We need closer-to-home renewables that actually reduce emissions
by Deb Pasternak, interim chapter director, Massachusetts Sierra Club
Commonwealth Magazine op-ed
Massachusetts electric distribution companies submitted long-term hydro electricity supply contracts to the Department of Public Utilities for review recently. The Massachusetts Sierra Club believes strongly that these contracts are not the right way to get the regional clean energy we all need.
Here are four reason why importing electricity from Quebec via a transmission line into Maine built by Central Maine Power is not the right way to go:
- First, the electricity that we are contracting for is currently being supplied to areas of Ontario and New York. As a result, we are not lowering global greenhouse gas emissions by procuring this energy, we are simply transferring this clean energy from one region to another.
- Second, we are locking ourselves into 20-year contracts with Hydro Quebec, and therefore exporting our energy dollars out of the region for 20 years. This same electricity could be supplied by regional clean generation, keeping those energy dollars invested locally, bringing jobs and regional economic growth.
- Third, the transmission line proposed to deliver this power through Maine and New Hampshire will be technologically incompatible with regional projects. Yes, we need transmission upgrades to build a clean energy economy, but the costs for projects to interconnect with this type of line are prohibitive.
- Fourth, and probably most important, Hydro-Quebec dams have been built and continue to be built in areas that completely destroy the lands of First Nation peoples. The construction process greatly damages our environment by drowning thousands of acres of carbon-sequestering land and releasing large amounts of methane; it is also another decision by consumers from our area to procure energy on the backs of those without voice or power to protest the destruction of their homes.
Massachusetts is at an important crossroads in terms of our energy future. We need to wean ourselves from dirty energy sources, both to mitigate the public health and economic impacts of catastrophic climate change and to create a strong regional energy economy.
Last year, natural gas supplied 68 percent of Massachusetts electricity generation. At the same time, leaks from in-state natural gas pipelines and infrastructure accounted for roughly 10 percent of our state’s carbon footprint. With so much generation caught up in one fuel source, Massachusetts electricity customers are subject to reliability issues and volatile fuel price spikes. These problems would be alleviated by renewably sourced generation.
For example, if there had been even 800 megawatts of offshore wind installed last winter, the power generated would have saved Massachusetts electricity customers $31 million in electricity costs during the four-day cold snap. Moreover, we can incentivize these renewable generation projects into our economy with minimal impact on our electricity bills. These same renewable technologies will lower our energy costs in the long term because the fuel is free.
It is hard to believe that in just 10 years the costs of building and installing clean wind and solar generation has fallen so swiftly and precipitously. At the same time, the evolution of efficiencies in battery storage and power regulation technologies, and their corresponding plummeting costs, has also occurred, making our ability to power our electricity grid with renewable energy a reality that simply wasn’t apparent even eight years ago.
For example, the state’s first offshore wind farm, Vineyard Wind, announced long term contracts for electricity at a levelized price of 65 cents a kilowatt hour while the long-term contracts for hydro-electricity come in at 59 cents a kilowatt hour. Exporting the amount of money it would cost to buy electricity from Hydro-Quebec over a period of 20 years instead of buying regionally produced inexpensive clean energy makes no economic sense.
On top of generation and storage, we are developing technologies to increase our efficiency. Every year, US consumers waste 70 percent of our procured energy – from heat as a byproduct of combustion engines and furnaces, heat or cold released in drafty homes and buildings, even the heat released in the steam heating and cooling process in conventional fuel generation. We can do better in so many ways, and we will as more efficient technologies are brought to market.
One of the veiled benefits or so-called “externalities” of our shift away from conventional fuels will be a profound impact on public health. Fossil fuels release disease-causing particulates that translate into sick loved ones and high health bills. Here in Massachusetts, being downwind of the Midwest coal generation and relying disproportionately on natural gas and fossil fuels has given us cities with the some of the highest rates of death from asthma in the country – Springfield is No. 1, Boston is No. 11, and Worcester is No. 12.
It is clear that as the citizens of the Commonwealth learn more about the realities of our current reliance on fossil fuels – and the obvious economic benefits of moving to sustainable, regional, clean sources of energy – the utilities and gas companies will loosen their hold over our politicians who currently staff some of our energy regulatory bodies with fossil fuel advocates.