IN THE NEXT TWO MONTHS, Massachusetts has the opportunity to reorient the energy system away from risky over-reliance on fossil fuels and toward a stable clean energy future. The opportunity is created by two trends upending the electric power sector. First, aging power plants have become increasingly uneconomical, prompting a turnover of almost one-third of the region’s power generation. Second, costs for renewable energy have plummeted, offering the potential to retool with clean energy at competitive, stable prices.
Grid-scale clean energy sources such as offshore wind, onshore wind, and hydroelectricity have zero fuel costs and can help take Massachusetts off the fossil fuel-price roller coaster and reduce the $20 billion that we spend on imported coal, oil, and natural gas each year. Renewables will also help achieve greenhouse gas reduction requirements mandated by law and needed to address climate change.
The House of Representatives has passed a bill that takes steps toward clean energy, but lacks the necessary scale, scope, and balanced approach needed for an efficient and effective clean energy transformation. The bill calls for competitive bids to develop Massachusetts’ world-class offshore wind resources, and – like an earlier proposal from the Baker Administration – would enable imports of Canadian hydroelectricity. Support for offshore wind builds on remarkable progress that has enabled northern European countries to drive down technology costs and launch a new industry, but the scale in the House bill may be insufficient to spur the private sector investment needed to capture the full cost reduction and economic development benefits of developing a local supply chain and expertise in a sector projected to support 54,000 jobs and $200 billion of investment in the region by 2030.
Hydroelectricity imports can play an important role in achieving climate commitments and stabilizing electricity prices, but the proposed approach must be expanded to equally advance complementary renewable energy resources and maximize competition. Massachusetts utilities need to supply increasing quantities from renewable resources, and many of the best locations for grid-scale renewables such as onshore wind are in remote areas of northern New England that do not have access to the transmission capacity to reach customers. Transmission lines needed to carry hydroelectricity from Canada could be filled with wind to achieve renewable energy goals, and hydroelectricity could provide supplemental power to create a round-the-clock resource. Onshore wind is now one of the cheapest energy sources, and bundling wind with hydroelectricity would promote greater price competition than under a hydropower-only procurement. Competition also helps promote projects that minimize local impacts and thereby will be able to come online faster.
The House bill aims to grow the market for combinations of onshore wind, other renewables, hydro, and the transmission to bring this competitive clean energy to the Commonwealth, but again the scale of the bill’s solicitation is smaller than the market’s need to replace retiring generation and may limit the competitiveness of the opportunity for new clean energy combinations.
While this legislation can help transition large-scale power supplies from fossil fuels to renewable sources, we also need to focus on the demand side where innovative technologies, policies, and business models are empowering consumers and communities to participate in the energy system in unprecedented ways. Electricity from rooftop solar panels avoids the need for energy from large-scale power stations, and reduces strain on a system built to meet peak energy needs on a handful of hot summer days. Energy storage technologies can optimize renewable energy sources and the energy system as a whole – for example, by storing cheap wind or hydropower at night and feeding it back into the grid during hot afternoons when power is scarce and expensive. Smart approaches to energy management can use refrigerators and water heaters to control demand on the grid while compensating customers for the services that their appliances are able to provide. These local, clean, consumer-friendly technologies must be enabled to play an increasing role in meeting our energy needs by updating outdated rules that favor large-scale, supply-side projects.
The amusing moniker of a “combo platter” has been used to refer to the mix of resources that will create a more affordable, cleaner, and reliable energy system. A clean combo platter will offer servings of the main dishes – offshore wind, onshore wind, and hydroelectricity – while rounding out with offerings needed for a complete meal: distributed energy resources that empower consumers and increase competition.
Environmental, business, clean energy, health, and consumer groups have come together as a “coalition of coalitions” called the Alliance for Clean Energy Solutions to support an approach that diversifies our energy diet, promotes the Commonwealth’s capacity to innovate, and puts us on the path to the clean energy future that we need.
Daniel Sosland is President of Acadia Center, a research and advocacy organization committed to advancing the clean energy future. Peter Rothstein is President of the Northeast Clean Energy Council (NECEC), the voice of businesses building a world-class clean energy hub in the Northeast.