New Englanders pride ourselves on our independence, our self-reliance. But this region faces a range of complex energy and climate issues. So maybe it’s time for us to set aside our differences and work together more often.
That’s the thinking behind two new state energy jobs that Governor Maura Healey’s administration just created. Jason Marshall came on board at the start of the month as the deputy secretary and special counsel for federal and regional energy affairs, and this week Mary Louise “Weezie” Nuara joined as assistant secretary for federal and regional energy affairs.
In launching this two-person team, new Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rebecca Tepper’s goal was twofold: to better position Massachusetts and New England to seek some of the billions in infrastructure funding now available from Washington, and to coordinate efforts on policies and projects across state lines that can help with the tough transition from fossil fuels to clean energy sources.
Both Marshall and Nuara come highly regarded, with a deep understanding of the regional electric grid and its interlocking nature. Marshall most recently worked for the New England States Committee on Electricity, a group that represents the six governors. Nuara comes from Dominion Energy, a Virginia utility best known around here for Connecticut’s Millstone nuclear power plant; before that, she handled state government outreach for grid overseer ISO New England.
They have got their work cut out for them.
Despite efforts to move away from natural gas, New England remains heavily reliant on it to heat buildings and generate electricity. That’s a problem for a region with constrained gas pipeline capacity and little to no political appetite to build more. This reliance also remains a hindrance to the states’ broader climate goals, which essentially require new sources of clean power to replace natural gas-fired turbines.
One obvious solution — constructing offshore wind farms — is proving easier said than done. The states’ separate efforts to finance these projects have endured a series of victories and setbacks. Sure, construction has finally begun on the country’s first large-scale, offshore wind farm, Vineyard Wind. But it took roughly five years to get this far. More recent wind farm proposals are running into cost increases, delays, and permitting challenges.
Then there’s all the Canadian hydropower that Hydro-Quebec wants to sell to its southern neighbors. How about we bring some of that dam electricity here? Good luck with that one. Eversource eventually gave up on its proposed Northern Pass powerline through New Hampshire amid widespread opposition in the Granite State, while Maine voters opposed Avangrid’s 145-mile transmission line through the western part of that state, leaving the project’s fate to a jury trial scheduled for next month.
It’s not as if the states haven’t coordinated on energy issues before. Interstate cooperation is the focus of NESCOE, the multistate group where Marshall last worked, and Massachusetts is piggybacking on a Maine effort to finance a wind farm in remote Aroostook County.
But the Healey administration clearly wants to step it up. After all, five of the six states have laws on the books mandating greenhouse gas reductions of at least 80 percent by 2050. That will be impossible so long as half of the region’s electricity comes from natural gas. It may seem like a long time from now, but the clock is ticking.
Tepper says she created these new roles with the hopes of pursuing multistate clean energy procurements, attracting federal funds to the region, and addressing the persistent questions of wintertime grid reliability. Toward those ends, Tepper points to two concepts being floated to the US Department of Energy.
The first involves a new offshore transmission project that could serve several states and wind farms, a concept being pursued by the Healey administration along with officials in Maine, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Tying multiple wind farms into shared transmission lines could save billions of dollars compared to connecting each project separately to the grid, and also help avoid future conflicts over where these lines make landfall.
Likewise, the Healey administration has endorsed a proposal by Transmission Developers Inc. to revive a Vermont project that would bring power from Canada into southern New England, via a powerline that would go underwater through Lake Champlain and underground the rest of the way. Even if Avangrid’s project in Maine comes to fruition, New England will still need more hydropower to meet its collective emissions goals.
Industry insiders also expect Tepper’s new hires to focus on energy market reforms — changes that will require multistate participation. One such change the Healey administration is considering: a wholesale market, to be overseen by the six states, that only clean energy generators can participate in. Environmentalists would also like the states to present a more united front as they tussle with ISO New England over what they say is a reluctance on the grid operator’s part to spur more green energy, rather than fossil fuels.
Environmental groups are cheering Tepper’s regional approach, as is the trade association that represents the region’s big oil and gas plants — a sign she’s probably onto something here. Susannah Hatch of the Environmental League of Massachusetts said it doesn’t make sense for each New England state to pursue separate energy procurement efforts for a power grid that’s shared by all six of them. The Conservation Law Foundation’s Brad Campbell said these separate efforts have resulted in piecemeal transmission planning, but a regional approach could ease some of the political tensions caused by transmission projects.
New England Power Generators Association president Dan Dolan is often at odds with CLF and ELM, but he’s aligned with them on this topic. Massachusetts represents half of New England’s electric load and half of its gross domestic product. It makes sense, Dolan said, for Massachusetts to spearhead a regionalization effort. While Dolan may not end up liking everything the Healey administration does, it’s become increasingly clear that Massachusetts shouldn’t go its own way in setting energy policy.
Tepper knows the future of the grid is too important to be left up to state-by-state efforts. That’s why she wants the region to come together with one voice on these issues, and she believes the team she has assembled can lead the way.