A small portion of an otherwise broadly supported energy bill in the Massachusetts Legislature has prompted backlash by some state legislators and utility industry executives.
House Bill 4225 was intended to expand the use of alternative energy and refine regulation of net-metering (which allows individual power producers such as homeowners with solar panels to sell excess electricity back to the grid). The controversial part—Section 42, inserted by state Rep. John Keenan (D-Salem)—has been decried by opponents as a giveaway to New Jersey-based Footprint Power, which has a contract to replace the retiring Salem Harbor coal-burning power plant with a cleaner but still fossil fuel-based natural gas-burning plant.
The New England Power Generating Association points out that not only does Section 42 guarantee Footprint a very generous contract and absolve the plant's current owners, Dominion, of cleanup responsibilities; it would require all utilities in the state to enter into a 15-year contract with any company that shuts down and cleans up a retiring coal or oil plant, a requirement that would "cost Massachusetts families and businesses billions of dollars over the next 15 years."
State rep John Scibak of South Hadley, who supports the broader bill, calls Section 42 "anti-competitive, bad for ratepayers, businesses..." and said it "saddles the state with generations of fossil fuel burning in Massachusetts." Scibak has signed on to a letter to the members of the Conference Committee that's trying to resolve the House and Senate versions (the Senate version does not contain Section 42). The letter, authored by Marblehead rep Lori Ehrlich, states that Section 42 "would give an advantage to one beneficiary with plans to build a gas and diesel power plant to the detriment of other electric generation projects as well as energy efficiency and conservation, regardless of their economic, employment and/or environmental advantages."
Keenan, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Telecom, Utilities and Energy, is already a poster villain to Massachusetts environmentalists thanks to his years-long foot-dragging on bringing the 14-year-old, overwhelmingly supported HB 890 (the expanded "Bottle Bill") to a floor vote. He defends Section 42 as protecting jobs and the tax base in his home district, and as a concession to North Shore environmentalists of decades ago who demanded that a cleaner-burning natural gas plant be built to replace the dirtier coal-burning one. He also says the estimate of $60-80 million for the cleanup, decommissioning and remediation of the Dominion plant (which opponents consider exaggerated and a giveaway to Footprint) is taken directly from a state-funded study on the future of the plant site.
Executives from Dominion and Footprint have contributed to Keenan's campaign fund, as have employees of NStar, a leading Massachusetts natural gas/electric power company that could benefit from utility contract requirements on future plant replacements. Keenan has also received contributions from lobbying firms that count NStar and its parent company, Northeast Utilities, as their highest-paying clients.
Senate President Therese Murray and Attorney General Martha Coakley have called Section 42 uncompetitive. Both Ehrlich and Scibak want to see the item stripped from the final bill, which may or not be reconciled by the end of the current legislative session on July 31.
"We just don't think giving a subsidy for a brand new power plant that's not needed at a billion dollars is the right solution for the $50-million to $60-million problem they have with the cleanup," said NEPGA president Dan Dolan. Also expressing "vehement opposition" to Section 42 were the CEOs of power producers Essential Power, EquiPower Resources, Exelon Corporation and NextEra Energy. Energy grid experts have questioned whether the electricity from the new Salem Harbor plant is even necessary, given that efficiency initiatives, expansion of wind and solar facilities and a reduction in Massachusetts' population are decreasing demand for the power the plant provided.