Approach to hydro may influence fed action on pipelines, secretary says

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BOSTON >> Federal regulators are more likely to approve natural gas pipelines in Massachusetts if there is no legislative action to help procure hydroelectricity from Canada, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton told lawmakers on Tuesday.

Beaton said roughly 10,000 megawatts of electrical generating capacity will go away with pending plant retirements, putting all of New England at an energy crossroads.

Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed legislation to facilitate the procurement of hydro-power, while acknowledging any energy legislation is likely to be a "combo-platter." House Speaker Robert DeLeo in January said the House would take action on an omnibus energy bill.

Pipeline companies have proposed routes to supply Massachusetts and other New England states with natural gas, a cheap fuel source that has grown to dominate the state's energy generation market. Beaton said it accounts for more than half of generation in Massachusetts.

The pipelines have proved controversial as property owners and conservationists bemoan the effect on the landscape and environment, while business owners in western Massachusetts have grappled with a moratorium on new natural-gas hookups because of limited supply.

Rep. Benjamin Swan, D-Springfield, told Beaton at a budget hearing that he had heard from a local employer in favor of a pipeline and he wanted to know whether the hydro bill would "eliminate the necessity" for the pipeline.

Beaton noted that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has jurisdiction over pipeline approval, but said the regulators could be swayed by actions in the state Legislature.

"If we can pass the legislation and we can bring in that additional generation source to show that we as a state are doing things proactively to help with that baseload, to help fight off those retirements that are pending, that will be significantly considered in FERC's final decision," Beaton said. He said, "If we do not take action they will likely look at that and say, 'Well, New England is starved for energy baseload, especially in an area that has some of the highest energy costs in the entire nation — get them every pipeline they can because the states aren't taking any action."

In addition to his hydro bill (S 1965), the governor also filed solar legislation (H 3724). House and Senate negotiators have been unable to reach compromise on their varying versions of solar legislation.

Citing the Department of Energy Resources, Beaton told members of the House and Senate Ways and Means committees that Baker's proposals would save consumers $366 million per year and reduce electrical-sector greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent. Beaton has previously said importation of hydroelectricity is a crucial step in reaching the 2020 goal of carbon emissions that are 25 percent below 1990 levels.

Unlike solar and wind, hydroelectricity does not produce power intermittently, but instead provides "baseload" energy, Beaton said.

While natural gas regularly outprices its competitors, such as nuclear, coal and oil, its use as a residential heating fuel in the winter causes shortages in the energy sector that drive up the price and force generators to rely on oil or coal.

"The only traditional generation that we're going to see new construction and new permitting of is going to be natural gas," said Beaton, who pitched hydro as the alternative.

Rep. Timothy Madden, D-Nantucket, encouraged Beaton to also focus on offshore wind, opining that "some state is going to capitalize on it, and I hope it's the Commonwealth."

Madden said he is "sensitive" to the higher price of offshore wind electricity, but believes diversifying the state's energy generation mix would be beneficial.

"We do recognize the potential for a future of offshore wind in the Commonwealth as being part of that combo platter," Beaton responded, noting he was headed to an offshore wind conference after the budget hearing.


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