Massachusetts Takes Critical Step Towards Climate-Resilient Utilities

Department of Utilities requires state's largest electric company to plan for climate impacts

Deanna Moran

In the wake of a devastating 2017 hurricane season, it’s clear that climate change impacts such as storms and flooding pose significant threats to the infrastructure we rely on every day – including our electric grid. However, few utility companies have examined where and how they are vulnerable to such impacts or taken the necessary steps to reduce these risks.

As weather and temperature patterns continue to change, our existing electrical system will become less reliable and less able to bounce back quickly from catastrophic weather events. In Massachusetts, the combination of a vulnerable electric grid and an extreme storm would have significant consequences on human health and safety.

This month, Massachusetts took a critical step in addressing these risks and making its electric utilities climate ready – a step that could serve as a model for the rest of New England and the nation as a whole.

Planning for Climate Change Impacts Is Now Required

The decision to ready our utilities for climate impacts was issued this month by the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities. It requires the state’s biggest electricity provider, Eversource, to assess its vulnerability to climate change and develop a climate adaptation plan. The planning process will likely include an assessment of how climate change impacts like sea level rise and severe storms will affect substations, power lines, utility operations, and more.

Eversource will also be required to assess the climate pollution from its existing power plants and propose a target to reduce those emissions. The company has until the end of February to complete its adaptation plan, which will include proposed metrics and benchmarks to help measure its progress.

Even more importantly, the Department of Public Utilities states that this planning process will help guide future energy infrastructure investments by Eversource. This may be a signal that the Department will be more cognizant of whether Eversource has considered climate conditions when assessing future capital expenditures.

In issuing its decision, the Department has recognized that Eversource has a duty to provide a safe and reliable electric system and that doing so includes the consideration of climate change risks. The Department is also acknowledging that planning for climate adaptations is in the public interest. The decision points to the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) and Governor Baker’s Executive Order 569 – two recent and significant state actions on climate change – as a driver for these new requirements.

Massachusetts Moving Forward on Climate

Massachusetts follows New York in requiring utilities to address climate vulnerabilities like destructive storms. Before 2012, such requirements were unheard of, but after Superstorm Sandy, the New York State Public Service Commission decided they are necessary to protect the state’s residents. New York utilities statewide must now create long-term plans for climate adaptation.

Now, Massachusetts joins the ranks of states preparing its electric utilities for the climate impacts we’re already experiencing – in addition to those anticipated in the future. While the Department of Public Utilities’ decision does not say whether the requirements will be applied to utility companies other than Eversource, it could signal that other electricity providers will need to address their climate vulnerabilities soon.

Adaptation Is Part of a Broader Planning Process for Eversource

The requirement that Eversource plan for climate risks was one part of a broader decision in the company’s recent rate case. Utilities like Eversource must get approval from state regulators when setting the prices they will charge consumers. But such rate cases deal with much more than how much we will all pay for electricity. They also look at a range of programs and practices that define how a utility company will operate over the coming years.

While Eversource received approval from the Department of Public Utilities to raise electricity prices – a decision that has justifiably drawn ire from consumers – regulators separately looked at the company’s practices related to clean transportation, modernizing our electric grid, and, as we’re discussing here, preparing for climate change.

What’s Next?

Requiring Eversource to prepare for extreme weather events is an essential first step in making the electric grid safer and more reliable in the face of climate change. But there is more work to be done. CLF will monitor Eversource’s progress on its climate adaptation requirements and provide input on the development of climate-related metrics and benchmarks. And we will continue to push to ensure that the vital services we rely on every day are ready for disruptive climate impacts.

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