In Trump times, cities must lead on climate change

By Joan Fitzgerald   Published in The Boston Globe  NOVEMBER 28, 2016

AS A CANDIDATE, Donald Trump vowed he would abandon the Paris Agreement, reverse President Obama’s climate initiatives, and bring back coal. As president-elect, he’s been more circumspect, but his appointment of climate-change denier Myron Ebell to head the transition at the EPA suggests he may try to make good on these promises.

If he does, the country needs a counterforce. That should come in the nation’s cities, where mayors have been far less polarized and often more creative than Washington in how they address climate change. Whether by transitioning to renewable energy, supporting smart grid development, pushing energy-efficient buildings, or supporting the infrastructure for electric vehicles, cities are already at the forefront of the fight. That’s because mayors of both parties know that climate action both improves the quality of life in their cities and creates economic opportunities.

Burlington, Vt., has become the first US city to meet all its electricity needs from renewable sources. About one-fourth of the city’s power is from a city-owned wood-burning facility. For the rest, Burlington purchases wind power and hydro and uses landfill methane.

After being leveled by a tornado in 2007, Greensburg, Kan., was rebuilt under the leadership of Republican Mayor Bob Dixon, with guidance from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, as a sustainable city powered completely by renewable energy from biogas, small-scale solar, and its own wind farm. Dixon, a member of a White House task force on climate change, frequently says that sustainable urban development transcends party lines.

San Diego is the largest city in the country to commit to going 100 percent renewable, in this case by 2035. In May, Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer released a budget that commits $127 million to climate-change projects. Faulconer, like Dixon, does not see climate action as a partisan issue.

Cleveland, with support from the Cleveland Foundation and others, has been trying to develop offshore wind turbines on Lake Erie since 2004. After many false starts, construction is beginning on Project Icebreaker, deploying a specially designed turbine that can free itself from ice that would otherwise lock it up in the winter months. Should this six-turbine farm on Lake Erie be successful, a new wind-powered energy grid could be developed along the southern shores of all the Great Lakes.

Onshore wind power alone could supply more than 95 percent of Ohio’s electricity demand, according to the NREL. And there’s the potential for thousands of good jobs in the manufacturing supply chain for turbines and in their maintenance. The American Wind Energy Association estimates that Ohio could reap $57 million annually in property tax revenue and $26 million in lease payments to landowners by 2030 if wind power continues to develop.

But maintaining this progress has been a struggle. In 2014, Governor John Kasich signed legislation freezing the state’s push toward renewable energy adoption. A second Kasich-approved law increased the distance turbines must be located from abutting properties, which stopped the construction of 11 previously approved wind farms.

And the going may get tougher; Ohio is one of several states where the Koch Brothers are pushing to undo legislation promoting renewable energy over fossil fuels.

Yet there could be some common ground on some projects. Trump seems serious about a major infrastructure initiative. Investing in a smart grid would be a great start. The nation’s current electrical grid is really a patchwork of grids that cannot communicate effectively, and have reached capacity. That must change if the grid is to handle increasing amounts of renewable energy. Another crucial need is for cities to protect themselves against sea-level rise and adopt green stormwater-management approaches. That challenge looms regardless of whether you believe climate change is naturally occurring or human-made.

Republicans are champions of local control. More than 1,000 mayors have signed on to the US Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which commits them to urging the federal government to pass greenhouse gas-reduction legislation. On climate issues, mayors of both parties will be letting Trump know both the opportunities and the stakes. He would be wise to listen.

Joan Fitzgerald is a professor of urban and public policy at Northeastern University. She is working on her next book, “Greenovation: Urban Leadership on Climate Change.”

Let’s build the right kind of future


US must transition to low-carbon energy

By Jeffrey D. Sachs   Boston Globe NOVEMBER 20, 2016

Part of a weekly series on the economic choices facing the United States and its relations with the rest of the world. For previous entries, click here.

Energy is the lifeblood of the economy. Without ample, safe, and low-cost energy, it is impossible to secure the benefits of modern life. For two centuries, fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas — offered the key to America’s and the world’s growing energy needs. Now, because of global warming, we have to shift rapidly to a new low-carbon energy system.

President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to resurrect coal, promote gas fracking, and restart the Keystone XL pipeline project to bring Alberta, Canada’s oil sands to market. He won’t get far. Today’s low world prices of oil, coal, and gas reflect the fact that newly installed power generation and vehicles worldwide are shifting decisively to low-carbon energy.

The world has far more fossil fuel reserves than can be safely used. Many will stay in the ground, forever. Saudi Arabia, not Alberta, is the low-cost oil supplier. Investors in a resurrected Keystone would go broke, as have investors in coal. Wall Street figured this out long ago.

Nonetheless, Trump may well try to resist the tide at the start. In that case, climate change would quickly become his biggest controversy, costing decisive political capital as the climate debate engulfs his nominations, undercuts America’s diplomacy, and stymies infrastructure plans as well. The US government would be challenged in courts across the country. We are not back in 2001, when George Bush pulled out of the Kyoto Accord. Now the entire world, not just a group of high-income countries, has signed on to climate action.

What’s also clear is that climate change, together with mega-student debt and the loss of entry-level jobs to robots, will trigger a millennial revolt. Twenty-five-year-olds starting out in the workforce, and 35-year-olds with young children, are not going to settle for a septuagenarian president repeating climate falsehoods and squandering their future.

While the president-elect and a few self-serving coal and oil executives might still pretend that climate change is overblown, the rest of the world knows better. For 120 years, scientists have known that burning fossil fuels adds to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and thereby warms the planet. Last year was the warmest year since record keeping began, in 1880, and 2016 will be warmer than 2015. Around the world, people observe and suffer the consequences.

For this reason, every nation in the world, including the United States, agreed in Paris, in December 2015, to shift to a low-carbon energy system. The Paris Climate Agreement went into force this month. The global agreement aims to keep human-caused global warming to “well below 2-degrees Celsius” (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and to aim for no more than 1.5-degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), all measured relative to the earth’s temperature at the start of the fossil-fuel era (around 1800). The warming of the earth up to 2016 is already around 1.1 degrees Celsius, more than halfway to the globally agreed upper limit.

Climate scientists have come up with a tool called the “carbon budget” to guide us back to climate safety. Roughly speaking, the earth’s warming is proportional to the cumulative amount of fossil fuels burned or carbon release into the atmosphere by cutting down forests. To have a “likely” (that is, two-thirds) probability of staying below 2-degrees Celsius warming, humanity has a remaining carbon budget of around 900 billion tons of CO2.

To put the remaining 900 billion tons into context, the world as a whole is currently emitting around 36 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. At the current rate of fossil fuel use, the world therefore has only about 25 years remaining to stay below 2-degrees Celsius, with a two-thirds probability (and still a hefty one-third chance of exceeding 2-degrees C). The key is an energy “transplant” that replaces coal, oil, and gas, with zero-carbon energy such as wind and solar power, or that combines the continued use of some fossil fuels with technologies that capture CO2 and store it safely underground (known as carbon-capture and storage, or CCS). Such an energy transplant may seem impossible, but it’s actually well within reach, in fact underway.

Most of the key changes will hardly be noticed by most of us. Instead of driving a Chevy Malibu, with a gasoline-burning internal combustion engine under the hood, we will instead drive a Chevy Volt, with an electric motor under the hood. Instead of charging the Chevy Volt with the electricity currently generated by a coal-burning power plant, the power plant will instead use wind, solar, nuclear, hydroelectric, or some other noncarbon energy technology (such as CCS) to generate the electricity.

Forward-looking engineers have already given us a pretty good roadmap from fossil fuels to zero-carbon energy. There are three guidelines.

The first is energy efficiency. We need to cut back on excessive energy use by investing in energy-saving technologies: LED lighting rather than incandescent bulbs; smart appliances that do not draw energy when not in use; better housing insulation and passive ventilation that cut heating needs (and heating bills); and so forth.

The second is zero-carbon electricity. Depending on where you live, your power today is generated by a mix of coal, natural gas, nuclear power, hydroelectric power, and a bit of wind and solar power. By 2050, electricity should be generated entirely by noncarbon sources (wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, nuclear, tidal, biofuels, and others) or fossil fuels with CCS.

The third is called fuel switching. Instead of burning gasoline in the car, you would use electricity in its place; instead of burning heating oil to warm the house, you would use electric heating. For every current use of fossil fuel, we can find a low-carbon fuel substitute. Most of us would hardly notice the difference. The main thing we would notice is a slightly higher electricity bill and a vastly safer climate. But even the slightly higher costs are likely to be transitory. As producers slide down the learning curve, the costs of electric vehicles, industrial fuel cells, fourth-generation nuclear power plants, and solar grids are likely to fall significantly.

We’ll also enjoy the new low-carbon technologies more than we do today’s. Smart electric vehicles will not only be cleaner and safer but will also drive you to work while you read the morning news. The shift from coal to renewable energy and from gas-guzzlers to electric vehicles will clear the deep smog that now envelopes Delhi, Beijing, and other places now literally choking on their air. That’s why China politely reminded the United States this past week that the global climate agreement is here to stay.

The challenge is to make the energy transition quickly, seamlessly, and at low cost, without destabilizing the energy system or putting America’s industrial companies at a competitive disadvantage with enterprises in China, Mexico, and India. The beauty of the Paris Climate Agreement is that all countries are now in this effort together.

Is the energy transition worth it? Much of the transition will pay for itself, in the sense of cleaner air, better appliances, and better services. Yet some parts will require a small extra cost for essentially the same energy services, at least at the start.

But here’s a critical point to keep in mind. The last time the earth was less than 1 degree warmer than now (about 130,000 years ago, in a geological period called the Eemian), the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland had disintegrated to such an extent that the global ocean level was around 5-6 meters higher than today. Today’s small-island economies would disappear.

I’m not talking only about the Maldives and Vanuatu. Manhattan would be inundated, and Boston, too, would be mostly under water.

But the risks transcend the disasters facing New York City, Boston, New Orleans, and countless other low-lying cities around the world. Global warming has already destabilized food supplies in many parts of the world, and there is much worse ahead unless we undertake the energy transplant. Syria, to name just one case, experienced its worst drought in modern history between 2006 and 2010, leading to impoverishment, hunger, forced migration, and social instability that provided tinder for the war that broke out in 2011.

Many Americans understandably fear the job displacements that would hit today’s coal miners and oil roustabouts. Fortunately, the news on this front is reassuring. At latest count, the total number of coal miners in America is around 16,000, out of a labor force of 150 million. Total extraction workers in coal, oil, and gas combined is around 150,000, around 0.1 percent of the workforce. These workers, whose physical health is routinely crushed for corporate profits, can easily be compensated and retrained for much healthier work and better wages. Other workers in the fossil-fuel sectors — accountants, managers, programmers, and the rest — will be needed directly in the new-energy sectors and in other parts of the economy.

There are a few true economic “losers” in America’s energy transformation, and David and Charles Koch are perhaps among them. The Koch brothers own the largest private oil company in the world. In their narrow private interest, it might be better for them to defend their $100 billion oil industry investment and wreck the rest of the world. After all, they can afford to buy new property above the rising sea level. Yet even on that narrow and extremely callous calculus, uncontrolled climate change is certainly not better for the Koch family children and grandchildren, who would suffer dire consequences from their parents’ and grandparents’ selfish disregard for humanity’s needs.

Recent excellent work by my colleague Dr. Jim Williams and other energy specialists has charted the US energy transition to 2050. Just this week, the White House issued a superb United States Mid-century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization along the same lines. It turns out indeed that renewable energy, nuclear power, and carbon-capture and storage technologies offer a range of possible pathways to decarbonization. North America is blessed with vast stores of renewable energy, including solar power in the southwest, wind power in the Midwest and eastern seaboard, and vast hydroelectric potential in Canada. And if you don’t like nuclear power or CCS, it’s still possible to make the transition to low-carbon energy, but at a higher cost. (Not surprisingly, the costs rise a bit when options such as nuclear energy are taken off the table).

The bottom line of these scenarios is reassuring. According to Williams’s study, the cost of decarbonizing the US energy system is less than 1 percent of national income per year, perhaps much less. While one percent of GDP is not negligible, it will be a very small price to pay for global climate safety. Similar calculations, and similar bargains, will be the case for the energy transplant operation in other parts of the world. A few lucky places, with magnificent wind, solar, or hydroelectric power will find the incremental costs of zero-carbon energy systems to be negligible.

If the energy challenge is all so clear, why isn’t it happening? First, some part of the energy transformation is already underway, with a rise in deployments of wind and solar energy. Now that the climate risk is finally appreciated worldwide, the entire world is ramping up for energy-transplant surgery. The second is that powerful vested interests, including the Koch Brothers, ExxonMobil (until recently), and Peabody Coal told the American people lies about climate change for years and, even worse, funded the campaigns of politicians who have been willing to oppose climate legislation in return for campaign dollars.

And third, stunningly, because of the same lobbying pressures, long-term energy thinking has been largely blocked. The first step for Trump and Congress in January should be to call on the National Academy of Engineering to mobilize the great engineers across America to come up with a climate-smart energy strategy that makes sense for all regions of the nation. Then the president’s new infrastructure program would build the right kind of future.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is University Professor and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and author of “The Age of Sustainable Development.”

Baker’s Pipeline Support Undercuts Climate Goals

MetroWest Daily News, November 5, 2016 

By Emily Norton/Guest Columnist

Gov. Charlie Baker recently took two terrific actions for the environment. But they are undercut by his continuing support for more natural gas pipelines.

On Sept. 16, the governor signed an executive order establishing an “integrated climate change strategy for the Commonwealth.” The order commits his administration to more aggressive steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet, and offering assistance to cities and towns to adapt to the changes caused by climate change — changes that are already here. It also directs the secretary of each executive branch agency to designate a climate change coordinator, to ensure an integrated approach to addressing the threat climate change poses to human health and safety.

In addition, in August Gov. Baker expressed support for significantly reducing the cap on greenhouse gas emissions that electric utilities face under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). For this he received well-deserved national praise, as RGGI has not only prevented the release of fifteen million tons of carbon pollution, but has also led to over $300 million returned to Massachusetts residents, businesses and municipalities in the form of energy audits, air sealing and weatherization, rebates for insulation and efficient lighting, appliances, HVAC, water heating equipment, and more.

Yet simultaneously with these actions, Gov. Baker has not disavowed his strong support for more natural gas pipelines in Massachusetts and throughout New England.

We can’t have it both ways – more fossil fuels and less greenhouse gas emissions. Natural gas is a potent greenhouse gas contributor – it emits carbon dioxide when burned and consists primarily of methane, which is 84 times more powerful at warming the planet than carbon dioxide. A study by Boston University revealed that one tenth of Massachusetts’ greenhouse gas emissions are caused by gas leaks from our aging pipeline infrastructure.

In fact, increasingly the evidence is showing that gas is no better than coal when it comes to climate impacts, when taking into account leaks and emissions related to gas exploration, production and transportation.

Luckily, we know from a study commissioned by Attorney General Maura Healey – the Commonwealth’s top ratepayer advocate – that new natural gas pipelines are neither needed nor cost effective.

Pipeline proponents claim we need extra pipeline capacity to ensure there is sufficient natural gas supply, especially for the few “winter peak” days when the temperature drops and demand for heat goes up. Building a $3 billion pipeline to meet demand on those few cold days a year is like adding an addition to your house for in-laws that only visit a couple weekends a year. AG Healey found that the most cost effective and climate friendly way to meet this demand is through increasing energy efficiency and demand response, in which heavy energy users are incentivized to take temporary measures to reduce electricity use during peak periods.

Another argument offered is that more natural gas will help keep electricity prices low. But the Access Northeast pipeline would cost $3 billion to build. Pipeline proponents, including Gov. Baker, want the public to cover this cost via a tax on our electricity bills. As many analysts have pointed out, if this pipeline is such a good deal financially, why aren’t pipeline companies willing to pay for it? We should all be suspect of any savings plan that starts with ratepayers having to front $3 billion. To their credit, the Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled that a “pipeline tax” would not be legal under current state law. The Mass. Senate voted unanimously against authorizing such a pipeline tax, but in an ominous move, Mass. House leadership omitted language prohibiting a pipeline tax from the final version of the energy bill that passed in July.

Gov. Baker has come a long way since his first campaign in which he wouldn’t concede climate change was real. His stance on RGGI and his Executive Order show real leadership, which is sorely lacking among others in his party who are still in elective office. But those positions are undercut by his continued support for new natural gas pipelines.

Emily Norton is chapter director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club.

Another blow to Spectra’s funding plan

Connecticut Becomes Most Recent State to Back Away from Spectra’s Access Northeast Pipeline Project

Connecticut regulators dealt a blow to pipeline company Spectra Energy Corp. this week by abandoning several utility proposals that would have relied on Spectra’s beleaguered Access Northeast pipeline, a 125-mile pipeline expansion project planned to span from New York state to just past Boston, MA.

Connecticut’s move comes in the wake of a major defeat for Spectra this summer, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the state’s electrical ratepayers could not be forced to assume the financial risks associated with building gas pipelines as Spectra had hoped.

Despite that decision, Spectra had pledged to move forward with construction — but the company has increasingly struggled to find business partners willing to commit to buying the gas those pipes would carry. Earlier this month, New Hampshire regulators also rejected a key Access Northeast contract.

“With yet another state abandoning proposals for more natural gas pipeline capacity, these efforts to expand fossil fuel infrastructure in New England have hit a virtually unsurpassable roadblock,” said Conservation Law Foundation president Bradley Campbell, whose organization had filed the Massachusetts lawsuit. “Without Massachusetts, New Hampshire or Connecticut in the mix, Spectra has lost a whopping 84 percent of the customer base needed to finance this ill-conceived proposal.”

While the decision from Connecticut regulators directly affects the natural gas build-out in New England, the regulators’ core logic could also carry difficult implications for the entire natural gas industry. While environmentalists oppose building new natural gas infrastructure in large part because of concerns over climate change — with peer-reviewed scientific research concluding that because of methane leaks, natural gas could be a worse fuel for the climate than coal — Connecticut regulators focused on the economics of the fuel.

Their decision cited the “volatile electricity prices and significant risks to electric reliability due to limitations in our restructured electricity market that have driven investment in new natural gas-fired power plants, but not in the natural gas delivery infrastructure needed to ensure that those plants can run reliably all year round.”

In other words, while natural gas might be cheap at the moment, the industry has a long history of sudden price spikes and dramatic collapses, and regulators are wary that any gas infrastructure built today will be expected to remain in service throughout these severe ups and downs, leaving consumers in the lurch.

By contrast, wind and solar energy have thus far generally lowered in price — making renewables potentially not just better for the climate, but also better over the long run for people’s home electric and heating bills.

That was the conclusion of Massachusetts’s Attorney General last year, which conducted an examination of the reliability of the region’s power grid and what options for improving the electrical system’s dependability would be most cost-effective and clean.

“This study demonstrates that we do not need increased gas capacity to meet electric reliability needs, and that electric ratepayers shouldn’t foot the bill for additional pipelines,” said AG Maura Healey said when her office’s conclusions were released. “This study demonstrates that a much more cost-effective solution is to embrace energy efficiency and demand response programs that protect ratepayers and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Spectra is not the first pipeline company to find its projects faltering in the face of a mix of active opposition from environmentalists and wary gas buyers. In April, Kinder Morgan abandoned its planned $3.3 billion Northeast Energy Direct project, which also would have run gas pipelines across New England, after also failing to find buyers for the gas

This week’s decision was touted by the Conservation Law Foundation as a potential nail in the coffin for Access Northeast.

“It’s time to kill this project altogether,” Mr. Campbell said, “and look forward to opportunities for the clean, renewable alternatives that our families demand, our markets expect and our laws require.”

Governor issues broad goals, short on specifics

Governor Baker signs Executive Order on Climate Change, Sierra Club Massachusetts, September 2016

On September 16, Governor Baker signed an Executive Order establishing an “integrated climate change strategy for the Commonwealth.” We issued this statement in response. The order sets a deadline of August 11, 2017, for the Department of Environmental Protection to adopt regulations for the state to meet statutory Greenhouse Gas emissions reduction targets. (The failure to set such regulations is what led our friends at Conservation Law Foundation and Mass Energy to bring suit against the state; the Supreme Judicial Court decided unanimously in CLF and Mass Energy’s favor.) Here is a video of the ceremony.

The order specifically names emissions from the transportation sector and natural gas leaks as areas of focus. It also offers commitments to help communities adapt to climate change, and directs the Secretary of each agency to designate a climate change coordinator. These are all positive signs, but the proof will come in the weeks and months ahead as action steps are filled in. As Commonwealth Magazine put it, “The order sets out broad goals but offers little insight on how they will be accomplished.”

Understanding the SJC Decision While Keeping a Vigilant Eye on Big Gas

The Future of Spectra’s Access Northeast Pipeline Looks Dim [but Baker’s continued pro-pipeline stance and Enbridge’s new influx of capital give us pause]

AUG 26, 2016 GREG CUNNINGHAM Conservation Law Foundation

Last week’s unanimous decision from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, ruling in favor of CLF and finding that the state’s Department of Public Utilities cannot legally tax the Commonwealth’s electric consumers to cover the cost of new interstate gas pipeline, is reverberating throughout New England. Since the decision was released, not only have the Massachusetts electric utilities that sought to impose the gas charge on their customers withdrawn their requests from the DPU, but actions in each of the other New England states have called into serious question the future of the region’s biggest pipeline proposal – Spectra’s Access Northeast.

Access Northeast is the last vestige of the unholy alliance between Big Gas and the region’s electric utilities. That alliance was designed to reap huge profits by overbuilding New England’s gas pipeline system and supplying us with more natural gas, ­at a time when our region already over-relies on this climate-polluting fossil fuel. Meanwhile, the costs and risks of these ventures would be heaped on electric consumers (you and me). Like its former climate change co-conspirator, Kinder Morgan, Access Northeast now appears to be on the road back to Houston thanks to strong regional resistance and a Massachusetts high court that has signaled to the entire region the legal and economic folly of these massive pipeline proposals.

Without Massachusetts, Access Northeast Cannot Move Forward

Leading up to the Court’s decision, utilities commissions across New England were each weighing the legal and policy merits of proposals between their own state’s utility companies and Spectra – proposals that were virtually identical to the one CLF challenged in Massachusetts’ highest court. The days since the Court’s decision have seen those same utilities commissions scrambling to assess the implications of the decision on those proposals.

For CLF and our allies, the implications are clear: if Spectra’s Access Northeast cannot move forward in Massachusetts – which was key to the project’s economic feasibility ­– then it cannot move forward anywhere in New England.

Why? Because, according to Spectra, the Access Northeast project is dependent upon each state’s electric utility (really its customers – again, you and me) paying its share of the project’s costs, allocated in proportion to that state’s share of the regional electricity demand. Prior to the court’s ruling, those costs would have been rationed out to electric consumers in Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, the state with the highest electricity demand.

But the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision lets Massachusetts consumers off the hook –meaning that those of us living in the rest of New England (except Vermont, which never bought into this scheme) will now have to cover the Commonwealth’s and Vermont’s share of the costs, which represent 50% of the region’s total. If the project proceeds at the size originally planned (and Spectra has asserted multiple times since the Court’s decision that it will), we would all need to pay at least double what had originally been proposed.

In an effort to help bring clarity to this new reality, this week CLF filed motions with the utilities commissions in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire asking that the gas proposals in each state be dismissed because Spectra’s own “all states pay their fair share” requirement cannot be met. In Maine, CLF requested that the Commission, which is in the process of drafting an order approving a contract with Access Northeast, re-open its hearing to consider the fact that the Massachusetts high court decision will prevent the state from purchasing capacity on the proposed pipeline.

More Risk and Much Less Reward

Spreading the financial risks of Spectra’s pipeline across far fewer consumers only increases those risks – and decreases the project’s promised benefits (which the state commission staff and experts that have assessed them to date have determined to be outweighed by the cost). The financial risks of the project to Massachusetts consumers were a key factor in the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision. Its observations about the effect of putting the cost of pipeline projects on electric consumers should resonate throughout the region and inform the decisions made by each utilities commission considering the issue. The Supreme Judicial Court found that the ANE proposal:

“would reexpose ratepayers to the very types of risks that the Legislature sought to protect them from when it enacted the restructuring act. . . . [G]as-fired generating businesses are unwilling to assume the risks associated with long-term gas pipeline capacity contracts because there ‘is no means by which they can’ assure recovery of those contract costs. Shifting that risk onto the electric ratepayers . . . is entirely contrary to the risk-allocation design of the restructuring act.”

While the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision was based on Massachusetts law and so has limited impact legally in other states, every New England state has so-called “restructuring” laws similar to the ones referenced by the Court opinion. Over the last 20-plus years, those laws have required electric utilities to sell off their power plants and their associated price-volatile fuel obligations and to own and manage only the electric transmission system. As such, when the Court says that the Access Northeast proposal re-exposes electric consumers to the risks from which such laws sought to insulate them, it is speaking to every state and every electricity consumer in New England and telling us that this pipeline is a bad deal.

Let’s hope that our utility commissioners, with whom the fate of the Access Northeast project now rests, are listening.

Plan B for a pipeline

September 1, 2016  Written by Bruce Mohl for Commonwealth Magazine

Some say Baker’s new approach faces legal hurdles

ONE OF THE BIG MYSTERIES on Beacon Hill is how Gov. Charlie Baker is going to accomplish one of his top remaining energy priorities – building a new natural gas pipeline into the region.

His original plan was dealt a mortal blow a couple weeks ago when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that existing state law doesn’t allow an electric utility to charge its customers for the money to finance a natural gas pipeline.

Yet the governor is pushing ahead, and so are the companies behind the Access Northeast pipeline project – Spectra Energy, Eversource Energy, and National Grid. Both the governor and the firms argue that a new pipeline will bring in enough cheap natural gas during the winter months to reduce electricity prices and save ratepayers billions of dollars. In a letter to policymakers last week, officials from the three companies said “a do-nothing scenario is untenable” and “our path forward is clear.”

The problem is that the path forward is anything but clear, which is probably why they didn’t mention what path they will follow in their letter. Through a spokesman they turned down a request for an interview.

In the wake of the SJC decision, executing on Baker’s original plan now requires a change in state law, and that’s not going to be easy in a Legislature that went on record in opposition during the current session. The Senate voted 39-0 to block the plan, and close to 100 House members expressed a similar viewpoint in a letter to House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

Environmental groups are also mobilizing on the issue. The group 350 Mass Action is calling on lawmakers to sign a pledge not to accept any checks above $200 from executives, in-house lobbyists, and other employees of coal, oil, and gas companies and the utilities that transport their products. The 10 targeted companies include Spectra Energy, Eversource, and National Grid, the three firms behind the Access Northeast pipeline project. More than 30 lawmakers and legislative candidates have signed the pledge.

Earlier this week, Baker’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, Matthew Beaton, raised the possibility of a pipeline Plan B. Under his Plan B, natural gas utilities instead of electric utilities would sign the long-term contracts for natural gas capacity that are needed to finance a new pipeline. Beaton’s approach avoids the legal problems cited by the SJC in its decision, but it raises others.

Natural gas utilities currently purchase gas under long-term contracts for their customers. The utilities typically buy more gas than they need as a cushion in case demand rises unexpectedly because of unusually cold weather. If the cushion isn’t needed, the unneeded gas is sold on the spot market, typically to power generators who need gas but are unwilling to enter into long-term contracts for the fuel. (Power generators typically contract to sell power in three-year increments, while long-term contracts for natural gas pipeline capacity last 20 years.)

The cushion has worked reasonably well in winters past, except in 2013-14 when unusually low temperatures caused homeowner demand for gas to rise, eliminating the cushion. During that winter, many power generators couldn’t find enough gas to operate their power plants, and the gas that was available skyrocketed in price. The end result was a huge spike in electricity prices.

Beaton hasn’t laid out in detail his Plan B, but it appears from his brief comments this week that gas utilities would increase the size of their cushion, enough to finance a new pipeline. The utilities would provide gas needed by their customers, and what’s left over would be sold on the spot market to power plant operators who need fuel.

The upside of plan B is that it utilizes the existing system for purchasing gas. The downside is that it takes the existing system to the breaking point. Several experts consulted by CommonWealth suggested state regulators would have a problem with a gas utility buying more gas than its customers need just so the region’s power generators won’t run short of fuel. In a sense, the experts said, Plan B has gas customers subsidizing the rates of electricity ratepayers. The experts said Plan B would either be shot down by state regulators or end up before the Supreme Judicial Court, the same place where Plan A lost steam.

“Conceivably it would work,” said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, of Plan B. “But I still don’t think it would pass legal muster.”