Details emerge in state’s massive climate bill

The Massachusetts State House in Boston

The Massachusetts State House in Boston


State House News Service

Published: 06-11-2024 5:00 PM

BOSTON — The base of a late-session climate bill that has been promised by top Democrats in both branches is being drafted by Gov. Maura Healey’s administration, which says that reform to the siting and permitting of clean energy infrastructure is absolutely necessary for the state to meet its statutory greenhouse gas reduction requirements.

Recommendations from Healey’s Commission on Clean Energy Infrastructure Siting and Permitting will serve as the framework for the legislation that both House and Senate Democrats have said they plan to tackle before the end of formal sessions in seven weeks.

“It’s very much the administration’s view that we will not meet our greenhouse gas reduction limits without some significant reform in the siting and permitting space,” Undersecretary of Energy Michael Judge said during a Western Massachusetts Solar Forum webinar held June 4.

Judge said the administration has written draft language for a bill based on the commission’s recommendations and shared it with Rep. Jeff Roy and Sen. Michael Barrett. the joint chairs of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. The News Service requested a copy of the draft bill and while the Healey administration didn’t provide a copy, it was the focus of extensive discussion Tuesday.

House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka have both referred to climate bills coming out of their branches, but have refrained from giving many details about what the goal of those bills would be.

The governor’s siting and permitting commission — which Judge revealed would be the focus of the developing legislation — was meant to recommend ways to accelerate clean energy projects in the state to help meet Massachusetts’ decarbonization goals.

There is general agreement among utility companies, environmental activists and others that the energy project permitting and siting process as it exists today is a poor model. It often takes a long time to get a project through the process, it can be overly complicated for the public to follow proceedings, it requires a lot of money for both proponents and opponents alike, it does not always incorporate feedback from impacted communities, and disproportionately, those impacted communities are places where residents are poorer, part of a minority population or speak a language other than English.

The commission recommended consolidating all state, regional and local permits required for larger clean energy infrastructure projects into one permit to be issued by the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) in no more than 15 months, and to combine all local permits for smaller clean energy infrastructure projects into one consolidated permit to be issued by the municipality in less than one year.

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At a maximum of 15 months, the timeline contemplated by the commission would be shorter than nearly any EFSB approval process in the last 25 years or so, according to a state official who previously detailed the group’s work on background.

The commission’s recommendations also include establishing an Office of Environmental Justice and Equity in statute, with a mandate to develop guidance regarding community benefits agreements and cumulative impact analyses, as well as a new Office of Public Participation at the EFSB to help communities and project applicants with questions about state-level permitting and a new Division of Siting and Permitting at the Department of Energy Resources to help communities and applicants with questions about local permitting.

The administration’s draft legislation also includes proposals that were not included in the commission’s recommendations, Judge said.

Some of those proposals include exempting EFSB-jurisdictional clean energy infrastructure from the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act review; transferring the Department of Public Utilities’ siting authority, which includes eminent domain for transmission and pipelines, to the EFSB; and requiring a cumulative impact analysis for projects before the EFSB to ensure that existing environmental and public health burdens are considered in the siting and permitting process.

Under the administration’s draft bill, EFSB and DOER would need to distribute the new regulations by March 1, 2026.

“It might sound like a long time, but I assure you, that’s pretty quick,” Judge said. “For some of the lift that needs to be taken here, this is a lot of work that’s going to be required to adopt all these rules.”

Massachusetts has committed itself to ratcheting down greenhouse gas emissions to the net zero level by 2050, with checkpoints along the way. By 2030, the state is required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% relative to 1990 levels – the steepest reduction on the curve of all the mandates laid out in the Global Warming Solutions Act. The primary strategy is to pivot energy generation towards cleaner sources like solar and offshore wind, and simultaneously maximize the electrification of buildings and transportation.

That will create significantly greater demand for electricity. The commission’s report said heating electrification demand “is expected to increase by a factor of 17 to 19 between 2023 and 2032” and that electric vehicle charging demand “is expected to increase by a factor of 13 by 2030.” That means Massachusetts will need to more than double its supply of electricity from solar energy, install more than 3,000 megawatts (MW) of offshore wind and nearly as much additional energy storage by 2030, and make significant upgrades to the electrical grid, according to the commission.

“Really, the linchpin of all this is the power sector,” Judge said. “If the electricity that we are consuming is not clean, then all of the additional transition to heat pumps and electric vehicles will not be clean either. So we really need to focus our efforts on deploying as much clean energy as we can in a very quick manner.”

Massachusetts is off-target for achieving long-term solar installation goals – to reach its 2030 target, it will need to deploy an average 600 MW per year, which is far above the current pace of installations, Judge said. Offshore wind, which will require more than 1 GW of capacity deployed annually to achieve 2035 targets, faces headwinds with challenges in the supply chain, inflation and workforce.

Another piece of the administration’s draft bill is a proposal to provide intervenor funding support in DPU and EFSB proceedings.

“Just yesterday, we reached agreement with the Attorney General’s Office on the structure of this proposal, and we’ll be sharing that with members of the Legislature and commission members very soon,” Judge said.

He continued, “This would provide financial support to parties that are under-resourced. And in particular, I think I want to highlight it would provide financial support to municipalities, particularly smaller municipalities. We’ve proposed a threshold of any municipality that has a population of 7,500 or less, would be automatically eligible to access this funding if they are an intervenor in an EFSB proceeding.”

Roy and Barrett shared additional policies they hoped to add to the final climate bill.

The House chair of the TUE Committee, Roy said he planned to add policies from House bills to expand electric vehicle charging across the state, decarbonize public schools and authorize new energy procurements.

It will incorporate elements from a TUE bill (H 4502) to forecast electric vehicle charging demand through 2045 along highways and other major roadways and service plazas, and identify sites for a statewide network of fast charging hubs.

“I’ve been a longtime electric vehicle driver and I am all too familiar with the difficulty in finding a reliable and quick charge,” Roy said.

That same bill, which he plans to wrap into the omnibus climate bill, establishes a statewide goal to decarbonize public schools, public universities and community colleges by mandating energy audits, energy efficiency upgrades and solar power installations, with a priority for so-called Environmental Justice communities.

It also authorizes DOER to update appliance energy efficiency standards to keep pace with improvements in technology, Roy said.

Another bill, (H 4503) which the House chairman plans to add to the climate legislation, calls for a new procurement of 9.45 million megawatt hours of clean energy resources and authorizes additional procurements if the DPU determines them necessary.

“You’ve heard the undersecretary say that we have a long way to go, and we’re hoping that through this bill we can help kickstart and get us back on path,” Roy said.

It also sets a 10,000 MW solar target by 2030 and 4,500 MW near-term target for energy storage, he said.

Roy also said policies that include reforms to incentivize solar panels on parking lots and remove barriers to solar access for low-income ratepayers (H 3144) would be included in the House bill.

Barrett was less specific about the Senate bills he hoped to incorporate into the final climate legislation, but focused his remarks Tuesday on bringing more transparency to the siting and permitting process.

He shared an idea to require a dashboard that would show real-time updates on renewable energy projects.

Barrett said the dashboard would be updated at least quarterly, ideally, with information about “which projects are at what stage and whether any constructive approvals, without review effectively, have happened.”

The administration’s draft bill includes language that allows “constructive approvals” if a state entity is unable to finish its review within the timeline that is laid out, Barrett said.

“The way this works is that we’ve got these 12-to-15-month timelines to process our consideration of a project. If the state entity, which now has to represent the local concerns as well as the concerns across the commonwealth involved with these things, doesn’t reach a decision within 12 or 15 months, constructive approval kicks in. The project, in other words, it’s okayed anyhow,” he said.

Barrett continued, “Of necessity, if you didn’t have this, nothing would happen in many cases. So I appreciate that the language has to be there. Still, I am concerned that the state [needs to] staff up to make sure that constructive approval, if possible, never happens. We want a thorough vetting of each project, reflective of all the local priorities.”

The other priority Barrett highlighted was keeping the energy transition affordable.

“There are already protests whenever the electric bills go up. We’ve got to make sure that two things happen: that we keep the increases, if they occur, in check. And to do that we offset them, perhaps, with decreases on the natural gas side of the ledger,” he said. “We can’t really ask people to finance the expansion of both electricity and natural gas at one in the same time. If electricity is going to get our emphasis and our dollars, somehow we need to constrain the gas system at one in the same time to give people some sense the balance is being maintained.”