BOSTON – Turbines powered by Canadian rivers could keep the lights on in Massachusetts, but producers of solar and other renewable energy are concerned that too much hydropower could darken their futures.
Gov. Charlie Baker has filed legislation to require publicly regulated power companies to pursue multiyear contracts with hydropower generators – likely Canadian companies such as Hydro-Quebec.
His proposal calls on utilities to import at least 1,200 megawatts of hydro-electricity per year. The total would be capped at 2,400 megawatts.
Baker hopes to push Massachusetts toward ambitious targets of curbing carbon use that were set by his predecessor, Gov. Deval Patrick, said Matthew Beaton, the state’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs.
“This would to help us reach the global warming reduction goals and provide a clean, affordable source of energy that ensures the long-term reliability of the state’s electricity grid,” Beaton said in an interview.
But others in the renewable energy market – as well as environmentalists – are skeptical.
“Hydropower may have a role in meeting the state’s energy needs, but we need to do it in a way that doesn’t push out other renewable energy sources,” said Kate Plourd-Johnson, a spokeswoman for the New England Clean Energy Council.
Plourd-Johnson, whose group represents wind and solar companies, said other generators fear that too much hydropower will crimp their business.
Environmental groups say hydropower also has its downsides – such as forests lost to flooding for new dams, the release of carbon dioxide from trees decomposing after those floods, and lower river levels.
But Beaton, a former lawmaker from Shrewsbury who retrofitted his home to be energy efficient, said wind and solar also have a role in powering the state and helping reach carbon reduction goals.
“This legislation won’t have a negative impact on the solar industry,” he said. “We don’t want to flood the market to adversely affect other sources of renewable energy.”
Patrick’s goals require the state to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020 – and 80 percent by 2050 – based on levels measured in 1990.
Beaton said Baker’s plan allows utilities to purchase a portion of the required 1,200 megawatts from renewable sources such wind farms, provided that hydropower is used as a backup source.
But he acknowledges that solar and wind producers alone can’t provide enough juice to meet energy demands.
Besides reducing the carbon footprint, the state needs new sources of electricity to offset the loss of 8,000 megawatts from coal- and oil-burning power plants that will be shutting down in coming years.
He said several multibillion-dollar power line projects are in the works to tap Canadian hydropower and could be given a boost by the plan, which hinges on legislative approval.
“There are projects just sitting on the sidelines waiting for transmission lines to be built,” Beaton said.
Don Walters, chief development officer for Boston-based Nexamp Inc., which has offices in Haverhill and has worked on dozens of solar projects, said the state is at a crossroads.
“The concern is that if hydropower allows the state to reach its goals, the emphasis on solar would fade,” he said. “We obviously need hydroelectricity to fill the capacity and meet the carbon reduction goals, but there has to be a balance. We need to continue to grow the state’s solar industry.”
Massachusetts’ energy grid has changed dramatically in recent years, with the retirement of oil and coal-fired facilities such as the Salem Harbor Power Station.
About 44 percent of the state’s energy comes from natural gas, while another 34 percent comes from nuclear power, according to ISO New England, the nonprofit that runs the region’s electric grid. Coal-generated electricity only accounts for 5 percent, while hydropower and other renewables account for 15 percent. Oil accounts for only 1 percent of the state’s electricity.
That’s a sharp contrast from a decade ago when oil produced 22 percent and coal 18 percent of the state’s electricity, the group said.
The debate over hydropower comes as the state also grapples with a lack of capacity for natural gas distribution, which has driven up costs for consumers even as wholesale prices plummet nationally and has led to calls for new pipelines to meet the demand.
Texas-based Kinder Morgan has proposed a $5 billion gas pipeline that stretches across northeast Massachusetts to deliver “fracked” Marcellus Shale gas from Pennsylvania to New England.
But the project faces opposition from homeowners and local officials who’ve raised concerns about pipelines’ impact on property values and the environment.
Attorney General Maura Healey’s office has commissioned a study of the state’s energy needs through 2030 to figure out whether new pipelines are really needed.
In the meantime, small solar and wind power businesses have grown from novelties into multimillion-dollar companies in recent years, due in part to federal and state incentives as well as lower costs for wind turbines, solar panels and transmission lines.
Last year, Massachusetts was fourth in the country for the amount of solar energy installed, with enough added to power 50,000 homes with clean energy, according to the Solar Energies Industry Association.
The solar industry supports more than 12,000 jobs statewide at more than 370 companies, from contractors to photovoltaic cell manufacturers, according to the trade group.
Environmentalists say other pressures are stifling the solar industry.
One is a cap on net-metering, which limits how much solar energy can be sold back to utilities, said Ben Hellerstein, state director for the advocacy group Environment Massachusetts.
The cap is restricting solar projects in the state, he said, and sending a negative message to solar developers and investors.
On Thursday, the Senate voted to increase the limit and create a new package of solar incentives. But the measure must still pass the House and Gov. Baker’s desk. House leaders and Baker have been skeptical about raising the cap.
“More people are eager to go solar, but these arbitrary caps are holding them back,” Hellerstein said. “Solar has to be part of the solution to the state’s energy needs.”
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