By Andy Metzger


STATE HOUSE -- With a comprehensive plan to facilitate more solar power generation left on the cutting room floor last week, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Maeve Vallely Bartlett said the shorter term fix passed by the Legislature last week will allow the continuation of solar projects into April.

The bill (S 2214) sent to Gov. Deval Patrick's desk amid a flurry of activity last week would increase the amount of solar electricity public projects could sell back to the grid by 2 percent and increase the amount private projects could sell by 1 percent. It also sets up a commission to study further cap lifts.

"It will certainly be enough for the next couple of months. We believe it will be enough to get into April, that the solar industry will still be able to continue to ramp up and grow, but without the comprehensive legislation that we were looking for that would clearly set the industry on track to get to 1,600 megawatts and be self-sustaining, I think another administration is going to have to pick up the ball," Vallely Bartlett told the News Service after touring a hybrid vehicle technology company in Brighton.

Gov. Deval Patrick has touted his administration's success encouraging solar energy production, noting that when he came into office in 2007 there were only 3 megawatts of solar installed around the state.


The administration surpassed a goal for 250 megawatts in solar production in May 2013 - four years before its own target - and set a new target of 1,600 megawatts in 2020. As of Aug. 1, 2014, the state had 615 megawatts of solar installed.

Much of solar generation in Massachusetts is "behind the meter" - the generators of the energy use it - and there is only a small amount going out onto the grid, according to grid manager ISO New England. With larger outputs, wind and solar can create complications for the grid, which can vary based on weather or time of day, while the grid needs to maintain a balance of supply and demand.

"Because electricity cannot be stored in any significant amount, having accurate demand forecasts is critical to scheduling the appropriate amount of power to be produced by generators every second of every day," ISO New England wrote in September 2013. "However, as the amount of solar electricity grows, the variability of solar facilities' electricity production, as well as their dampening effect on consumer demand, will increase the uncertainty of overall system demand."

There are 39 private hydroelectric projects eligible for selling electricity back to the grid and 52 projects eligible for renewable energy certificates, according to Energy and Environmental Affairs spokeswoman Krista Selmi.

Aside from sun rays and the ongoing controversy over the offshore energy project Cape Wind, state officials are also grappling with a potential new natural gas pipeline from New York while Patrick administration officials are hoping to bring new hydroelectric power from Quebec.

"There's such a huge need for energy with all these plants going offline that solar power and Cape Wind and energy efficiency and our new renewable thermal - which is just getting that sector off the ground - are never going to make up the vast delta that we have with all of those plants going offline in 2020," Vallely Bartlett said.

A presentation by ISO New England CEO Gordon van Welie estimated 28 older coal and oil units constituting 8,300 megawatts are at risk for retirement by 2020. ISO New England has received retirement requests from Brayton Point Station, Norwalk Harbor Station and Vermont Yankee Station, while Salem Harbor Station recently retired. As older coal and oil plants come offline, there is a greater demand for natural gas to generate electricity.

The potential Kinder Morgan pipeline could cut through the town of Richmond, where Gov. Patrick has a farm, and it has raised the ire of environmentalists, who object to the way natural gas is extracted from the ground, hope for even more energy efficient means of power generation and are concerned about the local impacts of the pipe traveling through the Bershires and over the northern part of the state. 

The Natural Gas Act of 1938 bestows the authority for permitting a pipeline to the federal government, which would need to include state officials in making the determination, Vallely Bartlett said. She said the state's Energy Facilities Siting Board would be the "voice of Massachusetts" reporting to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

"It's a FERC process. There's no question it's a federal process," Vallely Bartlett said. She said, "Our Energy Facility Siting Board is supposed to be part of the process to inform FERC about the needs of Massachusetts, and when I say needs of Massachusetts it is encompassing," with a focus on energy but also issues surrounding placement of the pipeline.

Undersecretary for Energy Mark Sylvia said the EFSB would also serve as an "adjudicatory body" when landowners don't allow pipeline surveyors onto their property.

Last week, Global Warming Solutions Act Implementation Advisory Committee members George Bachrach of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, Peter Shattuck of Environment Northeast and Penn Loh of Tufts University resigned out of concern that large-scale hydroelectric power and natural gas would crowd out other forms of clean energy generation.

"Instead of increasing support for the expansion of our own domestic renewable energy industry in wind and solar, your initiatives risk flooding the market with natural gas and big hydro imports, killing local jobs and industries that have made the Commonwealth a national leader and jeopardizing our ability to meet essential clean energy and climate objectives," the committee members wrote to Vallely Bartlett, singling out a larger energy bill.

Vallely Bartlett said the three had been part of the discussions that included hydro as part of the state's plans, and said, "I think there was a misunderstanding that the bill was only for hydropower and only for Hydro-Quebec."