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Coakley eyes balance between environment, high energy bills

With an eye toward lowering energy costs for Bay Staters, Attorney General Martha Coakley wants to thresh out why bills are high, and what could be done to lower them.

Ahead of an energy summit in Norwood Monday morning, Coakley told the News Service that she wants to see how the state could better carry out environmentally friendly energy policies with an eye on the bottom line.

“I would like to start the conversation on Monday about where we are in Massachusetts, and more importantly how can we implement Green Communities Act to keep it as low-cost as possible,” Coakley said in a Friday interview.

High energy usage drives up the cost to ratepayers, Coakley said, and the demands for energy range from the basic need to keep warm during the cold winter months to the voltage required to keep the state’s high-tech economy humming.

“We have very cold winters and we have hot summers. People expect now air conditioning year-round. That’s changed. The use of more and more high-use electronics – I mean the amount of energy that big screen TVs take you wouldn’t think would make a difference, but everybody has them and they really use more energy than we might have even 20 years ago,” Coakley said, noting that manufacturing and high-tech employers such as Raytheon have large energy needs as well.

First passed in 2008, the Green Communities Act required utilities to buy more renewable energy and encouraged other entities to invest in renewable energy generators to meet their power needs. Last year, lawmakers passed a law dubbed Green Communities Act 2.0, which upped the amount of renewable energy utilities are required to purchase. Before the law’s passage, Coakley called it a “common sense update,” and the state’s top law enforcement officer and ratepayer advocate said she is interested in steering attention once again to further changes.

“The law itself I don’t think has had a direct impact on prices,” Coakley told the News Service when asked what effect the law had on prices. She said the highly regulated industry was more affected by the falling price of natural gas, a nationwide trend.

“Where are places where investment and innovation will make some sense and try and connect some of those dots. We know that we’re ahead of other states in the Green Communities Act. We know that we need to take another look at some of the cost-effectiveness of it,” Coakley said.

State and local officials have attempted to encourage efficiencies in home heating and elsewhere, while encouraging the use of home-grown cleaner electricity sources, such as solar panels, wind turbines, and even digesters, which produce methane gas from food waste.

The region’s energy costs are seen as a drag on the economy, and natural gas is currently cheap and in abundant supply because of gas harvesting operations in the United States. NStar agreed with the state last year to purchase 27.5 percent of Cape Wind’s power. National Grid has also agreed to purchase 50 percent of Cape Wind’s output. Many low-income residents rely on costly federal subsidies that community activists said were insufficient in some cases this past winter. Meanwhile, automotive innovations and regulations are creating cars that can go farther on a single gallon of gas.

Coakley, whose office is the “statutory ratepayer advocate,” has battled utilities on other scores, pushing for multi-million-dollar fines for the extended outages caused by Tropical Storm Irene and a freak fall snowstorm in 2011.

Coakley said “some of the discussions over those fines are still pending,” and said in the response to more recent storms, utilities appeared to have better communications in place, and they seemed to have maintained their infrastructure better, including trimming trees around power lines. Coakley said she is pushing for new service quality standards before the Department of Public Utilities.

Cape Wind, a project that has been matched with litigious resistance since it was first proposed, seems likely to be built, Coakley said, meaning it will be up to her office to make sure that utility customers receive a good deal on the power supplied.

“It seems to me that Cape Wind is probably going to be built, in which case we want to maximize how much it’s going to be cost-effective. It’s obviously a renewable energy and if it can work then it’ll provide a model for not just the rest of Massachusetts, but other places in the country that are looking at off-shore wind,” Coakley said.

The Northeast Power Coordinating Council this spring predicted summer energy usage in New England to increase by 0.9 percent over the 2012 usage, while the overall region – which includes New York and the eastern provinces of Canada – is expected to drop 0.3 percent.

The state’s development of solar energy has outpaced the goals Gov. Deval Patrick put forward in his first term. In 2007, Patrick pledged that in 10 years the state would increase its solar energy capacity from the then 3 megawatts to 250 megawatts by 2017. Patrick announced earlier this month the state had reached that goal four years early. Patrick on May 1 announced a new goal of 1,600 megawatts of solar by 2020.