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Chesto Means Business

Clean Energy Center’s focus could shift from jobs to climate change

Few experiences can prompt deep introspection and self-assessment like watching your savings slip away.

Just ask the folks at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, the quasi-public agency created a decade ago to jump-start the clean-tech sector here. If MassCEC’s spending continues at its current rate, the massive stockpile it inherited at its inception, some $120 million, could disappear within four years.

That’s why clean-energy leaders crowded into the agency’s offices in Boston Wednesday, to listen in as the MassCEC board began to reexamine its mission. Until now, the agency has primarily concentrated on driving job growth. By most accounts, it has been successful in that regard, by plowing money from electric-bill surcharges into everything from startups to solar panels. While that employment expansion has plateaued lately, the number of clean-tech jobs here has nearly doubled in a decade, to about 112,000 today.

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That focus may be about to change. The board hasn’t made a decision yet, and probably won’t do so until sometime in the spring. But the tenor of the discussion on Wednesday made it clear which direction the agency is heading. The likely new priority: climate change. Let’s worry more about curbing greenhouse gas reductions and less about stoking the economy.

Katie Theoharides, who chairs the board because she is Governor Charlie Baker’s top energy aide, made it clear the two goals are not mutually exclusive. Investing money in taking carbon emissions out of our transportation system, for example, will inevitably translate into jobs. A veritable army of workers could be necessary to put the state on track toward a new goal shared by Baker and Beacon Hill Democrats: getting Massachusetts to “net zero” greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.

Her comments were echoed in survey results presented to the board by consultants Steve Kadish and Kristin Brief. They polled many constituents in the clean-tech sector about the climate change versus jobs question. Both were deemed important. But climate won out.

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Their presentation didn’t get into MassCEC’s looming budget issue. But nearly everyone in the room was well aware of the fiscal factors behind this identity crisis. A Suffolk Superior Court jury accelerated matters last year by ruling that the agency owed at least $20 million to contractors for work on a terminal in New Bedford built for the offshore wind industry.

This math already looks challenging — even without pesky litigation muddying the waters. The agency plans to collect $22 million in ratepayer funds this fiscal year, or nearly $4 for an average household, as part of its projected revenue of $30.5 million. But it expects to dole out $30 million in awards in addition to its $12 million operating budget, which includes a 50-person staff.

To make up the difference, MassCEC will again dip into the state’s renewable energy trust, to dispatch money collected from ratepayers years ago. MassCEC, over the years, had cut the initial $120 million balance roughly in half, as of last summer. The agency has deliberately spent the trust down, to charge up the clean-tech sector as quickly as possible and put Massachusetts in a leadership position. But you can’t keep spending more money than you take in.

Industry advocates sounded the alarm in December, when it became clear that MassCEC was embarking on some serious soul-searching. But on Wednesday, several of those advocates seemed cautiously optimistic that this review might work out for the industry, after all.

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Why the shift? Maybe it’s because of a new sense of optimism that additional revenue can be found at the State House. MassCEC’s supporters say they are getting traction in the Legislature, although it’s not yet clear what that solution would be. Some ideas that have been tossed around include increasing the existing surcharge on electric bills or extending that charge to natural gas bills, as well.

Peter Rothstein, president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council trade group, said he is encouraged by the discussion. It makes sense for any organization to rethink its mission after 10 years in business, he said, and climate change has become a far more defined threat now than it was during MassCEC’s early days. Rothstein said he has reason to be hopeful that legislative leaders recognize the importance of keeping the MassCEC train going.

Bringing Massachusetts to “net zero” status can’t happen overnight, and it won’t be achieved on the cheap. MassCEC will need to decide what kind of role it should play. But it will be up to lawmakers to figure out whether the agency should get more funding to help the state reach that ambitious goal.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.