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The Podium

Flooding the energy market

Governor Patrick’s tenure is coming to an end. In numerous ways he has been an extraordinary leader, particularly in the area of environmental protection and climate change. However, a recent climate “scorecard” by the Environmental League of Massachusetts, supported by the state’s own internal analysis, suggests the Commonwealth’s current policies will miss the crucial mark in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020. The Patrick administration is rushing ahead with two potentially dangerous energy initiatives, which deserve greater scrutiny and can be fixed.

The good news in the energy arena is we will soon close the last of four highly polluting coal-fired plants in the Commonwealth. The bad news is we are on the verge of replacing one fossil fuel with another.

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The administration is proposing a natural gas pipeline that would run across the state. The easy argument is the lower cost of natural gas, compared to coal, and the region’s apparent need for greater energy supply. But we are already over-dependent on natural gas, so does it make any sense to increase our dependence? Natural gas is, of course, still a fossil fuel with significant greenhouse gas emissions. And like any other imported fuel, future price increases will be beyond our control. Some argue natural gas is merely a “bridge” fuel until renewable energy fully ramps up, but this “bridge” will last a lifetime since infrastructure financing requires 30 to 40 years. While some increase in natural gas supply and pipelines may be needed, there has yet to be an adequate assessment indicating we need so much.

The next ill-fated proposal is the administration’s Clean Energy Resources bill. It could flood the Massachusetts market with large-scale Canadian hydro for the next 40 years. We support hydro, so why is this bad? Simply put, there is good and bad hydro. So-called “run of the river” hydro provides enormous energy while protecting habitat. This hydro is very different from large scale-hydro which requires dams, major flooding and deforesting, with the latter contributing substantially to greenhouse gas emissions. Regrettably, the bill makes no distinction as to source. Second, there is no provision to diversify our energy portfolio by requiring suppliers to provide hydro and wind/solar via the same transmission line. This is not only technologically feasible, but a diversified portfolio is always safer and more secure.

Finally, flooding the market with Canadian hydro or natural gas means we are once again importing energy, and sending money, jobs, and control elsewhere. We have done this for decades, importing oil from the Middle East or the Gulf states and paying the volatile pricing they demand. Haven’t we learned the lesson? We are just at the beginning of a maturing domestic, clean-energy industry in solar, wind, and energy efficiency. In Massachusetts, we have created over 80,000 new good paying jobs in this arena, the fastest growing segment of our economy. Making the wrong investment in energy imports and infrastructure will undermine the capacity of local renewable energy projects to obtain financing and create jobs.

The good news is the administration and Legislature can fix the Clean Energy Resources bill. We can set carbon standards for hydro sources that distinguish between good and bad hydro. We can require a hybrid transmission for Canadian hydro to include wind and solar energy. We can include an off-shore wind provision that promotes the development of new deep-water wind in federal waters that will add to our first-in-the-nation status.

What we must not do is lurch from one foreign energy dependency to another. We can more carefully help create a diversified portfolio that includes additional natural gas and hydro, without flooding the market but still allowing for more rapid growth in solar, wind and energy efficiency here at home.

George Bachrach is president of the Environmental League of Mass. Tedd Saunders is chief sustainability officer of the Saunders Hotel Group, president of EcoLogical Solutions and a member of the Environmental League’s corporate council.
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