Standing recently with US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell under a giant turbine blade in Charlestown’s Wind Technology Testing Center, Governor Patrick hailed the opening of more federal waters off Massachusetts for wind-power development. He reminded the audience that the state will remain “hostage to the fossil fuel roller-coaster” until sources like offshore wind “create our own Massachusetts-made energy.”
But there is reason to fear that a new clean-energy bill backed by the Patrick administration will make the state hostage to foreign energy at the expense of homegrown, home-blown power.
The day after Patrick’s plea for more Massachusetts-made power, the clean-energy bill advanced to the House Ways and Means Committee. It would require utilities to solicit proposals this fall for long-term deals with clean-energy producers. But with offshore wind power just getting started and solar energy still ramping up, the most mature source of clean electricity is Canadian hydro power.
We certainly need some hydro energy as Massachusetts prepares to become the next coal-free state in America, with the scheduled closing of the Brayton Point plant in 2017. Hydro is also a good source of clean energy until the solar and wind industries mature. And the state is feeling understandable pressure to meet its own targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Environmental League of Massachusetts says the Commonwealth is on track to reduce emissions by only 20 percent by 2020, instead of the targeted 25 percent.
But we are already using out-of-state natural gas at such high rates that simultaneously locking in long contracts for out-of-the-country hydro power could assure that there will be little production of Massachusetts-made energy for decades to come. Energy analyst Susan Tierney, a former secretary of environmental affairs, warned that the new clean-energy legislation “will have unintended consequences because it is too soon, too fast, and has the effect of dumping energy on the state in a way that distorts the market.”
This would risk destroying Patrick’s dream of Massachusetts becoming America’s hub of the offshore wind industry. The long-delayed Cape Wind project this week announced a $150 million loan guarantee from the federal government that moves it closer to putting 130 turbines into Nantucket Sound. Deepwater Wind is seeking power agreements for the first 35 of an estimated 200 turbines in waters between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard, but that is still far short of the 300 to 400 turbines needed to create a constant production pipeline that would entice leading European offshore wind companies to build factories here.
New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell wants some of the clean-energy procurement in the legislation to be set aside for offshore wind, specifically. Out of the required 2,400 megawatts of clean-energy production per year, New Bedford is asking for a wind-power set-aside of 200 megawatts a year for four years so that investors in Cape Wind and Deepwater Wind will know there will be a market for their electricity.
That modest percentage, supported by environmental groups such as the Conservation Law Foundation, should be added to the legislation. It would keep hopes alive not just in New Bedford, but also in nearby Somerset, home to Brayton Point.
State representative Patricia A. Haddad said, “The loss of coal plant jobs is literally killing Somerset. But our transmission lines are a straight shot from the ocean to tap into for offshore wind.”
Europe is seeing enormous economic and environmental benefits from its nearly 2,100 offshore turbines and its growing wind-power industry. European newspapers have reported that wind power kept energy prices down this winter in Ireland and Spain despite near-record-high natural gas prices, and wind provided a record 54.8 percent of Denmark’s electricity in December. The European Wind Energy Association predicted that the number of jobs in offshore wind energy will more than triple over the next six years from the current 58,000.
Until now, Massachusetts was leading the United States on the path toward offshore wind energy. But there are competitors: Maryland is now mandating 200 megawatts of wind development off its own waters. That’s a strong signal that other states could fill the gap if Massachusetts makes a long-term commitment to Canadian hydro power.
Energy and Environmental Affairs secretary Maeve Vallely Bartlett said the state remains so committed to in-state renewables that no carve-out is needed for offshore wind. But state Senator Barry Finegold of Andover, a co-architect of the clean energy legislation, told me in a telephone interview that he is clearly hearing New Bedford’s plea and hopes that a compromise can be crafted.
A compromise must be made lest the state turns back the clock. A new $100 million port terminal, the first in the nation designed for massive offshore turbines, is scheduled for completion in New Bedford at the end of the year. It would be a terrible waste if a new addiction to hydro power renders the offshore wind industry and hopes for renewal in New Bedford stillborn.