opportunity for us to answer the questions that we haven’t been able to answer in a formal process” and to explain how Canadian hydro could balance out the intermittency of wind and solar, said Abergel.

All six New England states share the 2050 goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80%, but Massachusetts’ renewable targets — the subject of the USITC analysis — may be something of a moving target.

The state’s renewable portfolio standard calls for drawing 35% of all power from renewables by 2030, and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has an informal target for developing offshore wind, which hasn’t been produced at utility scale. Plans are bubbling in the Massachusetts Legislature to pass a bill this year that would eventually move the state to a 100% renewable system.

USITC’s New England-focused investigation may also come after a deal is struck between New York City and Hydro-Québec. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s sustainability office is studying the value of a long-term contract for hydroelectricity sent via a new $3 billion transmission line. In a State of the City address this month, de Blasio promised to finalize a deal this year, though representatives did not confirm that it would ultimately move forward.

“We’re definitely very active in New York, and hopeful,” said Abergel. “It’s looking like New York might actually be moving along toward that.”