A massive bill by the House speaker to promote conservation and renewable energy is stirring up a whirlwind of opposition among consumer groups, environmentalists and utilities.
While some critics say the 360-page proposal does not go far enough in creating incentives, others say it would undermine conservation and clean energy efforts already under way in Massachusetts.
David Guarino, a spokesman for Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, D-Boston, said yesterday that Mr. DiMasi expects “robust debate” over the legislation, and it remains his top priority.
In addition, Mr. Guarino said, the speaker stands by a proposed restructuring of state agencies overseeing energy policy, and a proposal to divert half the funds consumers pay for alternative energy and conservation programs to new state programs that would provide grants to cities and towns addressing energy problems.
The proposals came under fire Monday as about 300 people turned up at a hearing, most challenging different parts of the legislation. Utility officials, environmentalists, fellow legislators, state Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles and Attorney General Martha Coakley all complained about different parts of the sweeping measure, which could be headed to a vote early in this year’s session.
Mark R. Dyen, of Conservation Services Group, said the program he works through would lose half its funding if the bill passes. Conservation Services Group contracts with electrical suppliers to use $50 million raised from fees on electric bills to do energy audits, install insulation and other energy saving steps for homeowners and commercial buildings each year
Half the money for that program, and half of the funds from electric bill charges to promote renewable energy, would be diverted to a new state Clean Energy Trust Fund. That fund would award money for municipal conservation, green building and renewable energy projects around the state.
Those funds come from consumers, through add-on charges on monthly electric bills.
The “system benefit charge revenues” are given to utilities and electrical distribution companies that contract for energy conservation programs for homes and businesses.
The renewable energy revenues go to the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust Fund, which provides loans and grants for public and private renewable energy projects, such as solar and wind projects and grants for renewable energy technology in public buildings.
Mark Breslow of the Massachusetts Climate Action Network said while the state fund called for in the legislation could provide a new source for alternative energy and conservation projects, the disadvantages “outweigh the advantages” of the current system. He said that while all of the conservation funds spent by utilities under the current system go toward energy efficiency and conservation, “nothing in the bill says what percentage would go to energy efficiency” in the proposed state program.
He said advocates for energy efficiency believe the plan could reduce spending on energy conservation efforts by as much as half.
Robert H. McLaren of National Grid echoed those concerns, saying while the state should be trying “to double or triple” energy conservation programs, the diversion of funds to the new state-run trust fund may actually reduce conservation efforts.
Douglas Horan of NSTAR said current wording of the legislation would cut funding for “a model that works very well.”
A number of alternative energy advocates say they oppose provisions to give alternative energy credits to existing small hydro and biomass dams and plants, because that would use up much of the available incentive credits to help finance new solar, wind and other renewable facilities.
Ms. Coakley had a senior staffer from the Attorney General’s office testify against provisions of Mr. DiMasi’s bill that would set up a new state department to advocate for consumers on utility issues and replace the current office of consumer affairs in the Attorney General’s office. Kevin Conroy said the Attorney General’s office and its legal experts were best suited to protect consumers, while a six-year term proposed for the appointed head of the new consumer board would make that top consumer advocate less accountable to the public and voters.
State Rep. Matthew C. Patrick, D-Falmouth, said a proposed tax credit for solar hot water installations of $300 was too small to have much impact, considering the actual cost for commercial solar installations.
State Rep. James J. Marzilli, D-Arlington, questioned a proposed tax credit for hybrid cars, saying they should not be applied to purchases of a luxury Lexus or large SUVs, when no tax break is being given to smaller gasoline cars that get much better fuel mileage.
Mr. Marzilli also said the state should adopt policies that require power companies to purchase additional electricity from fossil fuels, only when the price is less than the cost of additional conservation steps or renewable and alternative energy sources.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bowles voiced administrative objections to the bill’s provisions for a separate secretary of energy affairs. The Legislature recently approved Gov. Deval L. Patrick’s administrative reorganization that merged energy and environmental policy under Mr. Bowles’ office.
Mr. Guarino said while many at the hearing questioned the diversion of consumer fees for conservation and renewables to the state-operated fund, the bill would not raise any charges on natural gas or electric bills for consumers. As for the new energy secretary, he said, “We think it’s important to have a separate office of energy affairs.”
By John J. Monahan
Telegram & Gazette Staff
4 April 2007
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