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Hydro power needed to meet state’s 2020 carbon goal

The Jean-Lesage hydro electric dam generates power along the Manicouagan River north of Baie-Comeau, Quebec.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press/AP

For those inclined to see the glass half full, Massachusetts has made enormous strides in reducing its carbon emissions. Coal-fired plants, the worst offenders, are dying out across the Commonwealth. Investments in energy efficiency have lowered demand. The solar panels sprouting up along the Massachusetts Turnpike are only the most visible of the new generation of green technologies feeding power into homes and businesses.

Yet a state report last year found that without new legislation, the Commonwealth could still miss its statutory goal of reducing carbon emissions by 25 percent compared to 1990 levels. If that happens, the failure would be political, not technological. Since the later years of the Patrick administration, continuing into Charlie Baker’s governorship, lawmakers have been locked in a time-wasting battle over how precisely to meet attainable reduction goals.

It’s time to break the impasse by approving a plan, versions of which have been backed by both Governor Baker and former governor Deval Patrick, that would invite more clean Canadian hydropower into Massachusetts. No, it’s not perfect, and won’t solve every environmental concern. But hydropower — and the expensive infrastructure needed to import it from Quebec — will have to be part of any timely, realistic solution.


How to handle Canadian power has vexed state policymakers for a decade. Part of the opposition stems from environmental qualms: building dams that generate electricity often requires the destruction of forests, and the transmission lines also sometimes provoke controversy. Then there’s an economic concern: Why should state policy tilt in favor of a foreign power generator? Patrick ultimately arrived at a good compromise, which would have allowed utility companies to solicit long-term power contracts from hydropower suppliers, but his plan never made it through the Legislature.

Baker revived many of those ideas, and Beacon Hill is again studying them. Many lawmakers, especially from Southeastern Massachusetts, would prefer state policy to support local offshore wind. But it is not realistic to expect enough offshore wind to come online by 2020. If climate change is the urgent problem that so many politicians say it is, then it requires a hard-nosed approach that recognizes that the perfect can’t be the enemy of the good.


Dams in Canada are already up and running, and the transmission lines that would be needed could be built quickly. The New England Clean Power Link in Vermont has its permits; the Vermont Green Line, Northern Pass, and Maritime Link projects are all in various stages of approval. Passage of the legislation doesn’t mean all of those infrastructure projects would be built, but would set off a competitive scramble among different transmission projects. Onshore wind power in Maine would also benefit if new lines reach them.

Bolstering Canadian hydro does not mean the Legislature should abandon efforts to support local offshore wind, which has tremendous potential in Massachusetts and will undoubtedly form a major part of the state’s long-term energy future in the years after 2020. One recent study found that with regulatory support, the price of offshore wind would plunge by 2030. It could also be a major source of jobs and economic development.

One idea under consideration is a two-part bill that approves long-term contracts for both hydro and offshore wind. The Union of Concerned Scientists looked at that possibility and found it would reduce New England’s overreliance on natural gas at modest cost. Embracing both might be a good compromise — as long as the provisions aimed at Canadian hydropower remain sufficient to meet the 2020 goal.

After all, potential alone doesn’t cut emissions, and the history of setbacks for offshore wind should be enough to dissuade Massachusetts from assuming the best about its progress in 2020. A pressing environmental threat like climate change demands a pragmatic response, and for the moment legislation that includes Baker’s Canadian hydropower plan offers the most realistic way for Massachusetts to meet its climate goals.