The Patrick administration’s efforts to broker a peace agreement on an unprecedented power-purchasing bill won over some key supporters.
But there are still plenty of people who aren’t happy, as evidenced by the complaining during a public hearing on the bill at the State House today.
At issue is legislation that would require the state’s major electric utilities – namely Northeast Utilities and National Grid – to solicit power-buying agreements from clean-energy developers and operators by the end of this year. The sources would need to collectively generate as much as 2,400 megawatts of power, and could consist of hydroelectric dams as far away as Canada as well as traditional renewable sources like wind farms. The original bill called for obtaining the electricity through long-term contracts, lasting at least 20 years, although a revised version would establish a different mechanism that could be used to purchase hydropower.
The legislation was co-sponsored by Rep. Mark Cusack and Sen. Barry Finegold, and it’s being championed by Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration. Mark Sylvia, Patrick’s energy resources commissioner, urged the legislature’s energy committee to approve the bill today.
While the bill revolves around the phrase “clean energy,” environmentalists have been upset about it for a number of reasons. The biggest one: the fear that locally developed renewable projects could be shut out by Canadian hydropower.
That fear is driven in part by the fact that this bill is a piece of a bigger chess game that involves all of New England. The region’s six governors have asked the grid’s operator, ISO New England, to authorize an “electricity tariff” on the region’s power market that could help pay for new electricity transmission lines into the region from Canada and new natural gas pipelines from the west. (Northeast Utilities and National Grid are both pursuing power line projects that could connect Canadian hydropower to New England.) ISO New England and the state officials are worried about the region’s shrinking generating capacity as several big power plants are shut down for good over the next few years.
The New England Clean Energy Council, a trade group that represents the renewable energy industry, was among those organizations that initially expressed reservations to me when this bill was first filed.
Today, the NECEC officially became a supporter of the bill – with one caveat. Janet Gail Besser, vice president of government affairs for the group, tells me that the group is throwing its support behind a revised version of the bill that was shepherded by the Patrick administration after consulting with NECEC, the two big utilities, Conservation Law Foundation, and other stakeholders.
Besser says her group decided to support the revised legislation last Friday after changes were made that would allow for a dual-track purchase of Canadian hydropower as well as her group’s stock-in-trade: electricity from more traditional renewable sources like wind, solar and anaerobic digestion facilities.
Besser says the redrafted bill hasn’t officially been filed yet, but it’s got to materialize soon: Controversial bills like this one need to be passed by July 31, when formal sessions end for the year, or they go back to square one.
One of the most profile members of Besser’s group, First Wind CEO Paul Gaynor, also came to the State House to testify in favor of the legislation. Gaynor says the bill would help large-scale hydro generators and large-scale wind projects (like First Wind’s turbines in Maine) to share the same power lines, potentially reducing the end cost to consumers.
But enviros like Seth Kaplan at the Conservation Law Foundation aren’t ready to concede. Kaplan says the revised bill represents an improvement, but it still doesn’t live up to all the “clean energy” rhetoric. He says the language that he has seen doesn’t do enough to keep the local renewable projects in the mix when the utilities make their power procurement. He’s also worried about giving the utilities too much power to make deals with a Canadian hydropower source – Hydro-Quebec, most likely – that would help finance their own power line projects in northern New England. CLF was one of a dozen environmental groups to sign a letter delivered today to the energy committee opposing the legislation (at least until a laundry list of concerns can be addressed).
The New England governors’ proposal for an electricity tariff that would help pay for new power lines and gas lines just became public a few months ago. But there is some urgency: We lose the Salem Harbor coal plant by mid-summer, and the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant goes offline by the end of the year. Meanwhile, we’re becoming increasingly dependent on natural gas, but our pipeline system isn’t large enough to accommodate the power plants’ demand in the winter.
If there was one takeaway for the members of the Legislature’s energy committee today, it’s this: There’s no easy solution to this problem. But they know they can’t ignore it. This multi-faceted riddle affects just about every resident and business in New England.
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