July 8, 2016

Massachusetts Needs a New Energy Law

The good news about the Senate energy legislation approved last week is that it means both chambers and the governor have now backed strong plans to help the Commonwealth break its dependency on fossil fuels. The bad news is that one of the few substantive differences between the chambers involves a hot-button issue that could derail a compromise if legislators allow it: Cape Wind.

Massachusetts needs a new energy law to help meet its deadline of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020. The state has made great progress, shedding coal and oil-fired generators in favor of cleaner-burning natural gas, but will not reach the goal without tapping renewable energy sources faster.

On matters of substance, the House, Senate, and Governor Baker agree far more than they disagree. While the Senate’s legislation is more aggressive on hydropower than the House’s, and contains more support for wind electricity than the House or the governor, any of the approaches would likely result in more power coming from dams in Canada and wind turbines in northern New England. Both would also provide incentives to develop an offshore wind industry in Massachusetts, which could emerge as a major energy source in coming decades.

The likely result of all three: more renewable energy. A financial framework that allows transmission companies to build the power lines needed to access those resources. Less demand for natural gas. Less greenhouse gas entering the atmosphere.

The headline-grabbing difference involves Cape Wind, the star-crossed wind power in Nantucket Sound that’s been controversial since it was proposed more than a decade ago. Cape Wind would be an eligible power supplier for long-term contracts with utilities under the Senate bill, but not the House legislation.

More competition for the long-term contracts should lead to a better result for ratepayers, which argues in favor of the Senate bill. It seems possible, though, that it doesn’t really matter: The Cape Wind project has suffered serious setbacks and appears to be going nowhere fast. A fight over whether to kill a project that seems to be dying anyway is not worth having.

Another stumbling block best avoided is an unnecessary Senate measure to forbid utilities from charging ratepayers for natural gas pipeline capacity. Despite the passion the issue arouses, the proposal is premature, and legislators would be better off putting the pipeline issue aside in this round of legislation. The Supreme Judicial Court is currently considering a challenge to the legality of the so-called pipeline tax, and any legislative action should wait for their ruling. Additional pipeline capacity may bring down electricity prices for consumers but faces opposition from environmentalists and industry.

Had the last decade worked out differently — if Cape Wind hadn’t faced an organized opposition of well-heeled Cape Cod homeowners — it’s possible the state would not be where it is now, forced to turn to Canadian power to reach its climate goal and to new pipelines to keep prices down. But that’s water under the bridge — or over the dam, if you prefer — and the goal now should be to pass legislation that gives the Commonwealth a chance to reach its targets.

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