Climate bill: Not the finish line, but a few steps in the right direction

A compromise climate bill approved by the Legislature won't win the race to 100% renewable energy — but it will get Massachusetts out of the starting blocks. Here's how we helped pass this bill.

Ben Hellerstein

Former State Director, Environment Massachusetts

On Monday, the Massachusetts House and Senate voted to approve a compromise climate bill.

If signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker, this bill will take several significant steps toward a healthier future powered by renewable energy:

  • Energy efficiency standards for appliances and plumbing fixtures. By cutting the amount of energy we waste, these standards will reduce global warming pollution by an estimated 113,000 metric tons per year by 2025, equivalent to taking 24,000 cars off the road.
  • A requirement for at least 40% of Massachusetts’ electricity to come from clean, renewable sources by 2030. This increase to the renewable portfolio standard (RPS) represents a significant bump-up in Massachusetts’ renewable electricity commitments, equivalent to installing another 200,000 solar roofs over the next ten years.
  • An increase in Massachusetts’ offshore wind commitments, requiring utilities to buy 2,400 additional megawatts of offshore wind energy.

The bill will also remove barriers to solar installations serving on-site electricity demand, empower cities and towns to set higher energy efficiency requirements for new buildings, and ensure greater protections for environmental justice communities.

I commend Chairs Thomas Golden and Michael Barrett and the members of the conference committee for advancing this bill, as well as Rep. Marjorie Decker, Rep. Josh Cutler, Rep. Patricia Haddad, and other legislators who championed its key provisions. I hope Gov. Baker signs this bill as soon as possible.

But in the race to 100% renewable energy, this bill isn’t the finish line — it’s the first few steps out of the starting blocks. If Gov. Baker signs this bill — which he hasn’t yet said he will do — we will need to take further action to expand renewable energy and phase out fossil fuels in the new legislative session beginning tomorrow.

In key ways, Massachusetts is lagging behind. Other states, including California, New York, and Virginia, are moving toward 100% clean sources of energy. That’s exactly where Massachusetts needs to go, but this bill doesn’t get us there.

For now, we’re celebrating this bill for the significant progress it represents, and urging the Governor to sign it. I want to share a few highlights from our recent work to persuade state leaders to adopt the strongest possible climate and clean energy bill:

Pushing for strong action on clean energy

Environment Massachusetts and our coalition partners have worked for years to put Massachusetts on a path to 100% renewable energy. This session, we supported a bill filed by Rep. Marjorie Decker and Rep. Sean Garballey to transition Massachusetts to 100% renewable electricity by 2035 and 100% renewable energy for heating and transportation by 2045. The Decker/Garballey 100% Renewable Energy Act was endorsed by a majority of legislators, along with more than 50 environmental organizations and dozens of business leaders and local elected officials.

In June, we heard credible reports that House leaders were considering advancing a much weaker bill that would set a target of “net zero carbon emissions by 2050,” while doing little to increase renewable energy generation or reduce the use of fossil fuels in the short term. We swung into action, working with grassroots activists, civic leaders, and energy experts to push for a robust policy to achieve 100% renewable energy: 

  • We worked with doctors and medical students to organize a virtual lobby day and deliver a letter signed by dozens of their peers affirming the urgent need to transition to 100% renewable energy to protect public health.
  • More than 150 city and town officials signed a joint statement calling for action on 100% renewable energy legislation.
  • Academics, business leaders, and clean energy experts helped explain to legislators how a transition to 100% renewable energy is both feasible and necessary, and why a “net zero emissions” target is inadequate.
  • We released a report describing the resources, technologies, and ideas that will help Massachusetts achieve 100% renewable energy.
  • Together with MASSPIRG Students and partners in the Mass Power Forward coalition, we organized a week of action that generated hundreds of social media posts, phone calls, and emails asking legislators to act. We also helped activists publish letters to the editor in their hometown newspapers supporting 100% renewable energy legislation.

On July 29, House leaders unveiled a bill that I described as bringing a “toy squirt gun” to the five-alarm fire of climate change. We supported key amendments to strengthen the bill, while keeping up a flood of phone calls and emails into legislators’ offices.

While we didn’t succeed at getting a 100% renewable energy commitment added to the bill, we did win several important amendments, including an increase to the RPS, appliance efficiency standards, and expanded offshore wind procurements. The result was a bill that fell short of what’s needed to protect public health and prevent the worst impacts of climate change, but included several praiseworthy steps in the right direction.

At a virtual lobby day, doctors and medical students made the public health case for a transition to 100% renewable energy. (Staff photo)

Keeping up the pressure

After the House passed its climate bill, a conference committee was appointed to reconcile the differences between the House bill and legislation passed by the Senate in January. Usually the window for action on most bills ends on July 31 of the second year of a legislative session, but this year the House and Senate extended the deadline due to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We worked to shine a spotlight on the provisions of House and Senate legislation that we saw as essential components of any compromise bill. We focused our advocacy on the three policies we believed would make the biggest difference for renewable energy and the climate:

We also supported other provisions that would move Massachusetts toward a cleaner future, such as offshore wind procurements and environmental justice language.

We generated constituent emails and calls to legislators in support of appliance efficiency standards, with a focus on mobilizing our members who live in the districts of the six conference committee members charged with making a decision on the final bill language. We also submitted letters to the editor to local newspapers and published a “flip book” with graphics for activists to share on social media. And when Massachusetts lost its top spot in the annual ranking of the most energy-efficient states, we explained how appliance standards could help us be number one again.

We worked closely with coalition partners to speak in support of our shared priorities, including MASSPIRG, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, Appliance Standards Awareness Project, Green Energy Consumers Alliance, National Consumer Law Center, and our allies in Mass Power Forward.

When the climate bill was released by the conference committee on January 3, we were pleased to see that two of our top three priorities — appliance efficiency standards and the RPS increase — were included in the final version of the legislation, along with other provisions we supported for offshore wind, energy efficiency, and environmental justice.

Our "flip book" helped raise awareness of the benefits of appliance efficiency standards on social media. (Staff image)

What’s next?

This isn’t the climate and clean energy bill we need — but it moves us forward in several important ways. In the new legislative session, starting tomorrow, we can build on this progress and advocate for stronger policies that will put Massachusetts on track to 100% clean energy for electricity, buildings, and transportation.

But before we can celebrate our progress, we need Gov. Baker to sign this bill. The Governor must decide by January 14, and due to a quirk in the legislative calendar, the Legislature won’t have the opportunity to make any changes to the bill or override a potential veto. Gov. Baker gets the final word.

Ask Gov. Baker to sign the climate bill today.

I’ll follow up soon about our plans for the new legislative session. Here’s hoping 2021 is the year Massachusetts takes the lead in the race to 100% renewable energy.

Header photo: MarkBuckawicki/Wikimedia Commons


Ben Hellerstein

Former State Director, Environment Massachusetts

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