LAST TUESDAY’S stunning rebuke by Maine voters of a utility transmission project has dramatic implications for Massachusetts’ clean energy and climate strategy. The so-called New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line would have delivered low carbon electricity from Canadian hydroelectric plants, and has been a key pillar of the Baker administration’s plan for meeting the Bay State’s ambitious climate targets.
At best, the project is now in limbo; at worst, Massachusetts will need to fill that clean energy void with other resources. A diversified strategy that puts eggs in many baskets will be the only viable path forward. That includes offshore wind, solar, battery storage, green hydrogen, and geothermal power. Hydroelectric and pumped storage, generated locally or imported, also should not be forgotten as they already play an important role in many Massachusetts communities, like Holyoke, which derives 52 percent of its electric power from hydro sources.
The Maine vote is particularly striking as it coincides with the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, where advocates are trying to convince world leaders that 100 percent clean energy is at our fingertips if we have the initiative to grasp them.
Fortunately, there are several near- and long-term moves Massachusetts can make to help reach its 2030 and 2050 goals. Three key near-term steps are needed to build momentum in the areas of solar, offshore wind, and energy efficiency.
First, the Department of Public Utilities can issue two long-awaited decisions: one to expand our successful solar energy program (aka SMART) and the other to redefine the way we plan and pay for the utility upgrades needed to interconnect solar to the grid. Both decisions have been in the works for some time and the delays are endangering progress on clean energy deployment as real projects can only wait so long to move forward.
Second, the Legislature can advance our offshore wind strategy by improving the way we solicit new projects. Both House Speaker Ron Mariano and Gov. Charlie Baker have laid out proposals that will fuel this emerging industry. However, the Legislature should take additional action before it adjourns later this month as a show of our enduring commitment to clean offshore wind. A faster project selection process, economic opportunities for underserved populations, and reduced costs to ratepayers need to be added to make Massachusetts competitive with other Atlantic seaboard states racing into this market.
Third, we need to adopt the essential energy efficiency plans currently under review by the Department of Public Utilities. These efficiency plans make up the award winning MassSAVE programs and have the potential to take our efficiency efforts to the next level by adopting a more holistic approach to energy use and consumption. By incorporating explicit equity elements, the plans will ensure that efficiency savings flow to underrepresented communities, which have historically been left behind by such efforts. Programs that incorporate energy storage and heat pump technology address an increasingly interconnected energy system. These proposals represent the next generation of efficiency and should be approved.
Beyond the immediate steps above, Massachusetts should set a 100 percent clean energy target to put the state on track to realize the Climate Roadmap passed by the Legislature and signed by Baker earlier this year. Only with a bold, big picture commitment that gets Massachusetts to 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 (or sooner) will the Bay State put itself on track to hit all of its climate targets. Rhode Island must also pursue its goal of 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030.
The referendum in Maine is proof that we all must start having honest conversations about the massive infrastructure investments needed to make a clean energy transition possible. This means more substations, power lines, and construction across the region. We must — and we will — protect environmental justice communities, and we must engage a broad set of stakeholders along the way. But we cannot shy away from the hard siting choices that lie ahead. For instance, Maine’s iconic coastline communities and its fabled backwoods could be devastated by rising oceans and wildfires if our region, nation, and planet fail to avert our worsening climate crisis. That also hangs in the balance on these decisions.
Finally, we must be having a parallel reckoning on equity issues and environmental justice. Climate response opens up a new economic frontier, but it is imperative we make sure we build a diverse cleantech economy that prioritizes jobs and workforce development in underserved communities. Past economic booms have skipped or redlined low-income communities and communities of color. That pattern must be broken. Even worse, those booms have burdened those communities with harmful infrastructure that has had an insidious effect on the health of nearby residents. Climate action marks a chance to undo much of that harm.
As the world looks to COP26 for leadership, we shouldn’t lose an opportunity to demonstrate what that leadership looks like here at home.
Jeremy McDiarmid is vice president for policy, Peter Rothstein is the president, and Joe Curtatone is the mayor of Somerviile and the president-elect of the Northeast Clean Energy Council.