Why Have Presidential Candidates Been Silent on Northern Pass?

Feb 9, 2016 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The next president of the United States will decide only one issue that uniquely affects New Hampshire residents. Yet as candidates of both parties blanketed the state in the final weeks before today’s primary, that issue received scant attention.

(image credit: flickr, cannuckshutterer, CC-BY-SA)

Presidential hopefuls have been conspicuously silent on Northern Pass, which would destroy viewsheds and bring little long-term benefit to New Hampshire communities. (image credit: flickr, cannuckshutterer, CC-BY-SA).

The next president will decide whether to authorize the cross-border connection to Canada’s Hydro-Québec needed for the Northern Pass electrical transmission line. The mega-utility Eversource is making a $1.4 billion bet on the line, which will ravage New Hampshire’s landscape and communities only to serve electricity customers in Massachusetts and south.

The 190-mile line would snake poles and wires through 31 communities from the Canadian border to Concord and then East to Deerfield, destroying viewsheds along scenic byways and blighting more than 400 acres of lands permanently committed to conservation. The affected acreage also includes some of New Hampshire’s most pristine forestland in the northern reaches of Coos County. Yet in response to public demands for full burial of the line and votes from more than 30 New Hampshire cities and towns to oppose the project, Eversource has been unwilling to step up.

To what end? The rationale for the line is to bring inexpensive hydroelectric power, dubbed “renewable,” to Eversource service territories other than New Hampshire. For states like Massachusetts, where Gov. Charlie Baker is closely identified with and strongly supported by Eversource’s CEO, it’s a sweet deal, rewarding a close corporate ally while letting Baker off the hook for developing homegrown renewable power projects in Massachusetts.

But both the “inexpensive” and “renewable” descriptions are dubious. Eversource has never disclosed what price it will pay for the Hydro-Québec power, or even whether it has locked the price in by contract as some of its competitors have. And the “renewable” label is not really apt for the power Northern Pass would deliver. As designed, the Hydro-Québec system has a larger carbon footprint than the wind and other renewable projects available to the states receiving the power. Plus, construction of the line mostly above ground will sacrifice significant forest acreage that now serves as a carbon-absorbing sink.

For all of Eversource’s hard-to-substantiate boasts about short-term job creation from Northern Pass construction, the mostly above ground approach forgoes much of the line’s potential for economic stimulus, while sacrificing iconic vistas that are essential to the long-term health of New Hampshire’s recreation and tourism sector.

In addition to being of direct concern to the people of New Hampshire, Northern Pass presents a microcosm of many issues at the heart of our energy platform that will face whoever wins the presidency: whether full burial of electric transmission lines should be the norm, as it always has been with gas transmission; whether we invest in huge gas and electric transmission projects on the backs of families and businesses when those projects may be obsolete before completion; and whether we embrace carbon-intensive technologies or the clean and job-creating energy options available today.

So it is remarkable that an issue of such importance to New Hampshire voters, whichever party they favor, never came to the forefront in the endless town halls and other forums leading up to today’s state primary.

Political candidates are deft, of course, at reducing tough choices like these to bumper-sticker slogans or glib generalizations (“I support an all-of-the-above energy policy”; “I believe in a clean energy future”). But a candidate’s mettle is best shown when asked to take a stand on an issue as tough and divisive as Northern Pass.

Local Action, Global Impact

Feb 5, 2016 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

photo courtesy of Sterling College @ flickr.com

photo courtesy of Sterling College @ flickr.com

Taking action to tackle climate change comes naturally to New Englanders. We spend a lot of time outdoors and we see first-hand that our climate is changing.

Many of us burn wood to heat our homes. We’ve been doing this for generations. It just makes sense. Wood is a local fuel that is available and low cost.  Many of us also grow vegetables that feed us and our neighbors. Local food tastes better, isn’t trucked here from far away, and it always delights us to see the bounty of our humble backyards. It all seems part of our natural frugality and common sense.

On broader matters of energy, the same ethic holds.

New England states are leaders on energy efficiency. While other regions are busy selling more electricity and producing more pollution, New England was the first to include energy savings in our electricity markets. We’ve reduced polluting greenhouse gas emissions and soot while avoiding expensive and massive new transmission projects. The result is lower electricity costs and less pollution for everyone.

In the realm of renewable energy, our region’s efforts deserve praise and support. Going back to the 1970s oil embargo, we re-developed local hydroelectric sites and Burlington, Vermont replaced coal with woodchips.

In the past decade, the demands of climate change bolstered New Englanders’ efforts. Many of our states have renewable energy requirements. And the percentage of smaller scale renewable energy is growing in many states in the region. At a time when some sunny states like Florida are seeing limited growth in generation from residential solar, many Vermont utilities are already meeting fifteen percent of the peak demand with solar. And that is in a state with fewer sunny days than Seattle. Like our backyard gardens and woodstoves, our roofs and fields are now using a local resource to harness energy from the sun.

The sale of renewable energy credits or (RECs) by some solar companies means that the renewable aspects from some local solar panels are not claimed in Vermont. To be sure, all companies need to be up-front and honest with consumers about what they are buying. And customers maintain the choice to own the renewable power their panels generate. But that does not diminish the overall good from all solar panels operating anywhere in New England.

Climate change is a global problem. A solar panel that produces electricity replaces or avoids the need to produce power from more polluting power sources, in the gas, oil, nuclear, and coal dependent New England grid — no matter who owns the RECs. Each solar panel in use increases the overall supply of renewable energy to our region. And with rapidly encroaching climate disasters, we can’t get to more renewable energy — everywhere — fast enough.

Solving global climate problems demands that we each do our part. For decades, New Englanders have stepped up and used their common sense to solve energy and pollution problems. We are still at it. Going forward, putting a price on carbon pollution will create even more incentives and opportunities to grow local renewable energy and move away from polluting fossil fuels. Instead of sending billions of dollars out of our region to support polluting oil and gas companies, pricing carbon will build on our past successes, keep more money in the region and do our part to further cut greenhouse gas emissions.

New Englanders’ local actions cutting pollution reaps global rewards. We need to keep at it.

CLF’s Next 50 Years: Shaping the World We Want for our Children and Grandchildren

Jan 15, 2016 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

2016 is a pivotal year for CLF.

This is the year that CLF turns 50. Since 1966, we have turned impossible odds into incredible milestones, protecting the things we all love about New England – our beautiful coasts and ocean, our mountains, our farms and forests – to ensure that our communities, our friends, and neighbors can thrive.

But, celebrating our first 50 years is not about looking backward. It’s about laying a strong foundation for our fight for New England’s future and the healthy, thriving world we want our children and grandchildren to inherit 50 years from now.

The Defining Challenge of Our Age
Today the stakes are higher than ever before in our history. The battles are more complicated and the fossil fuel lobby is well-funded to maintain its stranglehold on public policy and sabotage our clean energy future. Corporate polluters have funded a deceit and denial campaign about climate change that has put people and communities in New England and around the world at great risk.

But thanks to your work with CLF, decades of climate denial are being drowned out by unprecedented public demand for action, as awareness that climate change is happening here, right now, and in our backyard increases.

Indeed, stopping further damage to our climate is the challenge of our lifetime. But CLF never shies away from the big fights. We never give up and we know how to win. The actions we are taking in 2016 will define CLF’s  – and New England’s – next 50 years.

CLF Staff Attorney Jenny Rushlow argues to enforce climate law before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

CLF Staff Attorney Jenny Rushlow argues for the state to enforce climate law before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

The Next 50 Years Starts Today
Last week we defended our climate before the highest court in Massachusetts. Alongside the Mass Energy Consumers Alliance and four courageous teenagers, we demanded that Massachusetts’ groundbreaking Global Warming Solutions Act – which mandates cuts to carbon pollution – be fully enforced. Our rallying cry for climate action at the Supreme Judicial Court will resonate and be heard throughout New England.

Our rallying cry for climate action will be heard in our push to protect our coastlines. Fifty years ago we stood up and demanded that Boston Harbor be cleaned up – and we won. Now we will take that fight to the next level by ensuring our coastal communities can stand strong in the face of a changing climate and rising sea levels. Our work will determine the future of coastline development throughout New England and across the country.

Our rallying cry for climate action will be heard as we shut down the last coal plant in New England. But we know getting rid of dirty coal isn’t enough. We are also fighting to make sure we don’t trade one dirty fuel for another – natural gas. In 2016 we will escalate our campaign to stop unnecessary and expensive Big Gas gambles, like the Kinder Morgan pipeline, which will be obsolete before they come online.

Our rallying cry for climate action will be heard as we revolutionize our energy infrastructure. We will ensure that new natural gas plants built in New England must reduce their climate-warming emissions over time and shut down by 2050. At the same time, we will drive the growth of affordable, home-grown energy sources, such as offshore wind and solar.

Our rallying cry for climate action will be heard in New England’s legislatures, as CLF comes to the table to help push laws and policies that move us towards a low-carbon emission society by 2020 and a zero-carbon society by 2050.

And our longstanding work on clean water, marine conservation, and healthy communities will become all the more urgent because of climate change. Our work to establish the Gulf of Maine’s Cashes Ledge and the New England canyons and seamounts as the nation’s first Atlantic Marine National Monument will help protect species threatened by ocean warming. Our work for better public transit will keep toxic soot out of our communities, vehicles off the road, and carbon out of the air. Our clean water enforcement work is needed more than ever as climate change causes record rain and snow fall in New England, overwhelming our dated infrastructure.

We’re Stronger Together
But we will only succeed with your voice amplifying our efforts. We cannot make the impossible possible without you. I look forward to our journey together in 2016 as we work to ensure that our next 50 years are as transformative for New England families and communities as our first. The time is now for your voice, your advocacy, and your action.

CLF Takes Next Step in Fight against Massive New Kinder Morgan Pipeline

Jan 13, 2016 by  | Bio |  4 Comment »

In our drive to stop the Kinder Morgan pipeline’s march through New England, today Conservation Law Foundation officially intervened to oppose the oversized and unnecessary project at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”). We are confident that Kinder Morgan will not be able to justify this project economically if FERC carefully assesses the regional need for new pipelines.

The project, known as the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline (or NED project), is a massive new pipeline proposed by Tennessee Gas, a subsidiary of oil giant Kinder Morgan. Once complete, the pipeline would carry billions of cubic feet of fracked natural gas every day from the Pennsylvania shale fields to Eastern Massachusetts (through the backyards of many Massachusetts and New Hampshire communities).

An oversized reaction to a minimal problem
Tennessee Gas – which acknowledges that the project’s size dwarfs that of others in recent memory – has argued that New England needs all that gas to keep our lights on and our homes heated. But that simply doesn’t fit with the facts.

A recent report by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office concluded that the project is not needed to ensure electricity reliability at any time of year. At the same time, CLF’s own white paper debunked Tennessee Gas’s most recent scare tactic of claiming that electricity shortages are inevitable if we don’t solve our winter natural gas deliverability issues. But those deliverability issues occur just a few hours a day on the very coldest days of the year. A massive new pipeline is nowhere near the cheapest or quickest way to relieve those limited constraints.

On the contrary, building a pipeline the size of the Kinder Morgan project would be like swatting a fly with a wrecking ball. It makes no sense.

A bad deal for customers, our economy, and our climate
This isn’t the only reason we oppose the project. At a time when New England is already moving beyond its reliance on dirty, outdated fuels such as coal and oil, major costly investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure are simply the wrong direction to take for our economy and our climate. Indeed, as the region moves to stem more damage to our climate, this pipeline can only become an albatross. Either it will quickly fall into disuse as energy efficiency and home-grown clean energy overtake demand for dirty fuels – or its continued use will block progress toward reaching state and regional climate goals.

At its base, the Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal is opportunistic, taking advantage of the fear caused by natural gas price fluctuations during the 2013–2014 polar vortex. It fails the test for economic need and would impose the costs of speculative natural gas expansion (including export abroad) onto the backs of current electric and gas customers.

We need local clean energy, not more dirty fuels
Our energy landscape holds no happy ending if the Kinder Morgan pipeline moves forward as proposed. New Englanders would not only lose money on the bet Tennessee Gas is asking FERC to approve – we would also lose much-needed resources and momentum toward shifting our energy future to one built on clean, local sources.

CLF’s intervention can be read here.

Northern Pass Enters a New Phase

Jan 8, 2016 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The Northern Pass transmission project has entered a new phase, as the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee begins an extensive state permitting process for the controversial project.

Northern Pass as proposed will span 192 miles, traveling from the Canada/U.S. border in Pittsburg, through New Hampshire’s north country, down the spine of the state to Concord, and, ultimately, to Deerfield. The project would be a massive undertaking, one that the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Counsel for the Public recently described as being “of unprecedented scope for New Hampshire” and having “a lasting impact on its citizens and resources.”

The proposal would import up to 1,090 MWs of hydro-electric power from Québec, raising serious concerns not only about impacts on our landscape and communities, but also about New Hampshire’s energy future. At a time when the biggest threat facing our communities is climate change, it’s imperative that our energy choices advance clean solutions – like the development of local renewable energy – and not undermine them.

Starting next week, Northern Pass will be holding a series of information sessions about the proposed project. The sessions provide an opportunity for the public to learn more about the proposal and the Site Evaluation Committee’s review process, and to ask questions. Sessions will be taking place:

  • Merrimack County: January 11, 2016 at 6 p.m., Franklin Opera House, 316 Central Street, Franklin, NH
  • Rockingham County: January 13, 2016 at 6 p.m., Londonderry High School, 295 Mammoth Road, Londonderry, NH
  • Belknap County: January 14, 2016 at 6 p.m., Lake Opechee Inn and Spa, 62 Doris Ray Court, Laconia, NH
  • Coös County: January 20, 2016 at 6 p.m., Mountain View Grand Resort & Spa, 101 Mountain View Road, Whitefield, NH
  • Grafton County: January 21, 2016 at 6 p.m., The Mountain Club on Loon Resort and Spa, 90 Loon Mountain Road, Lincoln, NH

The information sessions are an early step in the Site Evaluation Committee’s process and will be followed by a series of public hearings before the Committee. At least one public hearing will take place in each of the five counties affected by the project (Grafton, Coos, Belknap, Rockingham and Merrimack).

The dates for the hearings – which will provide the public the chance to comment directly on the project – have not been finalized. Once they are, we will let you know when and where you can make your voice heard on Northern Pass.

Massachusetts Attorney General’s Report Confirms New Gas Pipelines Aren’t Needed

Dec 4, 2015 by  | Bio |  4 Comment »

With leaders from around the world gathered in Paris for the international climate summit, CLF advocates are commenting on how what happens in Paris will impact what needs to happen here in New England to cut carbon, boost renewables, and protect our communities. Read the entire blog series.

A new report released by the Massachusetts Attorney General says big new gas pipelines aren't needed to keep the lights on in New England. Image: Massachusetts Attorney General's Office

A new report released by the Massachusetts Attorney General says big new gas pipelines aren’t needed to keep the lights on in New England. Click the image to view the entire infographic. Image: Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office

New England does not need new natural gas pipelines, now or in the future.

That is the main – and resounding – conclusion of a new study released a few days before Thanksgiving by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. Supported by comprehensive modeling, the extensive study conducted for Healey by Analysis Group, Inc., in Cambridge echoes and confirms what CLF’s own analysis has shown for some time now: For the foreseeable future (until at least 2030), we don’t need more gas pipeline capacity to power our homes and businesses reliably and affordably all year long, even in the dead of our coldest winters. And between now and 2030, our dollars are best spent – economically and environmentally – on energy efficiency, demand response, and renewables.

A Bad Investment Today – and for Our Future
As national and regional leaders, including CLF President Brad Campbell, are meeting in Paris to agree on long-overdue global climate action, the Attorney General’s study makes it crystal clear that new pipelines would not only be a bad economic investment today, they would be disastrous for our future and that of our kids and grandkids. New natural gas pipelines, the study concludes, would place New England on a trajectory of “failure to meet the region’s climate change goals” and would “increase GHG emissions-reduction compliance costs” over the long-run.

The study’s conclusion that a new pipeline would be uneconomical is consistent with an earlier independent study commissioned by and for the Maine Public Utilities Commission that found gas pipelines to be a bad investment for Maine consumers. And it was a conclusion reached from a unique position of impartiality. As “evidence” that New England “needs” the product it wants to sell us (surprise: a big new pipeline cutting across our towns, forests, and fields), energy giant Kinder Morgan points to studies that it bought and paid for. But the Attorney General has no dog in this fight other than to protect the interests and pocketbooks of her clients: you, me, our families, and our businesses across the Commonwealth.

Is the Winter Energy “Crisis” Real?
Importantly, Healey’s study asks a crucial threshold question that many others have skipped (or ignored) because of the high energy prices we experienced in the winter of 2013–14: Is there in fact a structural winter energy problem that needs solving?

After a definitive “no” in answer that question – “We find that under existing market conditions, there is no electric sector reliability deficiency through 2030, and therefore that no additional pipeline gas capacity is needed to meet electric reliability needs” (emphasis added) – Healy’s study tests its own conclusions. What about in a true worst-case scenario – where we need to produce essentially 100% of our future winter power without the benefit of existing and anticipated “back-up” power generators. Do we need new gas pipelines then?

The answer again is a resounding “no.”

Even under such dramatic “gas only” conditions, the AG’s study finds that any number of alternate solutions would be preferable – both economically and environmentally – to a big new pipeline. First the study notes that, absent any action on our part, the existing market would almost certainly respond to such a worst-case scenario by doing what it already has done to maintain reliability: It would add additional dual-fuel (oil and gas) generating capacity and contract for more liquefied natural gas (LNG). (Here the study confirms the analysis in CLF’s own recent report that the “least cost” option to address winter gas constraints in the near-term is more, and better, use of existing LNG infrastructure. This, the study concludes, would “involve minimal up-front investment by consumers.”)

But relying on more oil and gas in the 2030 time-frame would – like building new gas pipelines – place New England on a costly greenhouse gas emissions trajectory at odds with our climate change laws and goals. So the study recommends instead increased investment in energy efficiency, demand response, and renewable generation.

Efficiency and Renewables are the Best Bet for New Englanders
Sustained investment in these existing, tried-and-true clean energy technologies, Healey’s study concludes, “has the greatest potential net consumer benefit” of all options considered. It would save Massachusetts families and businesses $20 million a year compared to the cost of a new pipeline.

It’s also a safer investment. Instead of “placing up-front costs and risk” on us all “through significant long-term commitments to pay for . . . [pipeline] infrastructure,” investment in energy efficiency and demand response “involves flexible annual investments that can be altered over time in response to changing expectations around natural gas supply and demand.”

But there’s more. In addition to being the best economic option for guaranteeing long-term “winter reliability,” investing in energy efficiency, demand response, and renewables stands alone in its ability, according to the AG’s study, to achieve the “significant reductions in the emissions of GHG associated with electricity generation” that our climate change programs and laws require, and our kids and grandkids deserve.

A new pipeline can’t compete with that. Clean, smart energy is better for our pocketbooks, and better for our lives. Our clean energy future is now.

Follow CLF President Brad Campbell as he reports from the Paris Climate Talks.

Solving New England’s Natural Gas Problem (Hint: It’s Not through Big New Pipelines)

Sep 17, 2015 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »

For a few hours a day, on 50 days of the year, New England has a gas problem – not enough natural gas is available to meet demand for both heat and electricity. Two years ago, this problem led to dramatic spikes in the price of natural gas and the cost of electricity. Since then, how to solve that problem has been the source of political, economic and environmental debate.


Download our white paper to learn how liquefied natural gas can help solve New England’s gas problem – without hurting our climate, our wallets, or our drive towards clean, renewable energy.

The solution most often pushed by many corporate and government entities is to “flood the market” with new gas via one or more big new pipelines, with the multi-billion dollar cost to be borne by electric ratepayers (in other words, all of us). But that’s hardly the only solution – nor is it the most efficient, timely, or cost effective.

Since that troubled winter two years ago, as the clamor for big new pipelines has grown, Conservation Law Foundation has been examining alternative solutions. In a new white paper developed for CLF by Skipping Stone Consultants, we show how we can avoid the expense and long-term impacts of new infrastructure by instead maximizing the use of the pipelines and other infrastructure we already have. This solution not only addresses the supply problem on those few hours of the 50 coldest winter days, it also saves industrial, commercial, and residential customers millions of dollars. And it circumvents the need for costly and enormously inefficient infrastructure that will ultimately undermine regional efforts to meet the urgent challenge of climate change.

The Myth vs. The Reality

Pipeline proponents would have us believe that there is a gas shortage in New England and that the only way to save businesses and individuals from unreasonable electricity price spikes is to build massive new pipelines into and across the region.

It’s true that, as managed now, New England’s natural gas delivery system – its pipelines, storage and import facilities – can’t deliver enough natural gas to meet demand during that short winter period when gas is in high demand for heat and electricity. But the reality is, New England’s pipeline problem is not one of capacity, but of deliverability. For the majority of the year, the region’s natural gas system operates at less than 50% capacity. On those coldest days when natural gas is in highest demand, the problem comes down to efficiency and deliverability – meaning we can’t get the gas to a specific location at a specific time to meet that demand.

Understanding New England’s current “gas problem” as one of deliverability rather than pipeline capacity reframes the debate – and makes clear the most efficient, timely, and cost-effective solution: increasing our use of the region’s existing liquefied natural gas (LNG) infrastructure.

New Pipelines Will Hurt, Not Help

Building the massive new pipelines currently proposed is the most expensive and least effective means of addressing our current problem. It takes years to build a new pipeline – meaning it will be years before any of us see any benefits in our electric bills. What’s more, you and I could even see an increase in our bills if proposals to fund these new pipelines on the backs of ratepayers move forward.

These hard costs of construction and ratepayer impact are easy to track. What’s harder to measure – and arguably more important – is the long-term impact on our climate if we fail to take meaningful steps to shift our power grid away from reliance on fossil fuels like natural gas. Yes, gas is considered cleaner than coal and oil by many – but that’s all relative, given that methane, a byproduct of natural gas production, is up to 80 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon. With regulatory regimes like the Clean Power Plan and existing New England state regulations mandating aggressive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, major investments that would increase our consumption of natural gas simply don’t make environmental or economic sense.

LNG Can Make A Difference This Winter

The best means of solving New England’s winter gas issue is to better utilize our existing natural gas infrastructure – specifically, our existing LNG facilities. LNG import terminals provide a ready supply of natural gas on pipelines from the east that are currently underutilized – the use of which will relieve constraints on the remaining pipeline system. Local gas distribution companies have LNG storage facilities that have ten times the capacity of our existing pipeline system. Right now, those storage tanks are filled at the beginning of the winter and then drained down over the heating season.

We propose that this storage be supplemented all winter long, to ensure supplies can be available and distributed throughout the existing New England-wide storage network. This would shore up the amount of LNG stored in the region during the winter months. The combination of LNG from the import terminals to the east and from storage units throughout the region would supplement the natural gas supply coming in through existing pipelines – freeing up more of that existing pipeline capacity for use by electric power plants.

The LNG needed to supply this approach can be contracted for with short-term contracts, unlike the locked-in 20-year commitment of a new pipeline. This means lower costs, saving local gas distributors and all of us ratepayers more than $340 million a year – and as much as $4.4 billion over 20 years – compared to building a big new pipeline. It also means greater flexibility for New England to make the necessary transition to rapidly developing clean alternatives – such as battery storage and increased distributed solar. And, even better, this solution is technically feasible and could be implemented this winter.

Learn More

Download our white paper to read more about how better use of our LNG infrastructure can address our gas deliverability problem efficiently and effectively – in ways that are good for our wallets and our environment.

Low Cost of Renewable Power

Sep 10, 2015 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

photo courtesy of Theodore Scott @ flickr.com

photo courtesy of Theodore Scott @ flickr.com

Whether you are looking to put solar panels on your roof or joining with neighbors for a new community solar project, you know that the cost of renewable energy has come down a lot in the past few years.

For many customers, using solar or wind guarantees stable or lower electric bills for years to come.

And it reduces pollution as we collectively rely less and less on dirty and polluting fossil fuels to keep our gadgets going and our homes comfortable.

On a larger scale, renewable energy is having the same effect on electricity prices in New England.  Apart from reducing pollution, a key benefit to most renewable energy, like wind and solar, is their low or zero fuel cost. When the sun shines or the wind blows, they produce power and no one is sending them a fuel bill.

Most power plants in the region need to pay for coal, oil, gas or uranium for fuel. The operating cost for these plants depends heavily on their cost of fuel. The cost of fuel gets passed on to customers and often dictates the price we pay for electricity. When fuel prices go up, the cost of electricity goes up.

As more and more renewable power becomes available in the region, low or zero fuel costs from the wind, sun or water are driving down the cost of electricity for everyone.

A recent report and activities by the ISO-New England, which is responsible for maintaining the reliability of our electric grid, confirms this.

This is good news for our pocket books and for the environment.

Our electric grid is a marvel of physics. Because electricity cannot be easily stored, the grid must balance the supply from large and small power generators with the demand caused by anything that we plug in. It is a bit like having a big dinner party and needing to keep everyone’s water glass filled without using a pitcher of water. You’ll have to keep the water from springs, wells and hoses available at just the right amount, and then keep the flow in the faucet to the exact amount needed, all the time.

To do this for electricity, the grid is managed in part by calling on generators to run when needed. The price for this wholesale power is set on an hourly basis by using auctions. The least expensive generators are called into service first and the last generator called into service to meet demand sets the price for all generators during that hour. That is why we pay a lot for electricity on hot summer days. Meeting demand when many air conditioners are running requires lots of electricity, including running some of the most expensive fossil-fuel plants.

Supplies that can operate at low cost, like wind and solar, can and do set the price we all pay during some hours. During the polar vortex in 2014, wind power reduced the wholesale price in New England by $26 million.  For a few hours last winter, renewable energy supplies actually set a negative price.

The value of their renewable energy credits, which they sell for every kilowatt hour they produce, mean that their operating cost is actually less than zero. The low cost of renewables drives down the wholesale price. If coal, gas or nuclear plants are operating in those hours, they not only don’t get paid for their energy, but they will have to pay the ISO. This puts further pressure on polluting plants to close down and not operate.

As renewable energy supply continues to grow to meet our region’s climate change mandates, our grid will have more and more of these lower cost power resources available. These will not only push aside fossil fuel plants that will be too expensive to run, it will also lower overall electricity prices for everyone.

One study in connection with the almost 500 megawatts of wind power expected from the Cape Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts estimated a price reduction benefit of about $185 million annually. That is not only a lot less money that we will all pay for electricity, but a lot less pollution as well.

Governor Baker’s Solar Bill Misses the Mark

Aug 25, 2015 by  | Bio |  2 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!