Environmental groups push to shorten offshore wind timeline
After a recent major regulatory decision on offshore wind, environmental groups are imploring the Baker administration to accelerate the state’s nearly 10-year timeline to establish a pioneering clean energy industry in Massachusetts.
One of those groups, the Environmental League of Massachusetts, went so far as to accuse Governor Charlie Baker’s regulators of participating in an “unholy alliance” with utility companies to slow down the construction of offshore wind farms and diminish the state’s ability to lure clean energy companies.
The charge was strongly rebutted by the governor’s office and the utilities, both of which defended the process by which Massachusetts will establish its offshore wind projects — the first competitive solicitation of its kind in the country.
A 2016 energy law, signed by Baker, allowed the state’s three utilities — National Grid, Eversource, and Unitil — to participate in drafting the requests for proposals, or RFPs, for the state’s fledgling offshore wind energy industry. The utilities can then bid on the construction projects from which they will purchase the wind energy.
When the law passed, environmental groups praised it, and ELM’s president, George Bachrach, called it a “huge victory” for clean energy that would position the state as a national leader in the field. But he acknowledges that he and other clean energy advocates had not initially seen the 10-year deadline for construction.
When they discovered it, Bachrach said, they pinned their hopes on persuading the Department of Public Utilities to cut the timeline for offshore wind energy development — from January 2027 to January 2020.
A spokesman for Baker’s environmental secretary said the governor’s regulators had moved up the deadline six months from the original 10 years set by the 2016 energy law.
“While that law sets a 10-year timetable to finalize contracts to build the turbines, the Baker-Polito administration moved to speed the process significantly because increasing renewable energy production is a priority,’’ said Peter Lorenz, who added that DPU’s decision allows “wind energy developers to access federal tax credits and other incentives designed to reduce ratepayers’ utility bills.”
But Bachrach scoffed at the notion the six-month cutback was a significant change, calling it “an illusion of compromise.’’ He said the 9½-year deadline for the construction project would allow the utility companies to reap additional profits from the state’s existing gas industry in the meantime.
Eversource and National Grid have said their customers are paying higher than average rates because of inadequate supply lines in New England. One of the companies’ proposed solutions was to build Access Northeast, a stalled $3 billion project that would supply gas to a number of power plants in the region.
“There are numerous checks and balances in place to ensure that the state-led RFP process to procure offshore wind contracts is transparent and fair,” said Rhiannon D’Angelo, a senior media specialist for Eversource. She cited the oversight roles of the state regulators, the attorney general, and another third party evaluator.
But ELM, which has been advocating environmental causes since its founding in 1898, says those proposals, which were finalized last week, are heavily influenced by the utilities, who, it says, are seeking more time to continue building fossil-fuel transmission lines — construction that earns them huge profits for their investors. Bachrach, a former Democratic state senator who is stepping down from ELM later this year, particularly cited National Grid and Eversource.
“In the dark shadows of the State House, two powerful private utilities are winning the insider game of politics dictating the terms and timelines on energy policies,’’ he said.
In addition to ELM, the Conservation Law Foundation also says a five-year timeline is more realistic and easily achieved. Bachrach and Bradley Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, expressed, in less strident terms, those concerns in a May column for the New Bedford Standard Times.
But Bachrach raised the rhetoric this week in his statement, alleging that timeline could kill the state’s chance of being the leader in the fast-growing clean energy industry. He said the longer timeline would prompt technology companies to expand in states such as Maryland or New York that he says would be moving more quickly on wind projects.
“Corporate headquarters and manufacturing plants will locate near their ports, not ours,’’ he said. “They will get the jobs, not us.”
The Conservation Law Foundation, in its brief filed with the DPU, also expressed concerns that a 2027 deadline would weaken the state’s efforts to nurture a clean energy industry. The brief said the RFP has “the potential to kick-start a sustained and vibrant U.S. offshore wind industry” in Massachusetts.
Eversource’s D’Angelo argues that the 10-year deadline is flexible. “It’s important to note the language in the RFP specifically states that early-in-service dates are encouraged,” she said.
A National Grid spokeswoman, Amie O’Hearn, said her firm has strived to make sure the RFP language pushed for a timeline that would meet the state’s mandated goals to curb carbon emissions.
“We take the responsibility to provide our customers with clean, affordable and reliable energy seriously and toward that end, drafted language in the RFP that encourages bidders to submit their proposals as early as reasonably possible in order to maximize the Commonwealth’s ability to meet its Global Warming Solution Act Goals,” she said in a statement.
The state’s highest court ruled unanimously in May that Massachusetts has failed to meet those goals. The Baker administration had argued to the court that it has met the standards set by the climate change law.
While the clean energy advocates have publicly argued with the Baker administration and the utilities over the state’s pace, ELM stepped up rhetoric this week — but not without some support — in its sharp attack on the regulators and the firms.
Peter Shattuck, state director of the environmental advocacy group the Acadia Center, said his group recognizes ELM’s frustrations but added, “We wouldn’t go quite that far.” But he did acknowledge the problems environmentalists face in trying to shape the policies for the wind farm developments.
“It’s a potential conflict, but there is no way around it,” he said of the companies’ prominent roles developing the RFPs. “But someone has to negotiate on behalf of Massachusetts. They have to go out and negotiate the best deals. But if they are developing projects also, that is when you need very strong oversight.”