SOMETIMES INCREMENTAL CHANGES result in a patchwork of policies whose larger significance may be missed – and along with it major opportunities. That is the case with Massachusetts energy policy right now.
The last several months have witnessed singular legislative, judicial, and executive branch actions that add up to an opportunity for a transformative acceleration into a clean energy future for the Commonwealth. The actions, ranging from pipeline regulation to wind farm promotion, were not specifically linked, but together can have an impact far greater than the sum of the parts.
In May, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection must set firm regulations that require specific declining annual emissions of greenhouse gases in order to comply with the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008. The court’s order will require the state to specify a cost-effective path to meet our long term goal of 80 percent reduction of GHGs by 2050.
Three months later, the SJC handed down a second decision, rejecting the proposal that utilities could recover the cost of new natural gas pipelines from electric customers. In rejecting the so-called “pipeline tax,” the court relieved ratepayers of long-term risk and the burdens associated with continued reliance on fossil fuels, including future price volatility and climate impacts.
Then, in the closing hours of the legislative session An Act to Promote Energy Diversity was passed and quickly signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker. This act required utilities to enter into long-term contracts for both hydro power from Canada and offshore wind from the waters of New England. Both sources will go a long way toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the future, and the offshore wind contracts will kick start a new economic sector with growth in local jobs. Offshore wind is following the same path as biotech 25 years ago, and solar started by former governor Deval Patrick 10 years ago.
Finally, in just the last several weeks, the Baker administration announced support for deeper emissions reductions as part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a northeast regional cap and trade program, a deal with three offshore wind developers to use the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal as the staging ground for their proposed projects, and an Executive Order signed last Friday that commits the Administration to more comprehensive actions on mitigation and adaptation.
It is rare in state government for the three branches, acting independently and not always in alignment, to point so clearly in the same direction for the Commonwealth’s future. The five decisions outlined above set the stage for a transformation of the Massachusetts economy by deploying clean energy technologies, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and growing clean energy jobs.
To accelerate this transformation, several policy options should be considered. One is an economy-wide market-based system that drives energy technology toward non-emitting sources. This could be an expansion of the RGGI cap-and-trade program beyond just the electricity sector to include heating, transportation, industrial, and commercial energy use. Another approach would be some kind of economy-wide clean energy standard or carbon fee (as has been successfully utilized in British Columbia), which would use the power of markets to spark innovation, provide certainty, and drive down the cost of new energy technologies.
The key is to create regulations and markets that spark game-changing innovation, bring down costs, create jobs and reduce emissions. The last 10 years have shown that Massachusetts can do that – clean energy jobs keep increasing by about 10 percent per year, while greenhouse gas emissions have shown steep declines, and customers have been able to control their energy bills.
Perhaps without knowing the cumulative effect of their actions, our judiciary, Legislature, and administration just pointed us down the path of a transformative acceleration into the clean energy future. Now we have to take that path.
David Cash is dean of the John W. McCormack Graduate School for Policy and Global Studies, UMass Boston, and a former undersecretary of the executive office of energy and environmental affairs, a commissioner of the Department of Public Utilities, and commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.