Editorial: Renewables a key part of region’s energy future

Monday, December 15, 2014
When it comes to New England and energy, the second shoe has dropped. The first was a 37-percent rate increase for National Grid’s electricity customers. That move is adding a big expense to commercial and residential budgets now and for the coming year, with costs expected to rise by a similar percentage for Western Massachusetts Electric Co. customers next year.

This week, Berkshire Gas Co., revealed that it will soon be forced to turn away new customers in Franklin County and may restrict access to natural gas in Hampshire County in 2015. Columbia Gas Co. is also having trouble meeting customer demand and may also stop new connections.

Suddenly, the drama of New England’s energy future has enough plotlines for a thriller, with a morality play thrown in: Does New England need more fossil-fuel energy, or should its residents and businesses do more with less — and protect the climate — through conservation.

The simple answer is that it must do both, but on the basis of unbiased information and a search for the greatest good.

Energy drives growth. New England cannot hope to compete with other parts of the country for new business if firms prospecting for locations are told they won’t have sure access to energy. Allan Blair, president and CEO of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, said companies sniffing about for new quarters expect — make that demand — reliable access to electricity and natural gas. Unless supplies into New England can be increased, companies already here may opt against expansion or may move. A problem that begins as an energy supply issue can fast become one of jobs, family incomes and flat or falling tax revenues.

Two proposed pipelines would increase supplies. We think that’s needed, but oppose seeing that gas routed through remote and environmentally sensitive areas, as mapped out in Kinder Morgan’s Tennessee Gas Pipeline project.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission holds the power to approve the pipeline projects. Scores of citizens in western Massachusetts have made their opposition clear. If the Kinder Morgan project advances, we expect to see significant civil disobedience. The commission will also consider an alternative outlined by Northeast Utilities and Spectra Energy to expand lines along existing pipeline routes.

This pressing issue of energy supply closes the watch of one governor and will shadow the start of another.

Deval Patrick pushed development of renewable energy. His administration just this week provided funding for $2.9 million in “net zero” energy projects, including $510,000 for efforts in Amherst, Northampton and Easthampton. The zero stands for the amount of energy needed from outside sources. Patrick early on set a goal of having 2,000 megawatts of wind electricity produced before 2020. Meantime, the state surged ahead with solar generation. Between 2007 and 2013, Massachusetts increased the amount of solar electricity produced 80-fold. Patrick set a goal of 1,600 megawatts of solar power capacity by 2020 — enough to power 240,000 homes, or 97 percent of the households in Boston.

Patrick’s successor must continue the renewable energy drive. There is reason for hope. In campaign statements, Gov.-elect Charlie Baker said he will shape a “diverse energy strategy that expands existing natural gas pipelines” and includes power from wind, solar and hydro sources.

We call on Baker to speak out about the merits of those “existing” pipelines. If he can match the progress achieved under the Patrick administration, the state will gain.

For decades, people in New England, living at the end of the energy pipeline, sent wads of money out of state to purchase fossil fuels that have traveled across the country or around the world. Greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of such fuels are heating the planet and changing our climate.

Renewable energy projects in the Commonwealth provide more than power. They invest in Massachusetts.

Still, our economy today depends on outside power and the cost of supply interruptions is too great to allow. But households and businesses in New England must work to wean themselves, as much as possible, from fossil fuels.