A sweeping new bill on Beacon Hill aims to dramatically reshape the state’s energy landscape in an effort to address high electricity prices and concerns about the regional grid’s reliability.
The bill is unusual in its scope, showering many corners of the industry with assistance. Among its goals: expand the state’s pipeline capacity, line up contracts for offshore wind farms, and build power lines to Canada’s massive hydropower plants.
Proposed by Representative Patricia Haddad, who has been a top lieutenant of House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, the bill signals what could be a new commitment from the Legislature to counter the effects of a series of retirements of massive power plants. The largest of the outdated plants – the coal- and gas-fired Brayton Point, due to close in 2017 – is the biggest taxpayer in Haddad’s hometown of Somerset.
This bill, filed earlier this month, will serve as a starting point for negotiations. Environmental groups say they want to see energy efficiency and storage projects rewarded. The legislation does not directly deal with solar power, but the state’s generous solar programs could be addressed in a separate legislative debate.
The most controversial aspect of the bill could be a tax that would be imposed to pay for more construction of natural gas infrastructure – a proposal that resembles one supported by New England’s governors about a year ago.
Environmental groups say public subsidies should not be used to underwrite pipeline expansions. New England’s electric grid, they say, is already too dependent on natural gas. “We should be seeking to make a transition that doesn’t lock us into [new] fossil fuel infrastructure for decades,” said Joel Wool, an energy advocate with Clean Water Action in Boston.
Tony Buxton, a lawyer at Preti Flaherty in Maine who represents about a dozen big industrial clients in the region, said he would prefer to see New England states working together. “It’s easier to have a regional solution,” Buxton said. “But it’s good to have the states empowered if [a regional solution] doesn’t work.”
A DeLeo spokesman declined to comment on the legislation late Wednesday.
Massachusetts has some of the highest electricity rates in the country, and the region’s grid overseer has warned of potential rolling blackouts as soon as 2016 if more power cannot be pumped into the system. “It’s the talk of the business community,” Haddad, a Democrat, said of the electricity woes. “It’s probably the number one topic of conversation.”
Haddad’s legislation represents a sequel of sorts to a bill aimed at bringing in more Canadian hydropower. That proposal died when time ran out in the last legislative session. Haddad worked closely with leaders in the energy industry and the environmental community in recent months before crafting the latest bill.
If the proposal becomes law, it would require the state’s electric utilities to enter into long-term contracts with offshore wind developers, with the goal of helping those developers obtain financing for the projects. Haddad said she hopes the bill sends a message that state officials are interested in fostering the offshore wind industry, despite Cape Wind’s failure this month. A dozen offshore wind developers, including an affiliate of Cape Wind, are eligible to bid on sections of deep water south of Martha’s Vineyard at an auction of federal leases this week.
Haddad’s bill does offer assistance for Canadian hydropower, with a provision that encourages utilities to submit proposals for big power lines, potentially to connect southern New England with Canada’s dams.
The New England Power Generators Association argues this provision would put power plants in New England at an unfair disadvantage. “It subsidizes a provincially owned resource [in Canada] over resources here in New England . . . that are just trying to make it in the marketplace and have already invested tens of millions of dollars here,” said Dan Dolan, the group’s president.
The bill would also help owners of the state’s 65 hydropower dams with provisions aimed at making them more profitable. The goal would be to ensure they can continue to provide power, while potentially encouraging others to be built.
Haddad said she started paying attention to the issue as she followed discussions around the closure of Brayton Point and the now-shuttered Montaup coal plant in her town. She sees offshore wind as a potential replacement for some of those lost jobs, particularly with a new terminal geared toward the industry in New Bedford and this week’s auction.
“It was very clear to me that we [have] an opportunity to build a new industry,” Haddad said.
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