NORTH ADAMS — Both lawmakers and climate advocates say Massachusetts needs to shift to renewable energy, but they disagree on how to get there.
Legislators are working to finalize a "road map" bill that would establish a planning process for the state to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Proponents say the road map is a necessary step to determine strategies for meeting climate goals, but some climate advocates say it postpones the necessary work of ending the state's dependence on fossil fuels.
While some say the shift requires research and planning, others say a commitment is urgent.
Mass Power Forward, a coalition of over 200 environmental leaders, had identified legislation to achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2045 as a top priority for this session.
"We know to create a sustainable future, we need to get off of fossil fuels," said Ben Hellerstein, state director of Environment Massachusetts. "This target of net-zero by 2050 does not do this. It would allow dirty fuels like oil and gas to be burned for decades to come."
State Rep. Tom Golden, who chairs the House Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, said it's necessary to address limitations in energy storage and solar interconnection before a full transition is possible. The road map would establish a "future utility grid" commission to identify solutions, said Golden, D-Arlington.
"Our future — there's no question about it — is clean and green energy, but we need to know how to get there," Golden said. "And that's why the road map is there."
Rep. Joan Meschino, who wrote the original road map bill, sees her bill as laying the "groundwork" for future climate legislation. Through a "backcast" analysis, it works from the end goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 to arrive at policy prescriptions for the present, while also expanding public reporting, said Meschino, D-Hull.
"Through the planning process, it calls for future legislation," she said. "Once you know what the schedule of emissions reduction is, you will know what sort of public policy pieces you need to put in."
"Mine's a planning bill, Hers is a component of really trying to get there," she said, comparing her bill with the 100 percent renewables bill co-authored by Rep. Marjorie Decker, D-Cambridge.
Decker said the bills reflect "two very different visions of how to address climate change."
"It leaves us exactly where we are in terms of getting to the root of climate change," Decker said of the road map bill. "My bill is about taking the issue of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy head-on, and my bill related the blueprint of how that should be done."
The net-zero goal leaves room for fossil fuel use, some advocates say. The state could burn fossil fuels and still be net-zero by offsetting those emissions with "negative emissions" through carbon sinks, which take carbon out of the atmosphere. In that scenario, fossil fuels "will still be creating pollution and harming communities that have high asthma rates," said Jacob Stern, deputy director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club.
Claire Miller, climate justice director for Community Action Works, agrees climate change needs a plan but fears planning can distract from the urgency of taking on fossil fuels.
"We've understood the core problem since the '80s, since the '70s," Miller said. "And we're on a deadline, here."
Golden, however, says the road map will help to figure out how to best pursue expanding renewables, and that future legislation would follow through.
"I know where we need to be, but we actually need to make it happen," he said.
Decker, whose bill was co-sponsored by a majority of members of both the House and the Senate, said she would continue to work on transition Massachusetts to renewables in a new legislative session.
Disagreements may boil down to a difference of opinion over whether renewables can fulfill the economy's need for baseload power — the power needed to supply the electrical grid at any given time.
Golden said battery storage is insufficient for renewables to provide baseload power, so more research on storage solutions is necessary.
"We pass legislation that is possible," he said. "One hundred percent renewable was not even offered as an amendment to the bill."
Hellerstein, however, believes political will is the primary barrier. Sterling, Massachusetts, as well as municipalities in other states, have used utility-scale battery storage, he said.
"We have one of the strongest clean energy sectors in the nation," said Hellerstein, who co-authored a July report titled "100% Renewable is Doable." "We have some of the smartest people in the world working in our universities. I think the only thing that we're missing is a clear signal from the people who are in charge of our state that this is the direction we're going in."
In the road map bill, Decker and Golden worked together to include measures for training displaced fossil fuel workers for renewable energy jobs, a piece that had featured centrally in Decker's 100 percent renewables bill. The road map bill also included a Decker amendment putting utilities on a schedule to supply 40 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
Many celebrated the adoption of an amendment that strengthens protections for newly defined environmental justice communities. It's the product of years of work to address disproportionate environmental burdens placed on low-income communities and communities of color, said Andrea Nyamekye, co-executive director of Neighbor to Neighbor.
"What we really wanted is that when it comes to the siting of polluting facilities, there is an intentional review of the impacts that are already there in the community to kind of add an extra step of due diligence," Nyamekye said.
The fate of amendments rests upon a conference process involving three members each from the House and Senate, including Golden and Sen. Michael Barrett, who chairs the Senate Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy.
Barrett, D-Lexington, told the State House News Service he prefers the Senate's version because it sets interim targets for every five years, rather than 10, and creates an independent commission to monitor progress.
"You've got to separate out implementation and monitoring, and I'm deeply disappointed that the early drafts of the House bill leave the two roles together," he told the news service.
Citing his strong relationship with Golden, Barrett nevertheless expressed hope for the conference process, saying, "If we can scale back on the endless plans and scale up on policy execution, we might actually drive down some emissions and make some progress."
Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle's Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.