Governor Deval Patrick's dramatic expansion of solar energy in Massachusetts will increase electricity bills by $1 billion over 20 years according to Northeast Utilities. A state official acknowledges that costs could be that high but counters that in exchange, Massachusetts would have cleaner air and a vibrant, jobs-producing clean energy sector. So, what is the price residents of the state will put on their environment? Is there a point when the cost becomes too high to bear?
Northeast Utilities made its claim in a filing with state regulators last month. Mark Sylvia, the commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, told The Boston Globe in an interview that his department estimates the added cost to be between $500 million and $1 billion. This translates to about $1 to $1.50 more a month for residential customers, numbers that take a lot of the sting out of the hefty $1 billion figure.
Governor Patrick's aggressive effort to create an alternative energy industry in the state that will provide jobs while improving the environment began in 2008 with the Green Communities Act. The solar sector has been leading the way in this effort, with the goal of 400 megawatts of solar power production reached in 2013, several years before it was anticipated. The administration now wants Massachusetts to reach 1,600 megawatts by 2020. Berkshire County has been a willing partner on a variety of solar fronts, including the WMECO solar panel array in the William Stanley Business Park and strong participation in the Solarize Mass program.
One flimsy argument against solar energy is that it is not worth pursuing because it won't provide enough energy, but anything produced through solar means the equivalent amount of energy won't have to come from the use of environmentally destructive fossil fuels. Tar sands and fracking may produce new avenues for fossil fuel production, but there is a high environmental price to both extract them from the earth and to burn them as fuel. Reducing the impact of climate change fueled by the burning of greenhouse gasses means reducing the use of fossil fuels, not increasing that usage.
National Grid told The Globe it could buy solar power for 20 percent less that its projected cost over the next two decades if it is allowed to buy from a few large producers rather than spread its purchases among a group of small, medium and large producers as desired by the governor. The administration, however, wants to encourage the growth of small producers so jobs can be provided by them around the state, and the Solar Energy Industry Association, which represents more than 1,000 solar power companies across the US, argues convincingly that a large group of solar energy producers, big and small, will keep solar costs down through competition. The Patrick administration has agreed to set up a pilot program to test the claims of the National Grid and other utilities.
Over the long run, the projected cost of higher solar energy usage in the state is not overwhelming, and with increasing competition among suppliers sure to emerge, that cost is likely to be lower than anticipated. What cannot be borne, and what is not likely to be lower than anticipated, is the high cost of extracting oil from the earth and pouring hazardous chemicals produced by the burning of fossil fuels into our atmosphere.