BOSTON – Gov. Charlie Baker filed legislation on Thursday aimed at increasing the use of hydroelectric power by utilities in Massachusetts.
Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton said increasing the use of power generated by water is critical to meeting the requirements of the Global Warming Solutions Act, a state law requiring Massachusetts to reduce carbon emissions by 25 percent between 1990 and 2020.
“We view what’s in this legislation as an essential piece of meeting those goals,” Beaton said in an interview with The Republican/MassLive.com. “Without it, there are just not enough projects and other resources out there to be able to do it, certainly to do it in a cost effective manner.”
The legislation requires utilities to solicit long-term contracts for hydroelectric power. That means that rather than buying electricity daily, the utility could sign a contract with a supplier that would last for several months. Currently, utilities have to go through a complex procurement process to enter into long-term contracts, so they generally do not do it.
The legislation would also authorize utilities in Massachusetts to work with utilities in Connecticut and Rhode Island to buy power together.
The goal of both these steps would be to allow Massachusetts utilities to get better rates on hydroelectric power because the state would essentially be buying in bulk.
Administration officials point to the advantages of hydroelectric power. It is less expensive to generate than wind or solar power. Unlike wind or solar power, hydroelectric power is not weather-dependent, so it is easier to turn a plant on or off as needed. From an environmental perspective, water is cleaner than coal or oil. It does not have the perceived safety risks or concerns with waste disposal inherent in nuclear power.
Beaton said the administration remains committed to developing solar and wind power. The legislation includes a cap on how much hydroelectric power can be purchased, so it does not crowd out other types of energy. But, Beaton said, “This is the most cost effective solution for us.”
The bill also allows utilities to fulfill the requirement through a transmission line that transmits both wind or solar and water power. That way, if the wind or sun is not generating power at any given time, the transmission line can be used for hydroelectric power.
In March 2015, Massachusetts was getting the most electricity from natural gas, followed by nuclear, coal, other renewables, hydroelectric power and finally oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
In the region, hydroelectric power is generated mainly in New York State, northern New England and Canada. Requiring utilities to use more hydroelectric power could create an incentive for more transmission lines to be built to bring the energy from these areas into Massachusetts.
Environmental activists gave mixed reviews of the legislation. Peter Rothstein, president of the New England Clean Energy Council, praised the bill as a significant step toward using more clean energy while compensating for the loss of coal and nuclear plants, which are scheduled to be retired in the coming years. The loss of those plants is expected to drive up energy costs if there is no new capacity for generating electricity.
“It really is addressing how to expand the market for some of the large scale clean energy resources that we need more of in our electricity system to both compensate for some of the retiring fossil fuel generation that’s out there as well as to make sure our energy system is getting cleaner and our greenhouse gas emissions are declining,” Rothstein said. “While also doing it in a way that is cost effective, while stabilizing and lowering energy bills.”
But Greg Cunningham, director of the clean energy and climate change program at the Conservation Law Foundation, said he worries that the bill does not require any portion of the power to come from the United States. He is concerned that Canadian hydroelectric power would displace wind power generated in New England.
“There is the potential that the entirety of this purchase can be imported hydropower, presumably from Canada,” Cunningham said. “That would be to the exclusion of a readily available and plentiful and reasonably priced renewable resource right here in New England.”
State Sen. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, who sits on the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, which will consider the bill, said she is excited that Baker proposed it.
“In our area, in the Springfield area, people have been using hydropower forever,” Gobi said. “The Industrial Revolution was based on hydropower.”
Gobi said the state needs to diversify its power sources, while making sure that electricity costs “aren’t going through the roof.” “I think the governor is on the right track with hydropower,” she said.
State Sen. Ben Downing, D-Pittsfield, Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, said he is not ready to throw his support behind the bill, but he gives Baker credit for bringing it forward.
“There’s a lot of agreement that hydro is going to play a significant role in our energy future in the region,” Downing said. “We’re trying to figure out what that looks like. Not just what role hydro will play, but how do we solve both our climate challenges and our cost challenges here.”
Danielle Williamson, a spokeswoman for National Grid, said the utility supports the intended goals of the bill. She said National Grid supports a “balanced approach” to the region’s energy needs that includes new electric and gas transmission infrastructure, energy efficiency programs and the development of energy from wind and water.
“We will work with the Administration and the Legislature to pass legislation allowing the commonwealth to reach the targets established by the Global Warming Solutions Act, while providing additional energy resources for the region,” Williamson said. “On behalf of our customers, we will work to ensure that the final legislation addresses these objectives and that transactions under the legislation make economic sense for customers.”