Guest columnists Jo Comerford and Natalie Blais: Paying too much for energy? We agree

By SEN. JO COMERFORD and REP. NATALIE BLAIS

Published: 02-05-2023 5:22 PM

On any given week, our email inboxes reflect the concerns of our constituents. For years, emails have poured in about COVID-19, education, climate change, infrastructure, and more. This winter, a top concern is the price of energy.

We share this concern and have been working together since we were elected to reform the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) and break down barriers to green energy.

We’ve made some progress, but there is much more to do.

Our constituents want to reduce their carbon footprints, but utilities often raise cost and logistical hurdles. The utilities contend that the limitations of our current electric grid make it difficult for them to support installing rooftop solar, or battery storage for charging an electric vehicle, or creating a community solar co-op.

The outdated grid not only makes delivering electricity inefficient, it’s anti-consumer and bad for the environment.

Last session, we filed, fought for, and eventually passed a new law to create a Grid Modernization and Consumer Advisory Board. Because of this new law, utilities are required to submit grid modernization plans to this board, driving Massachusetts towards a 21st-century electricity grid with constituent voices at the table.

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But even as we work to make our grid more efficient at delivering power, we need to bring prices down now. That’s why we filed and passed legislation to enable constituents who don’t own their own homes, or who live in co-housing or a condominium development, to access the financial benefits of solar net metering.

And for constituents who are living on fixed incomes, we’ve worked to ensure the Low Income Heat and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is fully funded throughout this winter.

But there’s more.

In Massachusetts, utilities must receive approval from the DPU for the rates they are permitted to charge. We were heartened when the DPU recently ordered utilities to reduce the price of natural gas. However, we agree with Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rebecca Tepper that this is an “important reminder that we need to urgently and equitably transition away from volatile fossil fuels, which continue to threaten the financial security of our communities.”

When the DPU sets utility rates, it also sets utility profits. Massachusetts’ DPU has consistently allowed utilities to make higher profits off Massachusetts ratepayers than neighboring states allow. In order to prevent the DPU from approving automatic rate increases as a matter of course, we have again filed An Act Protecting Consumers From Unreasonable Utility Rate Increases (SD.313 / HD.495).

We wrote about the utility sweetheart deals last session along with the President of the Acadia Center, a clean energy nonprofit with which we have partnered.

But even with this legislation, utilities would still be responsible for energy system planning, owning and operating grid infrastructure, and serving customers. Not only would conflicts of interest remain, so would planning silos between different utilities, which cause overspending, reduced reliability, and more pollution. There is also no incentive to consider equity and environmental justice concerns.

That’s why we’ve partnered again with the Acadia Center to file legislation to implement the RESPECT initiative. An Act reforming energy system planning for equity and climate transformation (SD.863 / HD.1696) is an ambitious proposal to overhaul energy system planning and reimagine the regulatory framework for utilities.

It shouldn’t break the bank to keep your lights on and your home at a reasonable temperature.

If you think you’ve been paying too much for energy, please know we’re channeling our energy toward an affordable and clean energy future for all.

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, represents the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester District. State Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield, represents the 1st Franklin District. ]]>