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State Faces Pipeline Quandry as Electricty Costs Spike

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Rupa Shenoy
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On a cold but sunny day last month, about a hundred people rallied in front of the Massachusetts State House, hoisting signs that read “Green the grid,” “Clean energy now” and “No future with fossil fuels.”

“We’re talking about our children’s future,” shouted Kelsey Wirth into a megaphone. Wirth is founder of the group Mothers Out Front, which has one goal:  “To ensure that Massachusetts is making the right energy choices for the sake of our children’s future,” she said, “and that means choosing clean and renewable energy every time there’s a choice to be made.”

New England is facing many such choices. With a 40 percent jump in electricity costs, activists say we should bring prices down by investing more in renewable energy. But there’s already a strong push underway to lower energy costs by increasing the supply of natural gas.

Natural gas pipelines form a delicate network of capillaries under our cities and towns, and it’s not uncommon to drive by utility crews working in jagged, 4-foot-deep holes in the ground. There they make repairs, or upgrade those slim pipelines, many of which were originally installed in the early 1900s to light gas streetlamps. In Massachusetts alone, the steel, plastic, iron and copper tubing total nearly 1-thousand miles.

This archaic infrastructure connects to three main interstate pipelines that bring natural gas to New England from the south and west. Those pipelines have run out of space, limiting the supply of natural gas to the region and leading to skyrocketing prices.

“All of the analysis to date has concluded that there is a need for additional natural gas infrastructure,” said Heather Hunt, director of the New England States Committee on Electricity – the committee through which all six states work together.

Hunt said the states agreed not to leave the issue to private industry, and instead to partially fund a new, additional interstate pipeline by attaching a tariff to people’s electricity bills.

“I think all six states would strongly prefer to be in a position not to have to take action in this area and instead just rely on private investment in the market to make solutions happen,” she said. “It just hasn’t happened to date and the consequences – you know, consumers are hurting because of that.”

But big players like the New England Power Generators Association lobbied hard against the committee’s plan to subsidize construction of a new pipeline. Association President Dan Dolan said the proposal would’ve given some companies an unfair advantage.

“What it would do,” Dolan said, “is only benefit the plants that have the good fortune of existing right next to whatever’s the new pipeline the governors, would subsidize and not the ones that would be other places on the system.”

The commission’s plan also included a renewable energy component – building new electricity transmission lines to bring hydroelectric power to Massachusetts from Canada. But Peter Shattuck of the Acadia Center said that wasn’t enough to gain the support of environmental groups or the Massachusetts legislators, who have set a goal to reduce the state’s emissions by 80 percent by 2020.

“If we wanted the electric transmission but we were going to get the pipeline along with it, I think that is where the bargain started to seem like less of a good deal,” he said.

So Massachusetts lawmakers went a different way. They abandoned the new tariff, declining to pass legislation that would’ve moved the plan forward, and instead asked for time to investigate options – like reducing demand for energy, increasing energy efficiency, adding more on-site energy production like solar panels, or finding a way to store energy for use during high-demand days. Massachusetts officials said a report on those possibilities will be complete by December 23. Shattuck said such solutions have to a part of the plan if New England wants to move to a green economy.

“All of this shows a transition,” he said, “from a historical mindset of one way power flows from large centralized generation to customers, to the energy system that’s emerging now, where there’s an increased reliance and strong economics behind improving energy efficiency, putting generation at customers’ loads so that you are diversifying energy supply.”

Meanwhile Kinder-Morgan, the company that would build the subsidized pipeline under the New England committee’s stalled plan, has announced a new route for the line that would circumvent most of Massachusetts. 

There’s no way to know yet if that change will be enough to move the plan forward.  It’s possible the New England States Committee on Electricity, with several newly elected governors, including Charlie Baker – will chose to pursue a different path out of the energy crisis.

"I certainly believe, based on everything I’ve read, that we do need additional natural gas capacity,” said Baker, who didn't support Kinder-Morgan’s original route. He thinks the existing natural gas pipelines should just be expanded.

"You could've turned three feet pipe into four feet pipe without much trouble and we should've done that,” Baker said. “Still can."

And then there are those who say New England should just start the decision-making process from scratch. Sixteen members of the Massachusetts’ US congressional delegation, led by 4th District Representative Joe Kennedy, have asked the federal government to re-evaluate the way decisions about energy are made in New England.

“The rate increases that we’re seeing are a symptom of the fact that the model itself is broken.”

Kennedy said that just the fact that we got to the point where electricity rates are going up by 40 percent in one jump shows the way decisions are made about energy in New England needs to change.

Listen to other stories in this series.