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Massachusetts lawmakers pass net-zero energy roadmap bill


40% of state's power will be renewable by 2030

Utilities need to procure 5,600 MW of offshore wind

New York — Massachusetts lawmakers have sent to the governor's desk a bill that aims to chart the state's path to net-zero emissions by 2050.

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"This bill is a climate toolkit, assembled over the course of months, to protect our residents, and the beautiful place we call home, from the worsening of an existential crisis," the co-chairs of the Conference Committee on Climate of the Massachusetts General Court Sen. Mike Barrett and Rep. Thomas Golden said in a joint statement. The toolkit approach "focuses relentlessly on the work of reducing greenhouse gases, creating jobs, and protecting the vulnerable."

Passed by the House with a vote of 145-9 on January 4, the bill (S.2995) would codify the state's target of net-zero emissions by 2050 and set interim targets of cutting emissions 50% by 2030 and 75% by 2040 from 1990 levels.

The bill now awaits action by Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, whose administration recently issued an energy roadmap report on the path to net-zero emissions. Compared to the bill the legislature passed, the roadmap report recommended a slightly less aggressive interim emissions reduction target of 45% by 2030 from 1990 levels.

If Baker signs the bill, the state would set emissions limits every five years instead of every 10 years, outline a roadmap to achieving the targets, and report on progress. In addition, the state would establish emissions limits for each of six sectors: electricity, commercial and industrial heating and cooling, residential heating and cooling, industrial processes, natural gas distribution and service, and transportation.

Massachusetts is one of three states plus the District of Columbia that recently pledged to form a cap-and-trade program for transportation sector emissions.

Under the recently passed bill, the renewable portfolio standard for utilities would increase by 3% each year for 2025 through 2029, "ensuring that at least 40% of the state's electric power will be renewable by 2030," according to a summary of the bill. As for offshore wind, utilities would need to procure an additional 2,400 MW of capacity, bringing the total requirement to 5,600 MW of offshore wind.

Beyond utilities, the bill promotes distributed solar and increases opportunities for low-income communities to access solar programs.

Specifically, it loosens net-metering caps, directs the state Department of Energy Resources to prioritize low-income communities in the SMART solar program and related incentives programs, allows small municipal buildings to have rooftop solar, and exempts businesses and other large customers from the solar net metering cap, which will allow them to build solar systems larger than 25 kW, according to the bill summary. The bill also establishes a new solar energy grant program for nonprofits that address food insecurity and homelessness, such as by providing emergency shelters.

The Solar Energy Industries Association in a statement said it was able to convince lawmakers to clarify the tax treatment for solar projects. In particular, the bill clarifies that homeowners and small businesses will not see their property taxes increase when they install small solar systems. Also, owners of larger systems will be exempt from taxes if they already have an agreement in place for other tax payments, SEIA said.

David Gahl, SEIA's senior director of state affairs, said the provisions "should provide clarity to the tax law and increased certainty for both large and small solar firms."

Environmental justice defined, woven throughout bill

Interwoven throughout the bill are requirements for the state or agencies to consider the impact or benefits of decisions and plans on environmental justice communities and populations.

The bill defines an "environmental justice population" as a neighborhood meeting certain criteria, including an annual median household income of not more than 65% of the statewide annual median, minorities comprising at least 40% of the population, or 25% or more of households lack English language proficiency.

Furthermore, the bill directs the Department of Public Utilities, or DPU, to give equal weight to greenhouse gas reductions and system safety on top of its existing mandate to pay attention to affordability and reliability needs in making decisions.

A number of measures related to natural gas and safety are also included in the bill. For starters, the bill authorizes gas utilities to pilot renewable thermal energy systems or other technologies capable of substituting for natural gas, according to a summary of the bill. The bill would also increase penalties for failure to restore service after an emergency, increase the cap on civil penalties for gas pipeline safety violations, extend whistleblower protections to utility employees who report law violations by their employer, and instruct the DPU to establish standards for companies to maintain gas distribution maps and records.

In addition, the bill would add a definition of net-zero buildings to the state building code. But the lawmakers would allow municipalities to opt-in to the specialized "stretch energy code."