BOSTON – The legislative committee dealing with energy issues will hold a public hearing on Tuesday on several bills relating to clean energy, including a bill on hydroelectric power proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker.
“The question is not if we do something on hydropower, but what’s the best way to take advantage of that,” said state Sen. Ben Downing, D-Pittsfield, Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, in an interview with The Republican/MassLive.com on Friday.
Baker and Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton have been pushing hard for the passage of Baker’s bill, which would require 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 months. The legislation would also authorize Massachusetts utilities to buy power together with utilities in Connecticut and Rhode Island. The goal would be to allow Massachusetts utilities to get better rates because the state would be buying in bulk.
But there has been opposition. Some clean energy advocates worry that a focus on hydroelectric power could allow Canadian-generated power to supplant other renewable energy, like wind power, that could be generated in New England.
Baker said he anticipates there will be “a healthy debate” about his hydroelectric power bill and a bill he sponsored related to solar power, which will also have a hearing Tuesday.
Baker said he hopes the key elements of both his bills make it through the legislative process, although, he said, “I don’t think I’ve ever said to the Legislature I want this back exactly as I wrote it.”
Baker said he hopes an energy bill is passed before the end of the year.
Baker is not the only one looking at issues related to hydroelectric power. Senate President Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, recently returned from a conference in Quebec City, in which top Massachusetts lawmakers met with their counterparts in Quebec to talk about several issues, including energy.
Rosenberg said in an interview that the use of Canadian hydroelectric power was a major topic of discussion. Canadian companies are already selling hydroelectric power to northern New England, but they would like to expand their reach. The proposed Northern Pass project would bring hydroelectric power from Canada to New Hampshire, where it would enter New England’s electric grid. But the project faces opposition from many New Hampshire landowners and concern from New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan.
Rosenberg said Massachusetts officials made no commitments about the use of hydroelectric power. But, he said, “We discussed their capacity to deliver and what the framework would be for negotiating contracts and agreements.” Rosenberg said Canadian officials encouraged Massachusetts officials to develop a policy framework that would allow utilities to purchase hydroelectric power and invest in transmission lines.
One issue that raised concerns during former governor Deval Patrick’s administration is whether Massachusetts should implement a tariff on ratepayers to fund new transmission lines, either for natural gas or for hydroelectric power.
A proposal by state Rep. Patricia Haddad, D-Somerset, which will also be heard at Tuesday’s hearing, would create a tax on energy to fund a new natural gas pipeline. There are currently multiple proposals pending for new natural gas transmission lines to Massachusetts.
Downing said he personally does not think a new tariff is needed to develop pipelines for either hydroelectric power or natural gas. “I haven’t seen the numbers to justify that yet,” Downing said.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, the Senate vice-chairman of the energy committee, has been pushing for increased use of wind power, particularly the development of a new wind farm in federal water off Martha’s Vineyard.
Asked about the potential offshore wind project, Downing said that while wind power “has great potential,” it is also “tricky.”
“What we haven’t yet figured out…is what’s the cost benefit analysis and what’s the right policy,” Downing said. For example, he said, there could be an effort to get regional cooperation or to get the federal government to contribute to the cost of building a wind farm.
Downing said in the long term, he believes there needs to be a legislative conversation about all types of energy. “We need to look at all of it and figure out how to meet our climate goals with the least cost possible,” Downing said.
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