Massachusetts Governor testifies in favor of renewable power bills

STEVE LeBLANC, Associated Press
Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker testifies at a hearing regarding two energy bills at the Statehouse in Boston, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015. One bill would require Massachusetts utilities to work with the state's Department of Energy Resources to pursue long-term contracts for bringing hydropower into the state. Another would raise caps on the state's "net metering" program that allows homeowners, businesses and local governments to sell excess solar power they generate back to the electrical grid in exchange for credit on their bills. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Copyright 2015, The Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) — Gov. Charlie Baker told a packed Statehouse hearing Tuesday that he's open to exploring long-term contracts with utilities for off-shore wind and hydropower as ways to both lower energy costs and lower the state's carbon footprint.

The state currently doesn't have the authority to allow utilities to pursue long-term contacts — up to 15 or 25 years — with large scale renewable energy producers like wind, solar or hydropower, said Baker, who testified on two of his energy bills.

Baker told lawmakers he's not only interested in lowering the state's carbon emissions, but in driving down energy costs by diversifying sources of power, including hydropower — or a combination of hydropower and wind or solar.

"If they want to add a proposal to that that would add an offshore wind component as well, that would be fine," Baker told reporters after testifying.

The road to offshore wind in Massachusetts has been stormy.

Cape Wind received approval five years ago to build the nation's first offshore wind farm, a 130-turbine project in Nantucket Sound. That project stalled after opponents challenged it in court.

In January, federal officials auctioned off leases to more than 550 square miles of federal waters about 12 miles south of Martha's Vineyard to two companies — Offshore MW LLC and RES America Inc. — hoping to develop wind energy projects.

Baker described the companies as "very big, capital intensive" players. He said he'd like to put offshore wind producers to the same market tests he'd like to put Canadian and domestic hydropower producers to as well as firms who offer wind and hydro as a backup or solar and hydro as a backup.

"If they give us proposals that don't make sense economically obviously we won't pursue them, but if they give us proposals that do make sense economically we'll take them pretty seriously," Baker said.

Some environmental activists are skeptical, arguing that the tracking of any hydropower power sources must be verifiable, or else the state could end up buying Canadian coal-powered electricity during periods of high demand in the Eastern Canadian provinces.

The governor also testified in favor of a bill that would raise caps on the state's "net metering" program that allows homeowners, businesses and local governments to sell excess solar power they generate back to the electrical grid in exchange for credit.

Solar net-metering caps are calculated as a percentage of each utility's highest historical peak load — the most electricity consumed by their customers at any one time.

Private facilities are capped at 4 percent and public facilities at 5 percent in the amount of solar energy available for net metering credits. Baker would raise those private and public net metering caps 2 percentage points each.

Renewable energy activists say 171 communities across the state have reached the existing cap.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg both say they want to pass legislation. Baker said getting a solar bill passed is particularly important given that a federal solar energy tax credit program runs out at the end of 2016.

The Senate has already passed legislation to lift the net-metering caps and direct the Department of Energy Resources to create a new solar incentive program when the state reaches its goal of 1,600 megawatts of installed solar capacity by 2020. That's enough to power about 240,000 homes each year.

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