When he takes office in January, Governor-elect Charlie Baker should uphold an important set of energy rules taking shape in the waning days of the Patrick administration. The regulations, which will not be finalized before Baker takes over, would formally require electric utilities in the Commonwealth to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases over time. Utilities will get to decide how to meet that goal, but the most likely outcome is that they’ll buy more hydroelectric power from dams in Canada, and less from fossil-fuel sources.
If Massachusetts is to meet its legally mandated climate-change goals, more hydropower will be a necessity, and the regulations will help nudge utilities in that direction. But hydropower divides environmentalists, because its impact on the climate is mixed. Building big dams destroys forests that would otherwise help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Once they’re built, however, electricity produced by a dam is carbon-free.
Given the opposition from some environmentalists, though, and the knee-jerk response of industry against any new regulations, finding the proper place for hydropower in the region’s energy mix has been a tricky political task. In response, the Patrick administration has developed something of a three-tier regulatory approach to energy: Renewables like wind and solar get the biggest incentives. Hydro also gets a smaller regulatory boost, but without the full array of help provided to wind and solar. Both sets of policies are designed to reduce the importance of the third category of energy — fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas.
The Patrick administration’s balancing act on hydro recognized the fact that the state is not on track to meet its goal of reducing carbon emissions 25 percent by 2020, and won’t get there with just wind and solar. Another prong of the administration’s strategy involved a bill that would have prodded utilities to buy more hydropower. That proposal didn’t make it through the Legislature this year, but advocates are gearing up to try again in 2015.
Baker’s stance on hydropower has been more straightforward than Patrick’s — but also wrong. In 2010 and again in 2014, the governor-elect said he backed treating hydropower just like wind and solar. That would certainly invite more hydropower in New England and keep carbon reductions on track, but it would also likely throttle local clean-energy producers. Patrick’s nuanced, middle-ground position on hydro is the right approach. Baker should approve the regulations and commit to the strategy of bringing in hydro without harming local clean-energy sources.