There is nothing sexy about the electric grid.
It’s a thing we don’t think about — plug in your phone charger, flip on your lights, move on with your day.
Maybe you have a vague idea of what’s powering it, some mix of fossil fuels and clean energy. Maybe not.
But as climate-fueled catastrophes mount and Massachusetts pushes hundreds of thousands of residents toward electric heat and electric cars, what’s powering the grid has become an increasingly urgent question. For nearly three decades, the state has been slowly nudging out coal and oil and cobbling together enough climate-friendly energy to make steady but undramatic gains. But now, with deadlines looming and its larger climate plans at stake, Massachusetts must embark on an unprecedented sprint to build enough clean energy to complete a clean grid. Success is anything but certain.
As of this year, 59 percent of Massachusetts electricity is carbon free, according to state figures. While some energy experts question that number — saying it exaggerates how far we have come — all agree that getting to 92 percent by the end of the decade, as mandated by Massachusetts law, or to 100 percent, as Governor Maura Healey pledged during her campaign, will be a monumental task. Giant offshore wind farms, thousands of new solar projects, sprawling transmission lines, and intrastate energy collaborations all must be completed on schedule, a rarity in any large-scale effort. And already each of the biggest clean energy projects the state is counting on is facing complications that could delay or even derail them.
“The pathway right now has little margin for error,” said former Massachusetts energy commissioner Patrick Woodcock. “Every single one of these projects is important.”
Complicating the job is the fact that many experts continue to debate the amount of clean energy the state is actually using now.
The state’s estimate is derived from a complex accounting system of so-called renewable energy credits that allow utilities to purchase credits for clean electricity obtained from a broad variety of sources and from across state lines. The system has been repeatedly modified, changing what can be considered clean — and allowing for differing interpretations of progress.
For instance, nuclear power from Seabrook Station was not counted prior to 2021, but a regulation finalized in 2020 allowed it in subsequent years. Other sources, including a number of hydropower generators, cause some climate-warming emissions in the process of creating clean energy. And some clean electricity is generated by plants that burn biomass, like wood or agricultural products, and landfill waste, both of which can produce harmful air pollutants as well as carbon emissions. Such sources are highly controversial and continue to be debated.
“It’s just an abomination that it’s still counted that way, and we’re working on trying to fix that,” said Caitlin Peale Sloan, the Conservation Law Foundation’s vice president for Massachusetts.
The state’s calculation also doesn’t include communities that get their power from so-called municipal light plants, which provide 14 percent of the state’s power. Until a recent change in the law, municipal light plants did not have any clean energy requirements. As of 2020, 38 percent of the electricity from these plants was considered carbon free, with a significant amount coming from nuclear power, according to a report by the Massachusetts Climate Action Network. State climate law requires their carbon-free electricity performance rise to 50 percent by 2030.
Clean energy experts rail at these gaps and ambiguities and say the lack of clarity could hobble any effort to reach concrete goals.
“It’s not enough to know where you’re going,” said Larry Chretien, director of Green Energy Consumers Alliance, a clean energy advocacy nonprofit. “If you gave me a map and told me to get to Los Angeles, that’s fine. But am I starting from Florida, or am I starting from Maine?”
In its favor, the state has lined up a slate of mammoth projects that could come close to making a clean grid by 2030, if not get all the way there. The bigger question is whether they can overcome formidable obstacles, including economic problems and opposition by some conservation and community groups, which across the country have increasingly joined forces with fossil fuel interests.
A vivid example is the vitriolic opposition that rose against a long-planned centerpiece of the state’s clean-energy effort, a 145-mile transmission line that would carry enough hydroelectric power from Quebec through Maine to supply 1.2 million homes in Massachusetts. Conservation groups in Maine concerned about damaging wilderness areas and other issues, helped, with funding from natural gas and other interests, foment a movement that culminated in Maine voters voting to kill the project. Work was stopped in 2021. The project then spent nearly 18 months in legal limbo before a jury in Maine recently ruled that work could resume. It’s not yet clear whether the verdict will be appealed, potentially bringing new delays.
Energy experts have taken that as a warning.
“We still need large amounts of renewable energy to meet our clean energy and our climate mandates,” said Phelps Turner, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation in Maine. “So we’re going to have to make hard decisions along the way and we’re going to have to do this balancing of benefits and burdens.”
Several big offshore wind projects are likely to be the next battlegrounds.
The first, which happens to also be the nation’s first utility-scale offshore wind operation, Vineyard Wind, is due to start generating some power later this year. If it hits full operational capacity in 2024 as planned, it will be able to deliver 3.3 terawatt-hours of electricity annually to the grid — meeting 5.5 percent of the state’s annual electricity demand. A terawatt-hour is the generation of a trillion watts for one hour.
‘“We still need large amounts of renewable energy to meet our clean energy and our climate mandates. So we’re going to have to make hard decisions along the way and we’re going to have to do this balancing of benefits and burdens.”’
Phelps Turner, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation in Maine
The project appears now to be on track, after years of delays. But four lawsuits in federal courts in Boston have the potential to delay it again. The suits argue that the project’s impact on endangered right whales and the fishing industry weren’t adequately studied prior to its approval. So far, judges have allowed the suits to go forward, but experts say that, at the moment, they appear unlikely to significantly change the project’s schedule.
The next projects, scheduled to come online in 2028, face bigger questions.
SouthCoast Wind and Avangrid’s Commonwealth Wind, planned in the waters south of Martha’s Vineyard, would add enough electricity to meet another 15 percent of the state’s power demand. But Avangrid has told the state it wants to renegotiate its contract and has threatened to terminate the project, citing ballooning costs from inflation and supply-chain problems. It says the project’s price has soared from $4 billion to more than $5 billion, making it a dubious financial risk, given the price the state has agreed to pay for the power. The state has so far refused to renegotiate. The developers of SouthCoast have also indicated in state filings that they are facing similar financial obstacles.
A shifting grid
Nearly 60 percent of Massachusetts' electricity demand is met by carbon-free sources right now. Here's how and when that will likely change in the coming years.
On the heels of two recent pieces of climate legislation, Gov. Maura Healey takes office after a campaign pledge to get to 100% clean electricity by 2030. Over half (58.7%) of MA’s electricity demand is being met by carbon-free energy, including the addition of 0.559 TWh of solar energy added in 2023.
The first commercial-scale offshore wind farm in the state—and the nation—Vineyard Wind 1, comes online adding 3.293 TWh of new capacity to the grid. Located 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, the project’s 62 wind turbines generate enough power for more than 400,000 homes. Another 0.534 TWh of solar also comes online.
New England Clean Energy Connect, a transmission line through Western Maine, is completed, allowing 9.55 TWh of power from Hydro Quebec to enter the grid. The timing of this project remains in question after years of delays from court battles. In addition, another 0.496 TWh of solar comes online.
Starting in 2026, the annual increase in energy demand in Massachusetts doubles, compared to the first half of the decade. This reflects an increase in building electrification and a shift to electric vehicles. This year, another 0.502 TWh comes online.
Offshore, major wind projects are underway. Another 0.459 TWh of solar comes online.
Two offshore wind projects — Commonwealth Wind and SouthCoast Wind, formerly known as Mayflower Wind —come online, resulting in a tripling of the state’s offshore wind capacity. The two new projects bring an additional 9.897 TWh to the grid. The fate of these projects is currently unknown, as the developers have seen their projects’ price tags soar due to the war in Ukraine and rising interest rates. If they meet an agreement with the state soon, they should be able to stay on schedule. In addition, another 0.398 TWh of solar comes online.
The King Pine project, an onshore wind farm in northern Maine that was contracted in part by Massachusetts, comes online with 2.628 TWh counting toward Massachusetts’ climate goal. In addition, another 0.346 TWh of solar power comes online.
As long as each major project is completed, Massachusetts reaches 85.6% of its demand being met by carbon-free energy, not including any additional energy that could be contracted from out of state. Without other additional major projects, it still falls short of the governor’s campaign goal of 100% clean electricity in 2030. In 2030, the state adds another 0.349 TWh of solar energy to the grid.
Planning for both projects is well underway, meaning that if the developers and state are able to negotiate a new deal soon, they may be able to stay on track to build and connect the projects on time. But it’s not clear when or if the dispute will end.
This spring, the state announced a new round of bidding for offshore wind projects, potentially offering a path for the developers of Commonwealth and SouthCoast to cancel their projects and re-bid at a higher rate. But the state noted in its announcement that it will consider “the experience and track record of the bidder” when evaluating the bids, a possible sign it would not look favorably on such bids — a fact that worries clean energy advocates.
“My hope is that they will be able to re-bid and we can move forward because frankly, we need them to reach our climate goals and we just can’t afford to not have these projects move forward,” said Susannah Hatch, director of Clean Energy Policy at the Environmental League of Massachusetts.
Daniel Hubbard, director of external affairs for SouthCoast Wind, said in an e-mail that the company “remains committed to supplying clean offshore wind power to Massachusetts.”
For another critical piece of its effort, Massachusetts in November announced a joint project with Maine, King Pine Wind, to be built in northern Maine and provide Massachusetts with another 2.6 terawatt-hours of carbon-free energy by 2029. A cause for worry among some advocates is that the project needs a transmission line that would likely cut through wilderness, raising the specter of opposition similar to the sort that hobbled the Quebec hydropower line.
It’s too early to tell whether such opposition will materialize, said Ari Peskoe, who directs the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard Law School. One sign that it may not be as virulent is an early endorsement of the initiative by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a group that led the charge against the Hydro-Quebec line.
Officials have also pinned high hopes on solar energy. Despite this being a state with little open space for utility-scale projects like the sprawling, thousand-acre fields in California, solar has made steady and important gains, largely in the form of rooftop panels installed by homeowners and small community projects. In 2022, solar produced 4.1 terawatt-hours of electricity, meeting about 7 percent of the state’s electricity demands, according to state figures. State climate planners are counting on solar’s share to significantly grow by the end of the decade. But there are worries there, too.
Developers are facing lengthy wait times at the state Department of Public Utilities for permission to connect to the grid, and unless that process speeds up dramatically, it could endanger the state’s ability to bring enough solar online to reach its goals on time.
“That process can drag on years and that means that we don’t get the projects built in the timeframe that we want them to be built,” said state climate chief Melissa Hoffer.
If these projects overcome the hurdles they face and are completed on time, it appears the state would be on track to meet its 2030 target of 92 percent clean electricity, even with demand expected to grow by 22 percent as people switch to electric power for their heat and vehicles.
But the state wants to do even better than that. Former energy commissioner Woodcock said the state will likely look to fast-track new offshore wind projects to get them online before 2030, and will look to develop utility-scale solar fields in other states to help meet Massachusetts energy demands.
Governor Healey, whose pledge of a completely clean grid by 2030 came in a detailed climate plan she released six months before the election, has said nothing more of it publicly since taking office. Administration officials said the pledge has remained a subject of discussion but declined to speak about it for the record.
Some other states, meanwhile, have codified 100 percent goals. Rhode Island passed legislation last year calling for 100 percent renewable energy electricity by 2033. States including Connecticut, Minnesota, New York, New Jersey, and Oregon have mandated 100 percent clean energy by 2040 or earlier. Maine Governor Janet Mills said in February that she wants her state to do the same.
Getting a substantial amount of carbon-free power online would allow for the retirement of fossil fuel power plants. In 2024, the Mystic Generating Station in Everett, a fossil fuel plant, is expected to retire, according to ISO-New England spokesman Matt Kakley. Another, the West Springfield Generating Station, is expected to retire by 2025, and the Canal Generating Plant in Sandwich has been flagged by ISO-New England as likely to close in coming years.
That doesn’t mean fossil fuel will disappear any time soon. Even as Healey targets big gains in clean energy, new natural gas-powered plants are still under consideration by the state, like the $85 million Peabody Peaker Plant, which is slated to come online this year. Such “peaker” plants are meant to be used only when demand for electricity peaks, such as during summer heat waves. But to the distress of many climate advocates, some energy analysts say they expect they are likely to remain online for times when weather patterns prevent wind and solar from generating enough power.
Among climate advocates and clean energy experts, the massive size and complexity of the effort the state must mount in the next seven years has caused considerable worry. But many, even while speaking of the long odds, say they hold to an optimistic view.
“A lot of things have to go right, and a lot of work has to be done. But I do believe that it’s possible,” Jeremy McDiarmid, managing director for the clean energy advocacy organization Advanced Energy United, said of Healey’s 2030 goal. “I’d say the odds are hard, but not insurmountable.”