power lines
The Hadley Station hydropower plant in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 2013. Many municipal utilities rely on hydropower for the carbon-free portion of their energy mix. Credit: Paul Cooper / Creative Commons

Massachusetts’ municipal power companies are making uneven progress in sourcing renewable energy and promoting energy efficiency, according to a report released last month by a statewide climate action group. 

“Municipal [utilities] have a clear opportunity to be leaders in combating the climate crisis,” said Logan Malik, clean energy director for the Massachusetts Climate Action Network, the group that produced the report. “It matters because we could see real leadership from them.”

The report scores each of the state’s 41 municipally owned electric companies — often called municipal light plants — on their renewable energy procurement and policies, energy efficiency programs, transparency and community engagement, and municipal climate policies.

These town-run companies, which account for about 14% of the power sold in the state, have traditionally not been subject to state regulations governing how much renewable energy must be part of their mix, though the new climate law passed earlier this year does include some emissions reductions guidelines for the municipal light plants. 

Using the same definitions the state uses for the major utilities, the report found that just two municipal companies — in the towns of Concord and Belmont — had an energy mix that included more than 14% renewable energy, the level required of investor-owned utilities under state law in 2019. Concord procured 43% of its power from renewable sources and Belmont hit 16.5%. 

A handful of additional companies received points for lower levels of clean energy, however, the report also concludes that more than 30 municipal light plants can claim no renewable energy in their mix at all. 

“That is not on pace with the rest of the state,” Malik said. 

Different definitions of green energy

It’s also at odds with the way many municipal utilities talk about the green credentials of their energy mix. Many local power companies achieve higher levels of non-emitting power by depending heavily on large hydropower projects and nuclear energy, neither of which are considered renewable sources by state definitions – and many climate change activists – because of the social and environmental damage they can cause.

The new requirements for municipal plants, however, allow these sources to be included in calculations of clean energy. And using those terms, progress is being made. 

At the Braintree Electric Light Department, just south of Boston, just over half of the power comes from non-emitting sources, including a mix of nuclear, hydro, solar, and wind. By 2025 these sources will make up 78% of the department’s portfolio, said general manager Bill Bottiggi. 

Also at issue is the treatment of renewable energy credits, or RECs. Each REC represents the environmental benefits generated by one megawatt of clean energy generation. These credits can be sold to utilities or businesses, which can then claim they are funding renewable energy. 

Therefore, the climate action network argues, it is misleading for a municipal utility to sell credits but claim the green attributes they represent, as these benefits are already being counted by another entity. But, activists note, that is exactly the claim many local power departments make when they promote the clean energy they source, despite selling the RECs.

For example, the Reading Municipal Light Department, which serves four towns north of Boston, reports that about 4% of the electricity it sourced in 2020 came from solar and wind. But the credits associated with this power were sold. Another 28% of the department’s energy came from nuclear energy and hydropower. So the climate network report awarded Reading’s utility zero points for its renewable energy contributions. 

Malik also pointed to an ongoing plan by a group of 12 municipal utilities to build a new natural gas-fired power plant in the suburb of Peabody.

“Municipal light plants are still making dirty investments,” he said.  

Progress and promise

There are, however, bright spots in the municipal power landscape, Malik noted. In some places, municipalities or the utility governing boards have created clear renewable energy policies that have helped guide and drive greener procurements. Concord and Belmont have such policies in place, and Shrewsbury has recently adopted one, for example. 

In 2019, the town of Belmont adopted a Decarbonization Roadmap that identified specific goals and strategies the community should use to reach its goal of achieving an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. This document has helped shape and drive the electric department’s actions ever since, said Rebecca Keane, the department’s energy resources manager. 

“What it did was reveal that, as the utility, we are the platform for achieving a lot of the long-term climate goals,” she said. “It gave us a focused spotlight where we should be going with our programming.”

Belmont aims to source only clean energy by the end of 2022, though some of the sources, such as older hydropower projects, would not be considered renewable under current state definitions. The town has no nuclear energy in its portfolio. 

With this strong mandate from the town’s residents, it would be more difficult to pursue such an assertive renewable energy agenda, Keane said. 

“We’re never guessing where we should be pointing our programming,” she said. “A lot of companies don’t have residents that are willing to get involved like that.”

Offshore wind developer Vineyard Wind has also included in its latest bid to the state a provision that would allow a group of 20 Massachusetts municipal utilities – including Belmont, Braintree, and Reading – to buy up to 146,000 megawatt-hours per year from the proposed wind farm.

Still, more changes are needed, said Malik. Though municipal electric departments make up just a slice of the state’s total power supply, they have an important impact, he said. 

“That’s 14%, and if they’re not on track to transition at a pace that aligns with the rest of the state,” he said, “then we’re in trouble.”

Sarah is a longtime journalist who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet. She has covered the workings of small-town government in New Hampshire, the doings of alleged swindlers and con men, and the minutiae of local food systems. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Boston Globe, TheAtlantic.com, Slate, and other publications. Based in Gloucester, Sarah covers New England.