State strives to be green leader in the uncertain era of Trump

Boston University Statehouse Program
Published: 12/26/2016 10:14:09 AM

Massachusetts has led the nation in cutting greenhouse gas emissions and embracing renewable energy for years – a tradition continued in Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration.

Now, however, the election of Donald Trump and his attitude about less environmental regulation and more coal production raises questions about the future of Massachusetts energy plans.

The impetus for the state’s ongoing effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions remains the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act. The law, which went into effect under Gov. Deval Patrick, requires the state to reduce emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Baker has followed on that process. On Aug. 8, he signed An Act to Promote Energy Diversity, requiring Massachusetts utilities to acquire 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind energy by 2027, along with another 1,200 megawatts of renewable energy.

On Sept. 16, Baker signed an executive order creating a climate change strategy for Massachusetts meant to coordinate existing state and local energy and environmental regulations.

Baker also filed a bill to decrease Massachusetts reliance on fossil fuels by importing hydropower-generated electricity from Quebec. The bill, authorizing Massachusetts utilities to work with utilities in Connecticut and Rhode Island to acquire the Canadian power, is in the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy.

The Global Warming Solutions Act has already had its impact. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 5 percent of Massachusetts electricity was renewable in 2008. By 2015, that had grown to 9.4 percent. That same year 64 percent of the state’s electricity came from natural gas and 7 percent from coal.

The Bay State’s plan to cut emissions and grow renewable energy reflects the nation’s current federal energy plan that includes creating 86,000 megawatts of offshore wind energy by 2050 and an extension of federal tax credits for wind and solar power beyond 2020.

Those federal tax credits encourage development of utility-sized renewables, according to Michael Didriksen, a lawyer who works with energy development projects for the Houston-based law firm Baker Botts. Most Massachusetts tax incentive programs for renewable energy are designed to encourage residential and small-business development.

But much could change with the fast approaching presidency of Donald Trump. During his campaign, Trump made clear his goal for American energy independence and distain for global warning controls. How this would affect Massachusetts is unclear.

“A lot of what will happen, quite frankly, is going to be in the detail,” said Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, the chief sponsor of the Global Warming Solutions Act.

There could be a positive side to Trump’s plans. Establishing true energy independence will likely require increase investment in green energy. This could mean further development of offshore wind and solar power in Massachusetts.

“I expect that [Trump’s] administration will be open to all forms of energy,” Didriksen said. “Although, I think his rhetoric about energy independence is geared more towards oil and gas development than renewables.”

Didriksen said that while it’s possible the tax credits for renewables will be revisited as Trump moves to reform the tax code, he expects the credits to stand.

“One of the things that’s changed over the last five to eight years is that there’s been more and more jobs created in Republican districts that are supported by the renewable energy industry,” Didriksen said. “So that has, not surprisingly, resulted in a little bit of erosion on the Republican side of things in terms of antagonism towards the credits.”

Trump’s energy independence goal, however, seems to be at odds with Baker’s plan to import Canadian hydropower.

“Hydroelectricity has been a big part of keeping our energy grid and our energy systems reliable,” Pacheco said. “I don’t see a major shift in trying to devalue that type of energy strategy from the incoming administration. I think it would be really a foolhardy move to do that.”

So far, the industry has seen no indication as to how the incoming administration will stand on the plan.

“We have not heard [Trump] talk specifically about this,” said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, which opposes Baker’s plan to import more hydropower.

Dolan said the federal government’s main piece of influence in the hydropower deal is the presidential permit required for infrastructure projects, such as new transmission lines that cross international borders.

“I don’t know where they’re going to come out on all of that,” Dolan said. “I would be surprised if there are really big impediments coming from the new administration.”

Didriksen, who represents Transmission Developers Inc., a company that builds transmission lines to bring Canadian energy into the Northeast, does not think that Trump is concerned with importing hydropower from Quebec.

“I don’t see why Trump would fight that,” Didriksen said. “When people talk about energy independence, they’re not worried about independence from Canada with regards to energy.”

Dolan said he expects the Trump administration’s policies will have two main focuses: infrastructure development and a move away from environmental regulations, neither of which Dolan believes will have much impact on Massachusetts.

He added that Massachusetts environmental standards are already higher than federal standards, so he doesn’t expect an impact in that regard.

Trump’s appointments have raised question about how friendly his administration will be to alternative energy. Those appointments include Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, an opponent of climate change regulation who will head the EPA, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to lead the Department of Energy and ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to serve as secretary of state.

Didriksen said the inclusion of Perry and Tillerson could be good for wind development.

“Texas has been the biggest developer of wind in the United States over the last five years. So it’s not like [Perry and Tillerson] are coming from a state that’s anti-wind,” Didriksen said.

The appointment of Pruitt to head the EPA implies that the agency will loosen regulations on fossil fuel production, including a rolling back of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. But Didriksen said that these actions likely won’t stop the growth of renewable energy and other market-driven decisions.

“From my perspective, coal-fired power plants in the United States are not shutting down because of the Clean Power Plan, for the most part. They’re shutting down because of economics.”

Dolan said the largest impact of removing the Clean Power Plan could be an indirect increase in Massachusetts energy costs.

“As Massachusetts and some of the New England states continue to play a leadership role on trying to decarbonize the power generation fleet and the economy overall, and other states don’t, I think it’s naive to think that we’re going to be able to do that without it leading to increased energy costs here,” Dolan said.

Pacheco said he hopes that Massachusetts and other states will continue to embrace clean energy plans, no matter what happens at the federal level.

“Massachusetts has been fairly progressive in that regard,” said Pacheco. “I feel fairly confident that we will still continue to move forward with what I call Massachusetts values. That we will continue to fight against the worst effects of global climate change here in the Commonwealth.”

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