Correcting the record on decarbonization
A RECENT COMMENTARY, “Decarbonization road map has some gaping holes” by Arnold J. Wallenstein, argues that Massachusetts must scale back its efforts to decarbonize its energy system. Unfortunately, the piece relies upon incomplete assumptions while making glaring omissions about the viability of clean energy. It glosses over the health, climate, and economic burdens imposed by our current outdated energy system, and it ignores that the transition to clean energy is well underway both regionally and nationally.
The energy system in Massachusetts is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Nearly 50 percent of our electricity is produced by fossil gas. Over 80 percent of our homes and businesses are heated by fossil fuels. And fossil fuels do not produce a reliable system. Whenever a winter storm or a hot summer day arrives, we all cringe in anticipation of whether the power will stay on. Fossil fuels are expensive, too. Electricity rates just increased by 64% percent in some areas of the state. Other states, such as New Hampshire, saw increases as high as 112 percent. Volatile energy prices come baked into the cake with fossil fuels, as anyone purchasing heating oil or propane this winter knows from seeing prices double.
Additionally, fossil fuels cause poor indoor air quality, damaging the health of the most vulnerable among us – children and the elderly – particularly those in lower income communities and communities of color. That’s not even counting their contribution to catastrophic climate change. And we’re shipping billions of dollars out of state each year for the privilege of unreliability, volatile prices, health problems, and climate destruction.
The good news is that clean energy technologies are market ready, cost-effective, local, healthier, cheaper to operate, and more reliable. For these reasons, the movement towards a wholesale turnover in power generation and heating and consumption technologies is well underway in our region.
Fortunately, Gov. Maura Healey understands the importance of addressing our existential climate threat – for instance, rising oceans and storm damage are a serious concern for Massachusetts – and seizing the economic opportunities presented by localizing our energy production sector, particularly for moderate- and low- income households. In her inauguration speech, she committed at least 1 percent of the state budget to environmental and energy agencies, and she has now followed through with $534 million in her first budget. She promised to triple the budget for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and to create a Green Bank to foster investment in resilient infrastructure. She has talked about an investment in the climate economy similar to the $1 billion investment former governor Deval Patrick once made in the growing biotech industry. Former governor Charlie Baker sought to make a similar investment during his final year in office.
Healey also pledged to double offshore wind and solar targets, quadruple energy storage deployment, and put a million electric vehicles on the road by 2030. Importantly, Massachusetts’ neighbors are, in some cases, making more aggressive commitments, like Rhode Island’s mandate to have 100 percent renewables by 2033, or New Jersey’s brand-new commitment to 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. Wallenstein fails to make reference to these goals – including, most importantly, the governor’s urgency to tackle these issues. Recycling 10-year-old talking points to turn the clock back 10 years is not a vision for the future.
Across the country, renewables accounted for 22 percent of the total electricity generation in 2022 and are projected to rise to 24 percent in 2023. From Q3 2020 through Q2 of 2022, the US added 63.2 gigawatts of new wind and solar power generating capacity against only 10.4 gigawatts for gas (and none for coal). And with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, tax incentives are now in place to drastically increase the pace of renewable energy adoption. In fact, it is now less expensive to operate solar and wind electricity generation than most fossil fuels.
This makes sense as wind and/or solar energy are already the cheapest power source for two-thirds of the people in the world, including the US (and New England), where solar is our cheapest power source. All grid-scale clean energy projects enter our power grid via a competitive bidding process, one in which clean energy generators are forced to increase their bid prices to keep fossil fuel operators competitive. There are no “undisclosed” costs. Once clean operators deliver their projects, they will supply electricity for fixed rates.
Wallenstein included numerous false statements about the Massachusetts 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap in his piece. While there are too many falsehoods to dissect each one in detail, one particularly egregious statement in his piece stood out: “Unbelievably, there is no cost analysis to be found in the 2050 Decarbonization Road Map.” In-depth cost analysis is actually one of the central pillars upon which the Roadmap was built. In fact, Section 5.6 of the Energy Pathways to Deep Decarbonization portion of the Roadmap is quite simply titled “Cost.”
The sophisticated modeling that is core to the Roadmap examined the costs of nine different paths, and specifically answers the question: “Under the most likely assumptions, what is the least-cost deployment of energy system technologies that achieves deep decarbonization?” The most cost-effective pathway shows that, by 2050, fossil fuel generation accounts for less than 1 percent of electricity supplied to Massachusetts while over 90 percent of building space and water heating utilize consumer and climate friendly electric heat pumps. Reading the Roadmap closely, for 0.25 percent of the state’s total annual economic output we can take the most cost-effective path to net zero emissions instead of just watching the world burn.
Massachusetts also has among the greatest offshore wind power potential of any state in the nation. According to the National Research Energy Laboratory, Massachusetts can produce 1,050 terawatt hours (TWh) per year of electricity. That far exceeds both Massachusetts’ current consumption of 56 TWh per year and the laboratory’s projection of future needs after widespread electrification of 140 TWh. The business case for embracing our most affordable and most plentiful local resources is fairly obvious.
Wallenstein’s piece also trotted out an old canard about how the sun doesn’t always shine or the wind doesn’t blow as an argument to hold on to our dirty fossil fuel system. However, his piece curiously ignores clean energy options that balance wind and solar, such as the increasing prevalence of battery storage. California increased its battery storage capacity from 0.25 gigawatts to 3.2 gigawatts from 2020 to 2022, and that new storage played a critical role in keeping the state’s power on during this past summer’s extreme heat waves. Massachusetts is seeing storage projects move forward: Eversource has installed a 25 megawatt battery in Provincetown, designed to improve power reliability for the Outer Cape.
Long-duration batteries are just around the corner. Somerville-based Form Energy is opening a factory space in West Virginia that in 2024 will start producing 100-hour, 500 megawatt batteries that rely on iron – the most abundant metal on earth. This doesn’t even touch on other options, like better coordinating our grid with clean energy from neighboring systems. There are clean energy answers for how to improve reliability that don’t require an endless reliance on climate-destroying fossil fuels.
And let’s be clear: our fossil fuel-based system is not exactly reliable. At the end of 2022, New England suffered a two-day cold snap that left hundreds of thousands without power, since dubbed “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” The cause of the outages was predominantly a failure of fossil fuel operators to fire on demand. New England’s own grid operator issues annual winter outage warnings and insists significant investment must be made to improve the reliability of its own system. At the most recent such proclamation, Rebecca Tepper, now Massachusetts’ secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said, “We are overly dependent on natural gas. And the region is at risk any time that we have some kind of disruption on that system.”
Everyone involved agrees we will need to spend money to improve our energy system, particularly the grid that distributes that power. The question is where we are going to spend those citizen dollars. We can spend them on leveraging clean and affordable energy from local sources rather than subsidize expensive, unhealthy and not-too-reliable fossil fuel infrastructure. It seems like an easy choice.
It took decades to build our reliance on fossil fuels and it will take some time to wean off of it. Fully modernizing our system with clean electricity and converting our transportation and building heating/cooling systems to clean energy will not happen overnight. Eventually existing fossil fuel companies will need to find new ways to earn revenue. We invite them to join the momentum heading in that direction. Massachusetts’ most important goal now is to unite towards modernizing its energy system to benefit all the people of the state, not cling on to an increasingly outdated system that no longer can meet the needs of the public.
Joe Curtatone is the president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council, Daniel Sosland is president of Acadia Center, and Larry Chretien is executive director of the Green Energy Consumers Alliance. To read this article in Commonwealth Magazine, click here.