For more than eight years Massachusetts homeowners and businesses have been paying $25 million a year in electric-bill taxes into a state trust fund intended to promote “green energy,” but some environmentalists say they’re not getting very much out of it.
After taking in and spending close to $250 million, the state Renewable Energy Trust can take credit for solar panels, miniature wind turbines, hydroelectric, and other facilities that so far have collectively yielded less than one year’s worth of power for 60,000 average-sized homes.
Now, citing the trust fund’s results and complaints about its bureaucracy, Governor Deval Patrick’s administration and House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi are moving to wrest the trust fund away from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a quasi-public agency in Westborough that operates the trust.
Deep inside the wide-ranging, 51-page renewable energy bill the state House of Representatives will take up later this week, Patrick and DiMasi have agreed on legislative language that could amount to a hostile takeover of the trust fund. If adopted, the measure would allow a new Department of Clean Energy – an upgraded version of today’s Division of Energy Resources – un limited use of renewable trust revenues to pay for energyconservation measures in city and town halls and municipal buildings.
Top aides to Patrick and DiMasi say they aren’t trying to make a political attack on the technology collaborative, just get better results from it. “I think we’re all frustrated, and I think the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative would indicate they’re frustrated, too,” said state Representative Brian S. Dempsey, a Haverhill Democrat who is cochair of the Legislature’s energy committee and a key drafter of the bill. “We just feel perhaps it’s time for a different approach, and we felt that a more centralized approach to the funding issue is crucial.”
Ian A. Bowles, Patrick’s energy and environmental affairs secretary, said in an e-mail the trust “has made significant contributions over the last decade. However, Governor Patrick has made clean energy development a top priority and we are working closely with the Legislature to evaluate programs like (the renewable energy trust) and maximize the amount of renewable power generation we build in Massachusetts.”
A spokesman for the technology collaborative and renewable energy trust, Chris Kealey, said the trust has made “grants and loans to support more than 1,300 clean energy projects across the state.” Referring to frequent not-in-my-backyard opposition to wind turbines and other projects, Kealey said, “Anyone who has followed the controversies around big wind projects knows that the major hurdle facing clean energy in Massachusetts is NIMBYism.”
Created as part of the 1997 utility restructuring law, the renewable energy trust was intended to spawn a vibrant clean-energy industry in Massachusetts. It is funded through a small tax on electric bills, typically 25 cents a month for an average homeowner or small business. A lawsuit unsuccessfully challenging the tax thwarted the trust from making any significant grants until 2002. Since then, opinion on the trust’s effectiveness has been mixed.
As of Aug. 31, the trust reported, it had paid for 84.7 megawatts of green-power capacity, enough to power about 64,000 homes at a time. That included 642 solar panels, 23 wind turbines, two “biomass” generators run on wood fuel and crops, two generators that run on landfill gas, and two hydro units. Measured by how much actual electricity they have produced since they were built, the facilities funded by the trust had by late August yielded a little less than one year’s worth of electricity for 60,000 homes.
The 40-employee trust has also spent money on hundreds of projects and initiatives including helping cities and towns study good locations for wind turbines and build energy-efficient schools, creating “public awareness” campaigns to promote green energy supply options for utility customers, and awarding solar-powered trash cans to communities including Andover, Egremont, Monterey, and Swampscott.
The solar trash cans typify a common complaint about the trust – that rather than succeeding in doing big things, in recent years it has given out money in as many as possible of the 40 state Senate districts and 160 House districts to buy political support.
In March, Mitchell Adams, collaborative director and a close political ally of former Republican governor William F. Weld, attracted attention on Beacon Hill when news broke that his board approved an enhanced severance package giving him $510,000 – two years’ salary – if Patrick got enough appointees on the board to oust him.
Seth Kaplan, a senior lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation, a Boston environmental group, said, “While the trust certainly isn’t a perfect organization, it has racked up some very significant accomplishments and clearly has shown real improvement and greater discipline over time.”
Kaplan agreed with Kealey that “issues around the difficulty of siting are certainly more responsible for the problems of getting large-scale renewable-energy facilities up and running than any failure of the trust.”
And while the governor’s administration and the House want to shift the $25-million-a-year fund to direct state control, that plan may hit rough going in the Senate.
“If we really thought they weren’t doing an effective job, we’d be for blowing them up. I don’t think we’re ready to give up and throw in the towel on an agency that we think works pretty well, not to say they couldn’t be better,” said state Senator Michael W. Morrissey, a Quincy Democrat who is chairman of the Senate energy committee.
By Peter J. Howe
13 November 2007
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