Time is running out for Gov. Deval Patrick’s clean energy bill, and he is starting to sound a little worried about its prospects.
I caught up with him today as he toured First Wind’s offices in Boston’s Leather District with Paul Gaynor, the wind farm developer’s CEO. Gaynor is a big fan of this bill that would require the state’s major electric utilities – namely Northeast Utilities and National Grid – to solicit long-term power-buying agreements from clean-energy companies over the next several years. These sources – which could include hydroelectric dams in Canada, First Wind’s turbines in Maine, or much smaller renewable projects – would need to collectively generate as much as 2,400 megawatts of power.
The bill was amended to address a number of concerns, and emerged in a revised form out of the Legislature’s energy committee last month. (It’s now before the House Ways and Means committee.) But it’s still not clear when – or if – it will come to the House floor for a roll call vote. The deadline is a few weeks away: The Legislature adjourns from formal sessions for the year on July 31.
“The bill, it’s fair to say, hangs in the balance right now,” Patrick said today when I asked him about its chances.
Patrick said his administration is in close and regular contract with legislative leaders about getting the bill moved forward, but he has received no guarantees that it can be done. When I asked him to identify the stumbling blocks that are holding up the bill, Patrick politely declined to say.
For Patrick, this legislation is a crucial piece of a much bigger puzzle. New England’s governors are moving ahead with plans for energy tariffs that would be placed on our electricity market to help pay for new electricity transmission lines and expand gas pipeline infrastructure. Advocates say that the upfront costs of these projects, likely in the billions of dollars, could more than pay for themselves over time as our increasingly energy-constrained region gets improved access to cheaper shale gas from the west and a new conduit for hydroelectric power from the north.
Gaynor told Patrick that the clean-power purchases would provide a boost for the company, in part by offering First Wind a broader market in which to sell power from its wind turbines in Maine. Gaynor is looking to partner with Nalcor, a division of the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial government, and Nova Scotia utility Emera to take advantage of the state’s clean energy bill. Nalcor wants to use the legislation to help finance construction of a massive hydroelectric project, and Emera and Nalcor are developing a power line to bring that power into Nova Scotia. Meanwhile, Emera and National Grid want to develop a power line that would connect Maine to Massachusetts. One promising vision driving this premise: Nalcor could open up its sluice gates at times when the wind has died down, sending electricity coursing through the grid when windmills aren’t spinning and ensuring a more consistent flow of power.
Gaynor mentioned more than once during the tour that Massachusetts ratepayers could save in the neighborhood of $1 billion a year through the use of long-term contracts like what’s being proposed via this bill. He also touted the potential economic benefits. Without this bill, a First Wind spokesman told me later, it’s likely that fewer wind projects would be built.
First Wind and its would-be business partners aren’t the only companies looking to take advantage of this bill. The legislation, for example, could boost the prospects for Northeast Utilities’ Northern Pass transmission project through New Hampshire, and for Hydro-Quebec further north.
The clean-energy industry here has become increasingly comfortable with the bill, as it has been rewritten to help prevent all of the energy purchases from going to Canadian utilities.
But some key environmental groups – led by the Conservation Law Foundation – still have been expressing concerns. They’ve said they’re worried about the impacts that construction of big transmission and hydroelectric projects could have on the environment, and that local renewable options could still be crowded out by this bill. There’s also the concern about the cost to consumers: CLF’s Christophe Courchesne wrote in a blog on CLF’s website last week that New Englanders could end up paying more than $800 million a year above market prices for power from Hydro-Quebec facilities under construction on the Romaine River if that electricity is transferred through the Northern Pass transmission project.
Patrick says that the success of the sector in Massachusetts shows that clean energy can boost the state’s economic prospects, instead of hurting them. However, this time it’s the enviros that are expressing concerns – the ones who are normally on Patrick’s side. That makes it a little bit trickier for him to build support for the clean energy bill on Beacon Hill.
As Patrick looks back on his eight years as governor, the promotion of the clean energy industry will prove to be one of his biggest legacies. But he may still walk away disappointed if he can’t pull this one off.
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