AS IT ALWAYS DOES, the summer’s legislative session on Beacon Hill concluded with a flurry of activity, ending with a number of bills sent to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk on everything from a sales tax holiday to automatic voter registration.
For all our progress, one area where work isn’t finished is energy. Massachusetts has shown ambitious support for procuring and deploying renewable energy, including electricity coming from solar, wind, and hydropower. The final legislation included many laudable and positive provisions toward that end.
We won’t be able to rely on renewable energy for all our power for decades, but it is the first step. The most important work is still staring us in the face – and that is guaranteeing adequate power to the grid for our homes and businesses, while still meeting 2050 greenhouse gas reduction statutory mandates. For the thousands of small businesses represented by the National Federation of Independent Business, responsible for countless jobs in the Commonwealth, achieving that balance between clean energy and reliable energy is the first priority.
Massachusetts is one of the costliest states in which to do business already. Part of the reason is that New England pays the highest electricity prices in the continental United States. Every winter, a lack of reliable energy leaves us paying an estimated $1 billion in increased costs–even more when temperatures dip.
This past winter provided a sobering preview of what will continue to happen absent further action from Beacon Hill. A two-week cold snap left us 36 hours from running out of electricity and burning through enough oil and coal to wipe out a year’s worth of solar emission’s benefits.
In January, ISO-New England, the non-profit operator of our grid, warned the state might be facing rolling blackouts due to a shortage of natural gas, which provides the majority of Massachusetts electricity. At the time, some scoffed at the possibility we might run out of energy if we failed to act.
Now, after using 2 million barrels of oil inside of a few weeks that left us hours from electricity rationing, no one is laughing anymore. The author of a 2015 report that brushed aside reliability concerns made an abrupt about-face this spring, arguing that meeting the region’s need for electricity “is getting harder, not easier” and asking: “Will anything but a blackout coalesce states around an infrastructure solution?”
It need not come to that. Ending the practice of burning our dirtiest fuels to generate power during cold weather and other periods of high demand doesn’t require a full-scale energy reset. It simply requires policymakers to acknowledge that we shouldn’t be taking clean and reliable alternative options, like natural gas, off the table until our economy can be fully powered by renewables.
When will that be? Experts say we remain decades away from complete independence from fossil fuels. The cold snap this past winter gave us some insight into the current shortcomings of renewables. Over that two-week period, when solar panels were covered with ice and snow, and wind turbines had to be shut off due to high winds, those energy sources contributed virtually no power to the grid during peak demand hours.
None of that means we should be pumping the brakes on renewable technology. To the contrary, the high-tech industry strongly supports doubling down on storage and mobile batteries for emergencies during the winter. Those are steps that this session’s bill helped advance to ensure renewables can be responsible for more of the state’s electricity needs.
But as policymakers take these steps, they should also be working to backstop these renewables with other energy sources, like natural gas, which, unlike any other clean energy source, operates with nearly 100-percent reliability, around the clock, and in extreme weather conditions.
The important conversation has begun, and we’ve made some progress – but Massachusetts lawmakers have important work to do in the session ahead. Until then, the Legislature receives an “Incomplete.”
Christopher Carlozzi is the Massachusetts state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, which is a member of the pro-natural gas pipeline Mass Coalition for Sustainable Energy.