Law on Massachusetts governor’s desk helps renewables. But will it help climate?

Source: Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, August 2, 2018

Massachusetts lawmakers delivered a big boost to renewable energy yesterday, agreeing to raise the state’s renewable portfolio standard, double its purchase of offshore wind and restructure a proposed charge on solar-owning consumers.

But state lawmakers ultimately rejected a Senate proposal to impose an economywide carbon fee, meaning the law does not address carbon pollution from the transportation sector, the state’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The bill, arriving on the last day of the 2018 legislative session, amounted to a compromise between the House and Senate. The upper chamber unanimously passed a sweeping energy bill, while the House signed off on a series of more modest proposals.

It also continued a broader trend in state climate action nationally. Massachusetts became the latest blue state to double down on emissions reductions from the power sector while struggling to put forward a solution for reducing greenhouse gases from other areas of the economy.

“It’s disappointing from the perspective that it’s an opportunity lost. We could have adopted bold legislation that would have put us on track to absolutely meet our 2050 requirements,” said state Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Democrat who championed the Senate legislation. “We are improving and significantly decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, based on the actions we’ve taken. But we’re nowhere close to where we could have been.”

Massachusetts law requires the state to cut greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

The bill now goes to Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican who has supported previous attempts to bolster renewables in Massachusetts. The governor has remained mum on the subject throughout the legislative debate, and it is unclear whether he will sign the bill. A Baker spokeswoman did not immediately return a request for comment yesterday.

Analysts, for their part, questioned whether the bill would actually move Massachusetts closer to its climate goals. In boosting the annual increase in the state’s renewable portfolio standard from 1 percent to 2 percent through 2030, lawmakers potentially narrow Massachusetts’ path for wringing further carbon reductions from the power sector over the next decade, said Jesse Jenkins, an energy researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

That’s because it potentially crowds out low-carbon resources like hydroelectricity and nuclear that have previously benefited from the state’s clean energy standard, he said.

“That’s great for renewables, and it supports a set of politically popular resources, but it is a missed opportunity to actually accelerate the transition to zero-carbon electricity sources,” Jenkins said.

And the bill does nothing to address emissions from the transportation and residential sectors, which account for 39 percent and 26 percent of Massachusetts’ greenhouse gas emissions, respectively. The power sector, by comparison, represents 19 percent of the state’s emissions.

Jordan Stutt, a policy analyst at the Acadia Center, a Boston-based environmental group, applauded the clean energy provisions of the legislation but said it represents a missed opportunity on transportation.

“This is all happening while the federal government is rolling back clean car standards and potentially challenging the California waiver for zero-emission vehicles,” he said. “In light of that backwards trajectory from Washington D.C., we really need Massachusetts and other states in this region to become leaders on transportation.”

Pacheco said much of the blame lies with Baker and former Gov. Deval Patrick, his Democratic predecessor. A 2008 law provides Massachusetts with the legal framework to tackle carbon emissions outside the power sector.

“What has failed so far is executive branch leadership,” Pacheco said.

Offshore wind emerged as perhaps the biggest winner in yesterday’s legislation. The final bill doubles the amount of offshore wind eligible for a long-term contract from 1,600 megawatts to 3,200 MW, bringing the state’s goals in line with New York and New Jersey.

The increase comes as Massachusetts moves forward with its first offshore wind project. Bay State regulators, separately from the legislative debate, were expected to release late yesterday the details of a proposed contract between Vineyard Wind and local utilities for an initial 800-MW project 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard.

The results for renewable advocates elsewhere were more mixed. The Senate proposed eliminating a cap on net metering for residential solar and limiting the ability of Eversource, a local utility, to impose fixed charges on panel-owning consumers.

The compromise legislation left the net metering cap in place and tweaked utilities’ approach to fixed charges. Where Eversource had proposed levying a demand charge on individual consumers’ peak electricity consumption, it will now be able to assess a charge based on the power system’s peak demand. The utility will also be required to communicate when the system peak is expected.

“We continue to believe demand charges are not the best policy option, but this construction is better than the previous construction,” said Dave Gahl, Northeast state affairs director for the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group.

Eversource labeled the legislation a “measured approach” and said it is “carefully studying the bill to determine its impact and our next steps” on the demand charge.

The state’s most powerful trade association echoed that sentiment. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts said it supported a more limited increase in the RPS and boosting the the state’s offshore wind program. But it applauded the Legislature for narrowing the scope of the legislation, saying the more-focused bill would avoid disrupting the power markets. The moves will help the commonwealth meet its climate goals, the association said.