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Power grid of the future needs hydro and wind

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The future of offshore wind power in Massachusetts is bright. If that mantra sounds familiar, it’s because advocates have said so for years, successfully blocking efforts to import Canadian hydropower so that the long-expected deluge of cheap, locally produced wind energy could meet the state’s clean-energy needs instead.

There’s every reason for the state to continue supporting offshore wind, which could someday become a mainstay of the Commonwealth’s green economy. But a little hedging by legislators is also warranted. A big legal deadline — the state must cut carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2020 — arrives soon, and it’s clearer than ever that local wind power will not get us across the finish line.

Exhibit A: DONG Energy, a big Danish firm that wants to build off Martha’s Vineyard, has plans to construct up to 100 wind turbines. But it lacks permits and expects construction to take three years. There’s just not enough time left on the clock — and that’s for the world’s biggest wind energy producer with years of experience.


Recognizing that reality, both Governor Charlie Baker and his predecessor Deval Patrick supported legislation that would allow utilities to solicit large long-term contracts for Canadian hydropower. Baker’s latest request forms the basis of the bill that legislators are currently negotiating on Beacon Hill. But a strong contingent, especially from the New Bedford area, remains committed to carving out support in the legislation for offshore wind, possibly including mandates for utilities to purchase that power.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with supporting wind projects like DONG’s, as long as it’s the proverbial icing on the cake of this round of energy legislation. Indeed, support for offshore wind would be a wise economic investment. But those provisions can’t come at the expense of real progress on climate goals, especially now that the region’s carbon emissions are rising again and the Supreme Judicial Court has issued a ruling holding the state to a strict reading of the 2020 goal. It ought to be possible to support the growth of the wind industry without undercutting the Commonwealth’s climate goals, especially if the waters off Massachusetts are really destined to be the “Saudi Arabia of wind,” as backers say they are.


In practical terms, that means the hydro section of the legislation must remain robust enough that it can get low-carbon electricity on the grid soon. Baker asked for an authorization to bid on around 19 terrawatt hours that would most likely come primarily from hydro. The Legislature’s version shouldn’t stray too far from that number.

What should wind get in the legislation? The good news is that there are still powerful incentives written into existing law for utilities to buy offshore wind — incentives that aren’t available to hydropower. Utilities must steadily increase the share of power they buy from the cleanest renewable sources, a category that includes wind but not large-scale Canadian hydro. That escalating requirement will put increasing pressure on utilities and make offshore wind more feasible.

Lawmakers could also allow utilities to seek a long-term procurement from offshore wind, similar to the one envisioned for hydro. The state is going to need the electricity: Even if Massachusetts manages to meet its 2020 goal, an even bigger target — an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 — is looming in the distance.

It’s unfortunate that hydro and wind have been pitted against each other when either would provide major environmental benefit compared to the current overreliance on natural gas. Indeed, the power grid of the future needs to involve both (as is so often pointed out, the wind doesn’t always blow). The fact of the matter is that right now only hydro can meet the state’s goals on the state’s timeline. But the state will need wind, too, so farsighted legislation would provide for both.