BOSTON – Former Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick’s three former energy secretaries on Tuesday offered their public support for Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposal to solicit long-term contracts for hydroelectric energy.
The press conference gave Baker and Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matthew Beaton a chance to boast of bipartisan support from the three Democratic former state officials – Maeve Vallely-Bartlett, Rick Sullivan and Ian Bowles.
“It is important for people to understand that in Massachusetts, we are bipartisan on these important environmental and energy issues,” said Vallely-Bartlett. “The governor asked us how would you portray the great differences between our administration and the Patrick administration that you worked under. We really couldn’t come up with any major policy shifts.”
Baker sponsored legislation requiring 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 a longer time period. Administration officials have said this would increase the use of hydroelectric power in Massachusetts, which is necessary for the state to meet its goals for reducing carbon emissions. It could allow Massachusetts utilities to get better rates on hydroelectric power because the state would essentially be buying in bulk.
The legislation remains bottled up in a legislative committee, although House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, has said it could be reported out soon.
Traditional power generators and environmentalists who support solar and wind energy have both criticized the bill.
Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generation Association, which represents power generators including coal, oil, natural gas, hydropower, solar and wind, cited a study commissioned by the group showing that the hydropower proposal could cost consumers an additional $777 million a year, taking into account the price of the electricity and the price of building the transmission lines to transport the energy from Canada.
Dolan said he worries that the proposal could result in one-third of the region’s energy market being locked into long-term hydroelectric power contracts. That could accelerate the retirement of existing power plants and discourage investment in new power plants or new natural gas or wind projects, which could bring jobs to the region. “If you’ve got a full bowl of soup and you add one-third more soup to the bowl, some is going to fall off the edges,” Dolan said.
George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said while he supports the use of hydroelectric power, he thinks the governor needs to pay more attention to increasing wind and solar power.
“This continues to be a limited venture into renewable energy that really requires a stronger commitment to solar and offshore wind, both of which could provide local energy sources and local jobs,” Bachrach said. “The governor originally offered a combo platter, but there’s no combo.”
Beaton argued that increasing the use of hydroelectric power is the best way to address the high cost of electricity, reduce carbon emissions and increase energy reliability.
Bowles, Sullivan and Vallely-Bartlett all support the bill. Bowles said the increased use of hydropower was part of the Global Warming Solutions Act, a law passed when Bowles was energy secretary in 2010 setting state standards for the use of renewable energy. Bowles said the issue has become more urgent in recent years with the retirement of coal and nuclear fired power plants. He noted that the Baker administration has also filed legislation relating to solar and wind energy and energy efficiency. “I view them as having a balanced energy policy,” Bowles said.
Could Baker’s hydropower bill impact Kinder Morgan pipeline approval?
Sullivan added, “The policy is right and it’s balanced and it makes sense.”
Sullivan said the increased use of hydroelectric power makes sense from an environmental and a business perspective. He said that with the retirement of other power plants, Massachusetts needs a larger supply of energy to keep costs down.
“There has to be a choice. We have to say yes to something,” Sullivan said. “If we don’t say yes to this, what are we going to say yes to?”
“The policy put forth in this bill by the governor makes the most sense environmentally but also makes the most sense from a cost competitive point of view,” Sullivan said.
Asked about the power generators’ concerns about cost, Baker said the alternative to increasing the use of hydropower would be “throwing ourselves at the mercy of the world natural gas market.” He reiterated that the legislation only requires the utilities to solicit contracts. If the price is not a good one, the utilities do not have to enter into a contract.
“The whole point here is to get a good price that’s predictable and certain and economically and environmentally sound,” Baker said.
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