House officials are busy crafting an omnibus energy bill, setting the stage for one of the more interesting legislative debates on Beacon Hill in a long time.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo has been talking about an omnibus energy bill for some time, apparently on the theory that when you’re dealing with a lot of controversial yet related issues, the best approach is to throw them all together and start horse-trading.
The approach has advantages. From a policy perspective, it makes sense to tackle the state’s energy issues in a comprehensive rather than piecemeal fashion. Solving the state’s energy and climate issues is a lot like solving a puzzle. How do you make the pieces fit together to accomplish the desired outcome?
The all-together approach also has political appeal. Gov. Charlie Baker wants hydroelectricity from Canada. A key House leader wants offshore wind. The Senate by and large is a big fan of solar power. Could all three branches of government find common ground somewhere in the middle so they all get something out of the deal?
The downside of the all-together approach is the danger that a stalemate over one piece of the legislation could stall everything.
Rep. Thomas Golden Jr. of Lowell, the House chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, said he’s working on a comprehensive bill that should be ready in February. He declined to discuss details.
Rep. Patricia Haddad of Somerset, the House’s speaker pro tempore and the driver behind a special carve-out for offshore wind development, said she thinks an omnibus bill makes sense. “Looking at everything all together gets us to a better place,” she said. “I’m confident that something good is going to come out.”
The big question is what will be in the bill. Hydroelectric imports from Canada are likely to be included. So will the carve-out for offshore wind. New natural gas pipelines are a big issue for the state and region, but their approval is largely a federal matter. However, one issue that could pop up in the energy debate is whether to overrule the Baker administration’s push to have the state’s electricity customers foot the bill for new natural gas pipelines.
Solar is the big wild card. There is growing consensus that the financial incentives for solar development are too lavish and need to be adjusted downward, but the House and Senate are far apart on how big the adjustments need to be.
Just before the close of last year’s session, the House and Senate stalemated over the issue of net metering, which is the way solar developers are compensated for the electricity they feed into the grid. The current net metering price is 18 cents a kilowatt hour. The House wanted to cut it to 5 cents and the Senate countered with tiered rates for various types of projects, with prices ranging from 9 to 12 to 18 cents a kilowatt hour.
A conference committee consisting of members from the House and Senate was appointed to resolve the different net metering approaches of the two branches, but there has been little progress. Many think net metering and the whole issue of solar incentives may be tossed into the omnibus pot.
One source said it will be interesting to see if the House pushes for special incentives for offshore wind at a time when it is trying to cut incentives for solar. Both renewable energy technologies hold the promise of developing new industries of the future, but both require, at least for now, heavy ratepayer incentives to work financially.
George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said he has heard an omnibus energy bill is coming but he has no idea what will be in it. He hopes solar is included because he didn’t like either the House or Senate versions of net metering legislation that appeared at the end of the last year’s session.
Bachrach, an environmental advocate, said he has no problem with offering incentives for both solar and offshore wind. Indeed, he finds it ironic that so many Beacon Hill lawmakers are concerned about the high cost of the two forms of renewable energy yet have no qualms about spending as much as $150 million to lure General Electric’s headquarters and 800 jobs to Boston. He notes the solar industry already employs nearly 15,000 people in Massachusetts and the offshore wind industry could employ thousands as well.
“We are protecting the jobs of the past and not the future,” he said.