Reviewing the Legislature’s energy accomplishments
While there were plenty of bills up for a vote, very few were enacted
With the conclusion of the Legislature’s 2017 session, it is time to take stock of what the General Court did, and didn’t do, from an energy perspective.
While there were a number of bills proposed that would have made some significant changes to our laws governing a variety of energy issues, many of them were either retained for study over the summer and fall, after which they will be taken up during the 2018 session, or they were killed. While the energy issue that seemed to garner the most attention was the need to lower electric rates to retain or attract businesses to the state, one of the few bills which the Legislature spent a lot of time discussing and amending, and which ended up passing, will have the effect of raising electric rates in amounts that will vary depending on usage.
The House and Senate passed Senate Bill 129, a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) bill that increased the alternative compliance payments and thus the amount that utilities and competitive suppliers have to pay for electricity generated by wood-fired generators, and thereby increasing electric rates. Those biomass generators and the companies that supply them with wood argued that the bill was necessary to keep not only the generators but also many of the logging and other cottage industries from going out of business.
The bill also increased slightly the percentage of electricity that will need to be generated from solar power in future years and requires that at least 15 percent of the renewable energy fund monies be set aside to benefit low-moderate income residential customers, in part through community solar projects in manufactured housing communities or multi-family rental housing.
There has been some talk of the governor vetoing SB 129 because it will increase electric rates, but, in order to soften the blow, lawmakers voted to repeal the electricity consumption tax and study the long-term viability of biomass through an amendment to House Bill 517, the budget bill. As of the date this article was written, it was not clear whether these provisions would be enough to convince the governor not to veto the bill.
Other energy bills included one that will study the increase in electric transmission, distribution and generation costs (SB 125) and one that establishes a committee to review subsidies for energy projects in the RPS law (SB 51). A bill that made some changes to the notice to affected municipalities required when there is an application for energy facility siting (SB 116) also passed, as did a bill that repealed a law which required the state Department of Environmental Services to encourage sources of greenhouse gases to register their inventory of greenhouse gas emissions with the Eastern Climate Registry and to work with other states on this voluntary Registry.
One other major piece of energy legislation, SB 128, was retained in committee after passing the Senate. The bill would have modified one fundamental policy principle in the electric utility restructuring law, which references harnessing the power of competitive markets to lower rates, and would have given the Public Utilities Commission the authority to approve purchase power agreements like the one with Northern Pass, which it rejected.
The bill also would have made more explicit the ability of electric distribution companies to invest in small-scale distributed generation resources, to, in effect, allow them to get back into the generation business, and would have given the green light for electric companies to enter into gas capacity contracts to mitigate the cost of electric service.
The House Science, Technology and Energy Committee retained a number of other bills that will resurface next session for final action.
These included a bill that would have reduced the percentage of megawatt hours that would have to be supplied from newer providers of renewable energy under the RPS law in future years (HB 114), a bill that would repeal the state’s participation in the regional greenhouse gas initiative (HB 592), one that would eliminate the cap on net energy metering (HB 518), a bill relative to grid modernization (HB 401) and a bill that would require legislative approval to increase the systems benefit charge, the charge on all electric customer bills through which funds are raised to pay for low-income electric assistance programs and energy efficiency programs (HB 317).
A number of other energy bills were killed, mostly in the House, including bills that concerned the criteria for siting and financing high-pressure natural gas pipelines (HB 162 and HB 179) and evaluating the public interest of gas pipeline capacity contracts (HB 493), as well as bills relating to the qualifications for the position of consumer advocate (HB 198), establishing the position of energy-efficiency advocate (HB 627) and relative to taxation of public utility infrastructure (HB 328).
While it was a very busy legislative session from an energy perspective, it was not one which produced any major changes in energy laws in our state.
Douglas Patch is a director and shareholder with the law firm of Orr & Reno and a former chair of the Public Utilities Commission.