The dome of the Massachusetts State Capitol Building in Boston. Credit: Timothy Vollmer / Flickr / Creative Commons

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Republished with permission

Massachusetts has long been one of America’s most successful carbon cutters. The state regularly tops national energy efficiency rankings, helped launch the offshore wind industry in America and is a driving force behind a Northeastern cap-and-trade program for cars.

Greenhouse gases in Massachusetts fell 21% between 1990 and 2016, according to the state’s most recent emissions inventory.

But the Bay State’s carbon-cutting efforts now face a series of hurdles that threaten to undermine its ability to slash emissions further. It plans to rely to a great degree on buying large amounts of clean electricity. Actually building projects to deliver that power is proving a challenge.

An 800-megawatt offshore wind development off Martha’s Vineyard, the state’s first, has run afoul of the Trump administration, which is calling for additional environmental studies into the project’s impact on fisheries (Climatewire, Aug 12). The developer, Vineyard Wind, has pledged to forge ahead, but the delay has caused jitters among Massachusetts climate hawks.

Farther north, a 145-mile transmission line through Maine is facing stiff opposition. The project, known as the New England Clean Energy Connect, was designed to link Massachusetts to Quebec’s extensive network of dams. Maine utility regulators have already given it a permit, but opponents there are now gathering signatures to hold a referendum on the project in 2020. NextEra Energy Inc., which operates an oil plant outside Portland, is also challenging the project in court.

Combined, the two projects are expected to reduce carbon emissions by more than 3 million tons annually. That is roughly 7% of the state’s 2016 emissions, or the equivalent of taking more than 1 million cars off the road.

Observers still expect Massachusetts to meet its 2020 carbon target of a 25% reduction in emissions from 1990 levels. Yet the long-term picture is cloudy. A 2008 law requires that Massachusetts reduce emissions 80% by 2050.

“If both of these projects were to fail that would take a chunk out of Massachusetts’ emissions plans for 2020 to 2030,” said David Ismay, a lawyer at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston.

State officials are pledging to fight on. Katie Gronendyke, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environment Affairs, said Massachusetts “will continue to pursue cost-effective strategies to ensure a clean, affordable and resilient energy future for the commonwealth.”

The dynamic highlights a challenge facing the state: Major clean energy infrastructure projects usually require input from neighboring states or the federal government. It also speaks to the need for increased collaboration between Northeastern states, which tailed off after the election of Republican governors in New Jersey and Maine in 2010 but is once again showing signs of revival, Ismay said. That, he said, could help prevent the type of opposition that is complicating Massachusetts’ current clean energy projects.

“There are no shortcuts or no silver bullets,” Ismay said. “Even renewables aren’t an easy answer. We want to site them properly. There is a lot of work to be done.”

The good news for Massachusetts climate hawks is that offshore wind developers are forging ahead with plans for new projects, despite the potential for permitting delays from the Trump administration. Three companies have submitted bids for Massachusetts’ second wave of offshore wind projects.

Paul Hibbard, a former Massachusetts utility regulator, reckons an offshore wind project will eventually break through. The prospect of major investment and job creation means the industry can likely outlast any opposition from the Trump administration.

But Vineyard Wind’s setbacks highlight another challenge facing Massachusetts, he said. Building clean energy infrastructure quickly enough to meet the state’s climate goals is a tall order.

Beyond opposition to siting large projects, Massachusetts needs to figure out how to blend new renewable energy into New England’s wholesale power market, Hibbard said. Both Vineyard Wind and Hydro Québec, a Canadian utility that would sell hydropower via the New England Clean Energy Connect, have received guaranteed contracts from the state, prompting worries it could reduce revenues for power plant owners that compete in the region’s wholesale electric market.

“You start to look at the sheer magnitude of what is needed to replace fossil fuel resources and the implied loss of natural gas and related infrastructure, and it is extremely difficult to see a path forward to see those goals met in a way the state wants them to be met,” Hibbard said.

Not only that, he added, but swapping natural gas for renewables figures to be an expensive proposition.

“That doesn’t mean that it is not worth it given the state’s climate objectives and the realization climate change carries real cost,” Hibbard said. “It’s really how you stage this transition over time.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News, LLC. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environment news at