The state Senate voted 36-0 today to approve sweeping legislation that boosts energy conservation and encourages use of alternative sources such as wind, solar and hydrogen fuel cells.
The Senate also unanimously approved and sent to the state House of Representatives a bill that would increase state funding for private nonprofit human service agencies. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Gale D. Candaras, D-Wilbraham, and sought by many agency leaders in Western Massachusetts, could improve salaries for people who work directly with disabled people.
The comprehensive energy bill requires the state to increase to 15 percent the percentage of electricity it produces from renewable sources such as hydroelectric, wind and plant-based fuels. The state currently gets about 4 percent of electricity from renewable sources.
The bill also provides new incentives for home owners and businesses to install solar panels and wind turbines.
Winston E. F. Vaughan, an organizer for Environment Massachusetts in Boston, said the bill gives Massachusetts one of the country’s strongest policies on renewable energy.
“Overall this bill is exactly what we need to solve energy problems in Massachusetts,” he said.
Erin H. O’Brien, a spokeswoman for Holyoke-based ISO New England, which oversees the power grid for New England, said the organization still is reviewing the bill. But, she said, state efforts to encourage energy efficiency will help slow growth in demand for electricity and reduce the need for building plants and transmission lines.
The state House of Representatives is set to approve the bill Wednesday. As early as Wednesday, the bill could go to Gov. Deval L. Patrick, who is expected to sign it.
House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, D-Boston, first submitted the bill and it was revised by the Senate.
Under the bill, utilities might have to pay for more energy-saving devices such as compact fluorescent bulbs. According to the legislation, the utilities would finance such devices when the devices cost less per unit of electricity than it would cost the utility to buy power from generators.
The bill also establishes a pilot program requiring utilities to sign 10- and 15-year contracts that could allow financing for wind farms or other alternative energy projects.
The bill allows homeowners, businesses and municipalities to get a credit from a utility for use of solar panels or small windmills. If a solar or other project generates more power than a homeowner uses, for example, the utility would have to credit the homeowner for that excess power that is sent to the electric grid.
The bill requires Massachusetts to adopt federal “best practice” standards for energy conservation in new buildings.
According to the bill, the state would provide up to $10 million a year in statewide technical and financial aid to cities and towns for promoting energy efficiency or constructing alternative energy plants. The bill allows municipalities to own alternative energy plants, according to an analysis by the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston.
By 2018, 50 percent of state-owned vehicles would have to be hybrid or alternative fuel vehicles, according to the bill.
During a busy day in the chamber, senators also approved a bill that sets a new standard of adequacy of care to be applied by the state when setting rates for private, nonprofit social service providers.
The bill requires the state, in establishing rates, to weigh inflation, new government mandates and geographic differences in wages, benefits and housing costs.
It allows agencies to seek contract changes for unexpected costs or additional services.
The bill phases in the new rate-setting procedure over three years, starting with 10 percent of contracts in the fiscal year beginning on July 1.
According to Candaras, the bill directs the state Division of Health Care Finance to set rates for agencies, stripping the responsibility from the state Executive Office of Administration and Finance.
Under the current process, providers must bid to a state agency’s pre-set contract prices that are based on budget considerations, Candaras said.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Candaras said providers are faced with enormous problems because of low wages that cause high turnover of employees. Many of the workers earn less than $30,000 a year.
By Dan Ring
24 June 2008
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