Advocates celebrate passage of state climate bill

  • A Chevy Bolt EV uses the charging station on Crafts Avenue Monday afternoon in Northampton. A major climate bill signed by Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday will include increased rebates for electric vehicles and the deployment of charging stations for those vehicles. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

  • An EV charging station located on Crafts Avenue in Northampton. A major climate bill signed by Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday will include increased rebates for electric vehicles and the deployment of charging stations for those vehicles. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

  • A Chevy Bolt EV uses the charging station on Crafts Avenue Monday afternoon in Northampton. A major climate bill signed by Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday will include increased rebates for electric vehicles and the deployment of charging stations for those vehicles. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 8/15/2022 8:30:03 PM
Modified: 8/15/2022 8:26:35 PM

NORTHAMPTON — As much of the state continues to face a critical drought after two punishing heat waves, Gov. Charlie Baker last week signed the major climate bill that lawmakers passed late last month — the state’s most significant effort to date to address the climate crisis.

While some provisions in the bill will be seen at the macro level — boosting offshore wind energy, for example — other parts will soon be visible in people’s lives across the region. Included in the big changes to state climate policy are rebates for electric vehicles and charging stations, a fund for green-energy companies and green workforce development for underserved communities, and a change to the law that will make it easier for solar-panel owners to receive compensation for the solar power they generate.

“This is bold action for the state to take on the climate emergency,” said Susan Theberge of Florence, a member of Climate Action Now. “This is a recognition that we’re in a climate emergency. It’s a good first step, but still a first step.”

For many environmental activists in western Massachusetts, the bill also signifies the latest victory in the battle against the building of wood-burning power plants, which have faced fierce opposition since at least 2008 when so-called biomass plants were proposed in Springfield, Greenfield and Russell. That fight eventually centered on Springfield, where developer Palmer Renewable Energy planned to build a biomass facility.

Under the new climate bill, the state has now stripped woody biomass from its “Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard,” meaning the state no longer considers it “renewable energy” in its efforts to transition electricity to renewable sources. Theberge said that decision, and the bill as a whole, are the results of years of grassroots organizing in Springfield and throughout western Massachusetts.

“Many people put their hearts and souls into getting this bill passed,” Theberge said. “This is years of organizing.”

Grid reliability

Locally, state lawmakers played key roles in pushing forward specific parts of the bill.

State Rep. Natalie Blais, for example, was able to include a piece of legislation that would require utility companies to proactively upgrade electricity transmission lines and the distribution grid. Those changes, Blais said, are essential to ensuring the reliability and resiliency of the grid as more energy comes from renewable forms of energy.

“I just can’t begin to put into words how monumentally important it is for us to look at our grid and the future of our grid,” Blais said. She said that the grid, as it currently exists, cannot support the green energy that is needed for the future.

State. Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, co-sponsored that bill in the Senate. Blais and Comerford, as well as state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, were able to get other provisions into the bill after hearing from constituents. The three co-sponsored a bill that will allow multiple entities on a single tax parcel to sell the excess energy from their solar panels, for example, back to the grid. Currently, only one entity on any parcel can engage in that practice, known as “net metering.” That leaves out condo owners, for example, and many others looking to benefit from solar panels.

“There was a disincentive for homeowners to put solar if they were a homeowner on a single tax parcel with others,” Comerford said. That disincentive has now been fixed, she said, after constituents brought the issue forward to the lawmakers.

Gregory Garrison, the president of Northeast Solar in Hatfield, said that the new single-parcel rule is a game changer for condo owners, for example, or farmers who previously could only benefit from net metering on one building even if they had solar panels on several across their property. That will increase access to solar, he said, as will an increase to the amount homeowners can be compensated for net metering, from 10 kilowatts up to 25.

Garrison said Blais, Comerford, Domb and state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa all worked with the solar company on key changes to improve access to clean energy. And the money people will now save on energy costs, he added, will have a secondary benefit locally.

“Those dollars go back into your local community,” he said.

School assessments

Domb and Comerford also partnered on a bill requiring an assessment of all K-12 school buildings in the state for energy efficiency and environmental health factors. That will include looking at how to move away from fossil fuels, improve ventilation and the availability of clean water.

“This statewide inventory and assessment is the first step we need to take to understand what we need to do to make sure that every community in the commonwealth has access to a healthy building and learning environment for its students and teachers,” Domb said in a statement.

The bill will also create a fund for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center to use for companies working on new kinds of clean energy and for underserved communities to receive workforce development programs so residents there can access green jobs.

“I’m thrilled, I’m really thrilled,” state Rep. Pat Duffy, D-Holyoke, said. “We need to be setting these specific goals because of this monstrous challenge in front of us.”

Despite the passage of the bill, however, more work is still needed to bring it to fruition. In particular, funding for many of the programs has not yet been passed; lawmakers had intended to include that money in the separate, large economic development bill that was making its way through the Legislature but wasn’t completed by the end of the legislative session as lawmakers rushed to finish many bills that were left until the deadline.

Duffy said it is now incumbent on lawmakers to advocate for those green jobs and workforce training to come to communities like Holyoke, and to make sure that the economic development bill follows through on climate funding.

“Now that the bill has been written and signed and agreed to, we all need to be vigilant about implementation,” she said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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