New England is at a critical energy crossroads that demands leadership and foresight to deliver us to a future of clean, affordable and reliable resources. In his Sept. 2 BDN OpEd, Marc Brown focused on the importance of getting these decisions right so that energy costs are affordable. He blames the retirement of power plants, ineffective markets and renewable energy programs for placing New England in a costly bind from which escape will be difficult. Where Brown sees challenge, we see an opportunity for the region to balance today’s demands with advances in energy policies and infrastructure that will meet the needs of the future.
Brown accurately notes that more than 8,000 MW of electric generation will retire over the next 10 years or so. What he doesn’t tell you is that these units comprise dirty coal, oil and leaking nuclear plants that cannot comply with or compete under existing laws. Their retirement reflects the success of public policies designed to protect our health and the environment and derives from increased competition in a deregulated energy market.
This evolution has occurred over the past decade and has resulted in substantial dependence on natural gas generation to the point where our regional electric system manager is concerned that over-dependence on gas threatens the reliability of the electric system. This begs the question: Why have the New England states and our own Maine Public Utilities Commission recently considered charging ratepayers in order to subsidize large, private natural gas pipeline expansions in the region? Natural gas is part of our energy solution, but we must avoid the risks of over-committing to this resource, however plentiful and cheap it may be.
Moreover, a focus solely on short-term economics ignores the costs we’re already suffering as a result of the changes in our climate caused by carbon and methane emissions. Hurricane Sandy alone cost more than $50 billion in damages and even more in lives ruined and lost. For this reason, New England has obligated itself to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent over the next 36 years. Building out natural gas infrastructure today will ensure that we do not meet that reduction imperative and will leave ratepayers paying double tomorrow: stranded costs for abandoned pipeline and the costs associated with sea-level rise, storm surges and other climate impacts. That is not an affordable energy solution.
What Maine and New England must do to achieve their energy and climate goals is undertake a balanced approach that looks to maximize lowest cost and clean solutions and minimize ratepayer risk. This approach should include modifications to energy markets, cost-effective efficiency programs, demand response, and, yes, better use of existing natural gas supplies and infrastructure, including liquefied natural gas. Renewable energy and the programs that promote it are at the heart of this balanced approach, and, like a college savings account, represent an investment in our future while helping to lower electricity rates today.
Contrary to Brown’s assertion, Conservation Law Foundation used this “balanced approach” philosophy in helping to craft a solution that allowed the Footprint gas-fired power plant in Salem, Massachusetts, to obtain final permits. Indeed, CLF has led the way in charting a course to “get gas right” in New England. Rather than simply opposing new natural gas infrastructure, CLF has proposed putting appropriate limits on natural gas projects and redirecting some of the investment in those projects toward building the next generation of clean energy needed to meet the challenges of climate change. In the Footprint case, CLF reached the first settlement in the nation with a gas-fired power plant developer to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over time and close the plant by 2050.
Our energy crossroads allows us a choice — cling stubbornly to an old model that may appear cheaper in the short run or embrace investment in a new, modern system that meets our energy needs and mitigates climate impacts while adapting to the changes that we’re already experiencing. The markets that we’ve developed over the last decade have pushed us to the forefront of the nation in the transition from our energy past to the energy future that we need. Abandoning those markets to gamble on gas is the wrong choice.
Greg Cunningham is the senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation in Maine. He has served as the chair of the Natural Resources Section of the Maine State Bar Association, and he co-authored the Maine Environmental Law Handbook published by Government Institutes.