Governor Baker’s Solar Bill Misses the Mark

Aug 25, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Anticipating the release of his promised solar power legislation, we encouraged Governor Baker to be bold in strengthening and continuing the solar-friendly policies, including net metering, that have made Massachusetts a national leader in solar energy. Unfortunately, his proposed bill falls well short of that goal. At a time when our changing climate demands urgent action on clean energy, the people of Massachusetts deserve better.

Net Metering: The What and the Why
So what is net metering and why is it important? Economics.

Strategic investments in renewable energy sources will reduce our reliance on climate-changing fossil fuels. Photo credit: CLF

Strategic investments in renewable energy sources will reduce our reliance on climate-changing fossil fuels. Photo credit: CLF

Net metering is the billing arrangement with Eversource and other utility companies that encourages the use of solar power by making it a good investment for businesses and families. When the sun is shining, your panels either power your home directly, or run your meter backwards – selling your excess solar power back to the utility. At the end of the month, you pay the difference between the electricity you consumed and what you sold back to your electric company – the “net” amount of electricity you purchased. The savings – over buying all your electricity from the utilities – can allow an average Massachusetts home installation to pay for itself (with other federal and state credits) in as little as five to six years. It’s a win-win: You get cheaper electricity; we all get cleaner air, a more resilient grid, and fewer climate warming emissions.

Caps Are Bad for Business (and Our Climate)
For historical reasons we’ll discuss in just a moment, the number of solar installations that are allowed to “net meter” in Massachusetts is capped; in much of the state, we’ve reached the cap, or we’re about to. The result: fewer solar installations exactly when we need more (and more!) clean solar power to help us get rid of the dirty fossil-fuel generators that are destroying our climate. That’s why we encouraged the Governor to join the state Senate in raising Massachusetts’ net metering caps all the way to the state’s 2020 goal of 1,600 megawatts of installed solar – or, better yet, to get rid of them altogether as Rhode Island has successfully done.

But the Governor’s bill did neither, instead simply bumping the caps up again from about 9% of the utilities’ total load to about 13%. That’s well shy of what’s needed to either re-energize the state’s solar industry or to get the state to its 1,600 megawatts goal. That small bump should help a few solar projects that have been waiting in the wings in certain parts of the state, but there is every indication that, with those projects and others, we would quickly hit the new caps if this bill were to become law.

And that’s a problem.

According to a recent study by the National Renewable Energy Lab, when the number of solar installations in a state approaches the level of a net metering cap, uncertainty about the availability of net metering impedes the market. To thrive under a cap, the study found, the solar market needs clear and strong signals regarding the future availability of net metering.

Baker Bill Is a Set Up for Solar Deja Vu
Unfortunately, Governor Baker’s bill would keep the future of solar in Massachusetts an open question. Instead of moving decisively to build up our solar industry and ensure that we reach our goal in 2020 and beyond, the bill would guarantee that in the very near future, we will have to (again) press pause on solar installations across the state while we (again) argue about whether, when, and by how much to (again) raise or remove the caps.

Moving ahead in such fits and starts seems particularly short-sighted for at least two key reasons. First, climate change demands serious action, not halting baby steps, right now. Second, the need for net metering caps vanished years ago. In Massachusetts and elsewhere, caps were imposed in the early days of solar power, when we were all a bit uncertain as to how much variable solar power our steady-state grid could accommodate without becoming unstable. In that context, volumetric caps on installations made sense as a way to judiciously control the system. But those days are long gone.

We now know that solar power brings extra value to our electric power system beyond the electrons it produces. We also know that the existing grid, without significant modification, can be expected to operate reliably and safely with renewables like solar power providing up to about 30% of our power. Here in Massachusetts, that’s more than nine times the amount of solar power we hope to have by 2020 – and just over ten times more than allowed by the Governor’s proposed new caps!

It should come as no surprise, then, that a majority of the members of the state’s recently concluded Net Metering and Solar Task Force voted in favor of doing away with net metering caps altogether as long as the value of solar is accurately priced (more on that soon).

So the imperative remains: To ensure Massachusetts remains an innovator and leader in the drive to a clean energy future, the Legislature should immediately lift the net metering caps system-wide to at least our 2020 goal of 1,600 megawatts-installed or, better yet, remove them altogether to allow the true value of solar to shine through!

Sunny Days Ahead: Securing Massachusetts’ Role as a Renewable Energy Leader

Aug 7, 2015 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Governor Baker’s administration announced late last week that it would file, this week or next, legislation designed to continue the growth of solar power in Massachusetts and achieve the state’s goal of 1,600 megawatts of installed solar capacity by 2020. No details have been released yet on the draft bill, but those are goals that CLF enthusiastically supports.

Solar panels at Exeter Area High School (photo credit: flickr/SayCheeeeeese)

(photo credit: flickr/SayCheeeeeese)

Solar is a sustainable source of carbon-free electricity that must play a central role in our clean energy future. In addition to providing low-cost, clean energy whenever the sun is shining, solar brings extra value to our electric power system. Particularly when oriented to the southwest, solar panels generate power when we need it most, during “peak load” in the late afternoon.

That reduces the need, in the short-term, to turn on dirty, climate-warming fossil fuel “peaker plants.” In the long term, it reduces the need to build more of those plants and the expensive transmission and gas pipeline infrastructure they require.

Importantly, with the cost of installing solar power steadily dropping – down 45% since 2010 nationwide and almost 5% just in the last year in Massachusetts – solar also makes great economic sense. Massachusetts has a healthy, growing solar industry that employs more than 10,000 people statewide. And, for every dollar invested in solar, the state sees $1.20 in economic benefits returned to our local economy – some $950 million dollars last year alone.

So the time is now to continue our leadership in solar energy. Despite its small size and northern latitude, Massachusetts currently ranks an impressive sixth in the nation in installed solar capacity thanks to the solar-friendly policies that we encourage the Baker administration to strengthen and continue.

First and foremost among those policies is net metering, which makes it economical for individuals and businesses to either install solar on their own property or share in the benefit of solar power installed nearby. Despite the state’s commitment to reach 1,600 megawatts of installed solar in the next five years, installations across Massachusetts have slowed as we’ve bumped up against old, outdated net metering caps put in place before we knew solar power’s full value – for the utilities, for the grid, and for the people of Massachusetts. As we anticipate the filing of the Governor’s solar bill, we urge the administration to include provisions to lift those caps (as the state Senate just voted to do) or, better yet, to remove them altogether (as Rhode Island has successfully done).

As Massachusetts works to further develop a comprehensive, long-term renewable energy strategy, we encourage Governor Baker to be bold and secure the state’s role as an innovator and leader in the drive to a clean energy future. Stay tuned for our analysis of the strengths of the final bill once it’s filed.

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Experts Weigh In: Maine Doesn’t Need New Gas Pipelines

Jul 17, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

This week consultants hired by the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) concluded that Maine should not enter into contracts to purchase gas pipeline capacity because the costs of doing so would outweigh the benefits to Mainers.

In many ways, this was a foregone conclusion – one that CLF predicted nearly a year ago and that the PUC itself (unofficially) reached before soliciting proposals from pipeline companies and spending taxpayer dollars on a lengthy consultant’s report. It’s a cautionary tale not just for Maine but for all of New England as the region weighs its energy future – and decides whether it will overinvest in natural gas or blaze a trail based on cleaner, renewable resources.

This process all started back in March 2014. After a cold winter sparked region-wide fears of an imminent shortage of natural gas to power our homes and businesses, Maine’s PUC was tasked with determining whether the state should contract for additional gas capacity under the Maine Energy Cost Reduction Act (MECRA). The PUC approached this work in two phases: first, soliciting and examining evidence and testimony from a variety of interested parties, including CLF, as to the need and economics of gas pipeline capacity procurement. And, second, if the economics made sense, to request proposals from pipeline companies.

CLF testified before the PUC as it gathered the evidence and data it would need to make their determination. We reasoned that Maine should not enter into new contracts with pipeline companies – both because the legal basis for them was suspect (the investment in these new projects would have been paid for by ratepayers, which is unprecedented and risky) and because the costs – to our wallets and our climate – would ultimately outweigh the benefits to consumers.

PUC staff agreed with the economic argument in their own preliminary report, but the Commission nonetheless went ahead and accepted supply proposals from pipeline companies. As required by MECRA, the PUC hired an independent consultant, London Economics International (LEI), to examine these proposals. The consultant’s detailed report compared scenarios in which the state didn’t contract for additional pipeline and ones in which it did (based on the actual proposals the state had received).

LEI’s analysis reinforces both CLF’s testimony and comments and the PUC’s own staff report issued during the first phase of this proceeding: The costs of any contract for Maine to buy natural gas pipeline capacity trumps the benefits. In fact, LEI concluded that, even without Maine entering into a gas contract, gas prices should drop by 25% for Maine customers over the next few years due to already planned, market-based gas capacity expansions. The group also found that electricity prices should drop by 15% due to these lowering gas prices.

The LEI report rightly calls into question whether the PUC should have accepted proposals from gas companies in the first place – a process that has been costly to all participants, expended valuable resources of the PUC, and resulted in no different a conclusion than the PUC’s own staff analysis.

Maine law requires that, for any contracts like these proposed expansions, the benefits must outweigh the costs. The conclusions drawn by the PUC’s expert consultant in their report should prevent Maine from entering into such a contract any time soon.

Ultimately, there’s a larger lesson here – one for every state in the region considering its electricity future. Over this year-long process, the PUC spent hundreds of thousands of (tax-payer) dollars on experts and an intense, litigation-like process, only for their experts to conclude what was readily apparent at the outset – that subsidizing the gas industry on the backs of ratepayers is a bad idea, both economically and for the environment.

Those gas shortage fears that sparked this whole process in the first place ended up being completely unfounded over this past winter. Since then the economics of the energy markets have started to shift, with wholesale electric prices declining by 50% over the past year alone. Meanwhile, energy efficiency is decreasing the need for energy resources, fuel-free renewables are supplanting polluting power plants, and liquefied natural gas has become cost-competitive and available at times of peak need. With at least two new small-scale pipeline projects already set to come on-line and reduce energy costs even more over the next two years, now is the time for the New England states to invest in the stability of the cleanest energy future we can create – one that weans us off of natural gas within the next 35 years.

The Alternatives to New Natural Gas Pipelines

May 15, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Now that we’ve made it through the winter, policymakers in Massachusetts are taking a look at the state of energy in the Commonwealth and trying to sort out what to do about the big energy policy questions currently on the table. First among these questions is what, if any, public policy support and funding should be invested in natural gas pipeline infrastructure.

How policymakers answer this question is important because now, more than ever, we must look beyond fossil fuels and ensure that our energy system is one built on the cleanest energy sources. Overinvestment in natural gas is simply a bad bargain for our climate, for consumers, and for our economy.

For several years now CLF has been calling for caution in the pipeline debate by debunking myths presented by pipeline proponents, exploring the environmental and economic ramifications of overbuilding natural gas infrastructure, and highlighting alternatives to pipeline investments. I had the opportunity this week to present CLF’s broad vision for the future of energy in New England to the Massachusetts legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy. The plan I presented to the legislators:

1. Strategic public investment in the resource with the best rate of return for ratepayers: Energy Efficiency.

2. Strategic public investment in clean electric generation that is not tied to fossil fuel prices: Renewables.

3. Encourage the electric and gas markets to utilize existing gas storage and pipeline to meet peak gas demand.

4. Overall, the need for new gas pipeline has not yet been demonstrated, but if it occurs, we should begin with small pipeline upgrades and peak storage projects first.

5. If we still need more pipeline capacity after doing all of the above, go incremental first (by increasing the capacity of existing pipelines), and let the markets support the capital costs rather than putting them further on the ratepayers.

CLF is skeptical about new gas pipeline infrastructure buildout and efforts to put additional public money toward such projects. This skepticism is based in 1) the climate implications of entrenching gas further in our energy system, 2) the short-term economic effects of building new infrastructure when we’re not maximizing the infrastructure we already have, and 3) the medium- to long-term economic effects of fossil fuel prices dictating our energy prices.

Strategic investments in renewable energy sources will reduce our reliance on climate-changing fossil fuels. Photo credit: CLF

Strategic investments in renewable energy sources will reduce our reliance on climate-changing fossil fuels. Photo credit: CLF

Rather than more investments in fossil fuel-based energy, then, let’s instead invest wisely in energy efficiency and long-term contracts for renewable energy. And where the use of natural gas is currently necessary, let’s use LNG to supplement natural gas supply during periods of peak usage. Expanding our natural gas pipelines and our reliance on this carbon intensive and price volatile fuel should be New England’s last resort.

Effective, clean and economic alternatives are available now and they’re certainly a better deal for our climate and for ratepayers in Massachusetts and across New England.

My full slides and written testimony are available here and here. And, speaking of this winter, check out this paper collecting my colleague Christophe’s blog series on the energy lessons to be drawn from the performance of New England’s energy markets this winter.

This Week on TalkingFish.org – March 30-April 3

Apr 3, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

April 3 – Fish Talk in the News – Friday, April 3 – In this week’s Fish Talk in the News, the Senate approves funding for New England fisheries observes; Maine voted down scallop bill; veteran lobsterman urges approval of reduced carbon pollution; a Cape Cod-based group faces off with DMF over clam dredging; Chatham fights for access to town fishing grounds; new Oceana study finds crab cake mislabeling; New England fights ocean acidity; ocean acidification impacts lobster growth; RI Sea Grant receives $1.6 million; and NMFS reviews the species status of the porbeagle shark.

Time to Act: Guest Post by Olivia Gieger

Mar 6, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Last fall, CLF, Mass Energy Consumers Alliance, and four youth plaintiffs filed suit against the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection for failing to fully comply with the Global Warming Solutions Act. In this guest post, one of the teen plaintiffs, Olivia Gieger, explains why she’s joined the court fight to defend her climate future.

As a sophomore in high school, I am all too familiar with procrastination. That group project assigned a month ago and now due tomorrow? We had a month; why start early? It’s a group project; won’t someone else do it? In my experience, I can tell you, those all-nighter–inducing group projects never turn out well.

Don’t be the sophomore in high school.

This 2015, we have the technology to know that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are rising at an alarmingly fast rate. We’ve had this technology since 1960 when carbon dioxide levels were at 315 parts per million (ppm). Now they’re at 395 ppm(1). We know that this carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which captures heat energy and slows its release from air. While greenhouse gases are necessary in our atmosphere and are needed to keep us warm, an unnatural amount is strikingly dangerous. More greenhouse gases mean more heat held in the atmosphere, which means a hotter Earth.

Side effects of global warming are countless, and they are happening today. Sea levels are rising. Ice caps are melting. Forest fires are raging. Downpours are constant in the Northeast, yet droughts are ever more present in the West(2).

But, really, why should I care? Melting ice caps and a couple less polar bears don’t really affect me, right? I don’t live in California, so those wildfires don’t affect me, either. But other people are being impacted by the wildfires, the melting ice caps, the rising temperatures. The scary reality is that we all are. I may not know anyone who lives in California, but that’s where my food is grown. If there are droughts and wildfires, how is my family supposed to get some of our favorite fruits and vegetables that don’t grow here in Boston during the winter? And those melting ice caps affect a whole lot more than polar bears. When they melt, sea levels rise – not just at the North Pole, but globally. This means my favorite beaches on Martha’s Vineyard will be washed away. It means my favorite restaurants and museums – even my neighborhood – here in Boston will be underwater in my lifetime.

In order to do something about these concerns, I have filed a lawsuit, along with three other youth plaintiffs, against the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), because DEP has been procrastinating in fully complying with the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA). The GWSA requires DEP to pass regulations establishing declining greenhouse gas emissions limits for Massachusetts. But DEP has not done so. The purpose of the lawsuit is to force DEP to comply with the law, because it appears unwilling to do so on its own. Thanks to the support from my lawyers at Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak, & Cohen and Our Children’s Trust, we will ensure that DEP complies with the law.

So now my question is why? Why are we as a society being sophomores in high school about this? Why are we just waiting for someone else to solve this massive problem? We know the problems, and, better yet, we know the solutions. Using clean, renewable energy is one solution. Enough energy from the sun enters the Earth in one hour to power it for an entire year(3). This energy is unlimited, harmless to the environment, and virtually free. Sounds to me like it tops fossil fuels any day. It’s not just solar energy, however – wind power and hydropower are also unlimited and harmless to the environment. So why then are we oblivious to this? Why are we so incapable of making a change? We need to stop procrastinating. It is long past the time to include, encourage, and execute programs with wind and solar power as the energy of America. We cannot afford to be sophomores anymore; it’s time to graduate.

Works Cited:

  1. Pieter Tans, NOAA/ESRL (www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/) and Dr. Ralph Keeling, Scripps Institution of Oceanography (scrippsco2.ucsd.edu/).
  2. “The Current and Future Consequences of Global Change.”Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. National Air and Space Association, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.
  3. “Solar Power Energy Information, Solar Power Energy Facts.”National Geographic. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

Mapping the Road to a Low-Carbon Future for the Northeast

Dec 23, 2014 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

“All you need is the plan, the road map, and the courage to press on to your destination.”
–Radio legend Earl Nightingale (1921-1989)

How do we, efficiently and effectively, complete the transition from an energy system rooted in fossil-fuel generation to a much-needed clean energy system for our region? As participants in last week’s Lessons for a Climate & Energy Roadmap 2050 Process for the Northeastern US learned, it takes courage to embark on the collective journey to a low-carbon future, and it helps to bring a map.

Hosted by CLF, CLF Ventures, and The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy’s Center for International Environment & Resource Policy, and sponsored by The Oak Foundation and German Consulate General of Boston, the December 16 event at Tufts University brought together business and government leaders and environmental advocates from the Northeast with their counterparts from Germany and the European Union (EU), Canada, California, and beyond. The goal: explore how the EU’s experience pursuing renewable energy, energy efficiency, and climate protection policies and targets could offer lessons for our region’s clean energy and climate transition.

The Northeast Roadmap 2050 event drew inspiration from the EU Roadmap 2050 process, which convened key stakeholders to shape a shared vision for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the EU at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Here in the northeast US/New England, we have a very similar opportunity. The New England states and New York, along with the Eastern Canadian provinces, have adopted climate goals and mandates that mirror the EU mandate. We have a core of business leaders that can be mobilized, and a number of key energy players here are the same companies that sat at the table for the EU Roadmap 2050 process. Though the questions underlying a similar planning process for the Northeast are simple, the challenges are anything but: Can the leaders of our region articulate the vision of a sane energy transition that leaders and decision-makers in Washington have not? If so, how do we achieve essential buy-in from key regional decision makers, like executives and regulators, to move from a shared vision to an implementable course of action?

During the daylong event, participants joined in person and over videoconference to begin to build a foundation of shared knowledge upon which a Roadmap 2050 process can be built for the Northeast. Among the day’s highlights:

  • Tufts emeritus professor of international environmental policy and lead author on several Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports William Moomaw urged participants to accelerate the transition to renewable energy sources and emphasized that such a transformation is essential.
  • Mike Hogan, Senior Advisor to the Regulatory Assistance Project, shared several key lessons learned from the EU Roadmap 2050 process, including:
    • Derive legitimacy from a very broad base of stakeholder participants, including industry, governments, NGOs, governments, and technical experts.
    • Start from a point of broad consensus about the destination. Participants don’t need to agree on how to get there or even if they can get there, as long as they agree on the destination.
    • Focus on shifting the public narrative about what makes sense and re-defining the “middle ground.”
    • Keep everything on the table and take nothing for granted (except the destination).
    • 90 percent of the success of the Roadmap process is just getting people to sit in the room and stay in the room to work together on the process.
  • Dr. Patrick Graichen, Executive Director of Agora Energiewende, a German energy think tank, and Graham Weale, Chief Economist, RWE AG, a leading European utility, presented insights from Germany’s energy transition (Energiewende) and from the German energy industry, including the key role of wind and solar energy, and the importance of building both supply- and demand-side flexibility and strong market mechanisms into a low-carbon energy system.
  • V. John White, Executive Director, Center for Energy Efficiency & Renewable Technologies, offered insights from the ongoing California 2030 Low Carbon Grid Study. Among the Phase I findings:
    • The importance of balancing California’s energy portfolio both technologically and geographically;
    • The need to modernize California’s currently inefficient gas fleet and use gas differently;
    • The increased role of bulk storage and demand response to shift energy demand to different parts of the day and reduce demand on the overall system;
    • The emerging need for California to take a more regional approach to its energy grid.
  • Michael Jasanis (HotZero, LLC and former CEO of National Grid USA),Phil Giudice, CEO and President of Ambri, and Cindy Arcate, CEO and President of PowerOptions, contributed the perspectives of Northeast utility and energy industry leaders.

From the wide range of opinions and insights shared over the course of the day, participants were left with a sense of urgency to accelerate a clean energy transition for the Northeast as well as many questions that remain to be explored. Next steps? Participants expressed interest in a second, follow-up convening that will likely be planned for early 2015, hosted by an organization that can provide a supportive yet outcome-neutral role in advancing a Northeast Roadmap 2050 stakeholder process. Once the process is underway, the group will develop a framework for the multi-sector analysis and modeling work needed to create a powerful vision that will shape governmental and business decision making and that will be owned by a broad and deep regional stakeholder group.

Why Is Hydro-Québec So Intent on Overselling Its Hydropower?, Part II

Oct 24, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

CLF has been asking questions about the carbon footprint of large-scale Canadian hydropower since before the Northern Pass project’s inception. I recently raised our concerns in my list of three ugly numbers behind the regional push for more hydropower imports, pointing out that, in the first decade after flooding, greenhouse gas pollution from new hydropower reservoirs can produce 70% as much greenhouse gas pollution as natural gas power plants, according to Hydro-Québec’s own science.

As with our number on new hydropower costs, Hydro-Québec took exception in a press release, asserting that CLF does not understand the science. We obviously disagree. In this post, the second in a series of three, I will break down what Hydro-Québec’s defense of its product gets wrong—on the climate benefits of its hydropower. This will be a deep dive, especially because Hydro-Québec’s press release is so profoundly misleading.

hydro-Québec

Aurora Borealis over Gouin Reservoir, Québec (photo credit: flickr/-AX-)

Why CLF Cares About Hydropower’s Carbon Footprint

Why is this issue important at all? As our region considers massive new infrastructure to import more hydropower, we need to have a full, honest accounting of the real impacts—on both sides of the border. Greenhouse gas pollution and climate change know no international boundaries, and New England is ultimately responsible for the carbon pollution attributable to its power use.

Getting credible estimates of the climate effects of new imports is especially important because virtually every proponent of new hydropower imports touts reduced emissions as a dominant reason to pursue them. Likewise, federal law and some state statutes require accurate assessments of what new imports of hydropower will mean for New England’s greenhouse gas emissions and how we achieve our short-term and long-term climate goals. To the extent new imports are in the region’s future, something CLF could support with the right conditions, we need honest numbers.

Given that hydropower projects do not have smoke stacks, when I say “carbon pollution” or “greenhouse gas emissions” from hydropower, what do I mean? Reservoirs behind new dams inundate vast geographic areas. For example, the Eastmain reservoir in the James Bay region is roughly 600 square kilometers, or more than three Lake Winnipesaukees. Drowned vegetation and biological material decompose over time and release carbon dioxide and methane into the water column and then into the atmosphere. In addition, the flooding destroys northern forested landscapes that can be potent carbon sinks (and are often called “lungs of the planet”), increasing the net greenhouse gas emissions of the reservoir by the amount of any lost capability to sequester carbon.

The key question is how much net greenhouse gas pollution a reservoir produces for its power output over time. To assess the climate effects of new imports of hydropower, pollution from the facilities supplying the power can be compared with the emissions of displaced power here in New England.

It’s also important to understand the effects in the province supplying the power and in neighboring regions, like New York or Ontario. If Canadian hydropower is merely shifted from those markets to ours and the gap is filled by fossil fuel power plants, the imports won’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions overall.

What Hydro-Québec Gets Wrong About Its Own Research

In its press release, Hydro-Québec says that “CLF asserts that hydropower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are much higher than they actually are … by cherry-picking data contained in a scientific study on emissions from a recently created reservoir in Québec…. What that study really indicates is that hydropower is one of the lowest-emission generating options per kilowatthour produced.”

Here again, as with hydropower costs, Hydro-Québec misstates CLF’s point. The number I cited does not pretend to describe all hydropower, or even all Hydro-Québec hydropower.

The 70% number clearly and expressly describes the emissions from a new large-scale hydropower facility during the first ten years of operation. It is taken directly from peer-reviewed scientific analysis by Hydro-Québec and academic researchers of data collected at the Eastmain 1 reservoir, a new hydropower facility in northern Québec. My blog post includes the relevant graph, presented in a scientific paper that a Hydro-Québec scientist co-authored, showing a direct comparison of these emissions with natural gas and supporting CLF’s statement that a new large-scale hydropower facility can emit 70% of the greenhouse gases of natural gas power plants in the decade following development.

A 100-year life-cycle analysis shows lower long-term emissions, but in a world where climate change is accelerating and we desperately need to reduce emissions now, the early emissions of Hydro-Quebec’s new facilities—several of which are under construction and slated for development in the coming few years—are vitally important. Moreover, it is these new facilities that Hydro-Québec intends to rely on to support new exports to the United States, likely making their carbon footprint more relevant to New England’s current decisions to increase imports than the footprints of existing reservoirs that are supplying Québec customers.

It is worth noting that the 100-year emissions described in the research are much higher than the numbers that Hydro-Quebec’s press release implies that the study confirms. The paper says that 100-year emissions are 40% of the emissions of natural gas power plants, about ten times more than the factor Hydro-Québec quotes and much higher than solar and wind power, which emit no pollution once installed.

While Hydro-Québec says CLF is “cherry-picking” a data point from its research, it ignores that the data point is a key finding of what is now seminal research, which Hydro-Quebec touts on its website as the first time ever that researchers have measured the emissions of a landscape developed for hydropower both before and after flooding:

Project EM-1 is a world first, since this is the first time that GHG emissions are measured before and after the creation of a hydroelectric reservoir. This will make it possible to precisely identify the impact hydroelectric reservoirs have on greenhouse gases.

Despite its billing, Hydro-Québec’s Eastmain research does not provide a full picture. In particular, there are many important differences between hydropower facilities in Québec, and the differences’ effects on reservoir emissions haven’t been fully researched.

For example, Hydro-Québec’s new dams along the Romaine River, now under construction, are creating somewhat smaller reservoirs than Eastmain (collectively, only one and a half Lake Winnipesaukees), suggesting that they might produce less net pollution. However, the flooded landscape along the Romaine and the flooded landscape at Eastmain are quite different. Hydro-Québec’s research at Eastmain suggests that the flooded landscape wasn’t a carbon sink prior to reservoir construction, whereas the landscape along the Romaine is more heavily forested and could provide much more vegetation that will decompose over time as well as a greater value as a carbon sink, which is now being lost.

And of course, the project’s emissions rate depends on how much power the reservoir produces. A vast reservoir that produces a relatively small number of megawatts of power will likely have a higher emissions rate than a smaller reservoir in the same landscape that produces a higher number of megawatts. That’s why true “run-of-river” hydropower facilities, which are powered by the flows in existing rivers and do not require enormous dams or flooding, are much lower carbon resources than large-scale hydropower.

Hydro-Québec’s Faulty Math

So why is Hydro-Québec so upset with CLF’s characterization of the utility’s own groundbreaking research? The core of Hydro-Québec’s disagreement with CLF is this: the utility likes to cite a greenhouse gas emission rate (pollution per unit of energy generated) that assumes its Eastmain reservoir alone powers two generation stations (meaning that the emission rate equals the reservoir’s emissions divided by the output of both stations). When the utility is in charge of the presentation, it highlights this number, which reflects a steep drop in the emission rate after the newer generation station came online by early 2012. The peer-reviewed version of the research, published in 2012, refuses to make that assumption and leaves out the newer generation station from the reservoir’s power output. Why?

The new station (Eastmain 1-A) was constructed to include flows made possible and channeled to the Eastmain reservoir by Hydro-Québec’s massive project to divert the Rupert River. That means that the net effects of the landscape changes associated with the diversion project are key to understanding the emissions of the Eastmain complex as a whole. A major element of the diversion project was the creation of two diversion bays totaling about 350 square kilometers, or the flooding of about two additional Lake Winnepauskees. While Hydro-Québec’s favored number assumes that this flooding has no net effect on emissions, the peer-reviewed research says the effects are unknown and therefore does not include the power from Eastmain 1-A in its calculation of the Eastmain emission rate.

That leaves us with the table from the peer-reviewed paper itself, which is where CLF got its number. We are also informed by the thorough research summary from Synapse Energy Economics on this topic that CLF released more than two years ago, which shows that new hydropower facilities have significantly higher emissions than have been assumed and advertised.

CLF has attempted to engage Hydro-Québec in a serious dialogue on this issue. While there have been several interactions—like this one on our blog after CLF released the Synapse report—we have yet to see anything that meaningfully addresses CLF’s concerns or corrects its misleading public relations campaign.

The Need for Honest Numbers

If this all seems complicated to you, you’re right. The research on hydropower emissions is not complete, and it is probably fair to assume there is significant variation from reservoir to reservoir. Some likely have a larger carbon footprint than Eastmain and some smaller; some are decades old, with relatively low emissions going forward, and others are newer, with a larger carbon footprint now and in the near term.

For many years, policymakers and large-scale hydropower boosters have assumed this complexity away. Hydropower emissions were either presumed to be zero or were pegged at a level based on extrapolations from simple measurements of greenhouse gas emissions from reservoir surfaces, including reservoirs flooded many decades ago. In many cases, including in Canada’s inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, a single miniscule emissions figure is used to characterize all large-scale hydropower facilities. These assumptions are at work in Hydro-Québec’s press release, including in its comparisons to other power sources and its statements about avoided emissions from its energy sales.

We know now that the old simplifying assumptions can be way off, which is one reason why CLF and others have identified a need to “tag” the energy from individual power facilities in Québec that are used for exports to the United States and define, with at least some reasonable approximation, the energy’s source and its environmental attributes and emissions profile.

The developers of the Northern Pass transmission project and Hydro-Québec are continuing their campaign to gloss over the very real greenhouse gas pollution that hydropower projects create. Despite Hydro-Québec’s own research, they are advertising numbers and slogans that inaccurately minimize reservoir carbon footprints or deny the pollution even exists. Unfortunately, it’s also the case that many New England policymakers and the federal officials reviewing Northern Pass’s permit application appear thoroughly disinterested in getting to the bottom of what Canadian hydropower projects really mean for the climate or in insisting on an accurate accounting from Hydro-Québec. For example, we have not received a single substantive response to our August 2013 request that the states meaningfully assess this issue as part of their regional efforts around hydropower imports.

As with the costs of Canadian hydropower, New England deserves honest information about the emissions of the product that Hydro-Québec wants to sell us. Instead of impugning CLF for raising questions, Hydro-Québec and American transmission developers like Northern Pass that want to bring New England its power should start offering New England the basic respect of fair dealing and real numbers.

Coming next in this series, what Hydro-Québec’s defense of its product gets wrong—on the reliability benefits of new imports for the New England electric grid.

3 Things No One is Telling You About Rising Energy Costs

Oct 3, 2014 by  | Bio |  5 Comment »

Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first White House chief of staff, was once quoted as saying “You never want to let a serious crisis go to waste,” referring to the opportunities to pass sweeping bills in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown. Over the past weeks, we’ve seen that sentiment put into practice by some of New England’s major energy industry players. They’ve been fanning the flames of fear over expected winter price spikes to support their continued push for building massive new gas pipelines, even though new pipelines have no chance of helping to address the risk of price spikes for this winter.

Here are 3 things you’re not being told about what’s really responsible for the increased rates and how to deal with rising energy costs now:

  1. New pipelines can’t and won’t address the rising rates for this winter (or the next three winters).
    • Even under the most optimistic scenarios, new natural gas pipelines of the scale that were being considered as part of the now-stalled New England Governors’ initiative could not be permitted and built earlier than November 2018. Even if they lived up to the Governors’ promises after that, they would do nothing for consumers this winter and the next three winters.
    • New England isn’t the only region of the country that experienced price spikes this past winter. New York, an area that had just expanded its pipeline capacity still experienced higher prices last winter, and the regional electric grid known as PJM (because it covers, in part, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland) also experienced price spikes even though it is located in the epicenter of abundant Marcellus shale gas supplies.
  2. The real problem isn’t a major deficit of pipeline capacity, but a failure to deal adequately with the increased use of natural gas for power generation.
    • We now use a lot of natural gas for power generation in New England, which helped modernize the system by moving us away from old, polluting, and inefficient sources like coal and oil. Because of this, and the way the regional grid’s electric market works, natural gas prices now generally set the price for electricity in New England.
    • Unlike natural gas utilities that supply homes and businesses with gas for heating, which buy gas on long-term “firm” contracts that guarantee access to gas, the companies that own natural gas power plants typically buy cheaper “interruptible” contracts because there isn’t currently a mechanism that allows them to pass-through the additional costs of buying firm supply.
    • In the winter time, people are often turning on the heat at the same time that they are turning on the lights, so the system experiences high demands on gas for both uses in the mornings and afternoons. These “coincident” demands led to price spikes between 10-42 days in each of the last winters, and retail electric prices are now catching up as the market is expecting a repeat of last winter’s high prices.
    • Now that natural gas makes up so much of the electricity we use, the volatility of gas prices has a bigger impact on electric prices and leads to higher rates. We have been far too slow in deploying demand-reducing energy efficiency measures in homes and businesses and in increasing the amounts of local renewable energy on the system, both of which would help reduce market prices for electricity and protect us from volatile gas prices.
    • The increased use of liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports should help to moderate the price spikes to some extent this year, but more can be done through market reforms without risking overbuilding gas capacity.
  3. Energy efficiency is the best way to reduce your bills and stay warm this winter.
    • Even though rates are going up, you can still lower your total bill by lowering your demand. Massachusetts has some of the best energy efficiency programs in the country which means that you can apply for rebates, incentives, and assistance to help you install efficient measures. Other New England states have programs as well.
    • If you don’t own your home or apartment, there are still some inexpensive steps you can take to cut your bills. There are many ways to conserve energy for a very small investment of time or money. Check back in for a look at how Senior Attorney Shanna Cleveland is getting her apartment ready for the winter.