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Legislation raises question: What is clean energy?

Should hydroelectricity produced with massive dams be counted as clean energy?

That is the issue emerging as a result of new legislation that would allow utilities to meet the state’s mandates to cut greenhouse gases by acquiring power from large-scale hydroelectric projects, such as Hydro-Quebec in Canada.

Environmentalists say the bill, backed by the Patrick administration, would provide preferences to an established technology that does not really need them, while hurting the competitiveness of emerging renewable sources, such as solar and wind, that do. New England power plant owners worry the legislation would provide an unfair advantage to an already low-cost competitor.

“It really starts to pick winners and losers,” said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, a trade group. “It creates, essentially, a cornered market for provincially owned Canadian hydropower.”

The bill was filed last week by Representative Mark Cusack, a Braintree Democrat, and Senator Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat. It would require the state’s utilities to work together to buy roughly 2,400 megawatts of clean energy, including wind and solar, and, for the first time, hydropower.

Those energy-generating resources – enough to power an estimated 1.2 million homes – would be in addition to the 2,000 megawatts of wind power and 1,600 megawatts of solar power that the state says must be in place by the end of the decade. The bill calls on utilities to solicit proposals by the end of the year for acquiring the additional clean energy. Ultimately, utilities would need to sign 20- to 25-year contracts to buy the power.

The bill’s sponsors and Patrick administration officials say hydroelectricity needs to be part of the clean energy mix if the state is to meet the goals of the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, which requires the state to cut greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050. Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, are produced by burning fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas, and are blamed for accelerating climate change.

“If we are going to meet our deadlines, we are going to need to be aggressive,” said Richard K. Sullivan Jr., the state secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

In addition, Sullivan and Finegold said, the state needs to find new energy sources to replace aging coal and nuclear power plants that are shutting down. ISO New England, the region’s grid operator, estimates that the power system could lose 8,300 megawatts of generation – about a fourth of the region’s total – by 2020.

“In the next few years we must find ways to replace 25 percent of New England’s current electric generation capacity,” Finegold said in a statement. “This bill gives us the opportunity to do so while promoting clean energy resources.”

The state has spent the last several years pushing renewables, imposing mandates on utilities to create markets for the power and offering incentives to spur the construction of wind and solar projects. Last year, more than 242 megawatts of solar generating capacity were installed in the state, bringing the total to 463 megawatts, or enough to power up to 115,750 homes. The state has 103 megawatts of wind generating capacity, or enough to power nearly 28,000 homes.

Using more alternative energy, however, could raise utility bills for households and businesses. Just how much the bills may rise under the new legislation is unclear; it would depend on the mix. Wind power and solar power tend to be more expensive than traditional sources, while large-scale hydropower is cheaper.

That has environmentalists and clean technology industry officials worried that utilities will opt for hydropower and freeze out wind and solar, which would make it harder to develop new projects. These technologies are critical to weaning the economy from fossil fuels and slowing climate change, they said.

“We know large hydro is going to be part of the mix,” said Peter Rothstein, president of the New England Clean Energy Council, an industry group. “We also need diversity of supply, and so hydro shouldn’t in any way be supplanting the other renewables.”

Caroline Pretyman, a spokeswoman for Northeast Utilities, the parent company of NStar and Western Massachusetts Electric Co., said her company is encouraged by the state’s attention to finding new sources of energy. Pretyman said the utility believes its proposed Northern Pass transmission project, which would bring more Canadian hydropower into the state, could help meet the clean energy goals.

The transmission project is controversial because it would run through White Mountain wilderness.

National Grid said it supports clean energy sources, including hydropower, but added that it is concerned about the requirement for buying the energy with long-term contracts. Such contracts could lock in higher costs – and higher utility bills.

“We believe the legislation needs some additional components to protect customers from costs associated with longer-term pricing,” the company said in a statement.