Baker, energy exec tangle over hydropower bill

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Written by Matt Murphy

BOSTON — Hoping to push two energy bills through the Legislature this fall, Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday defended his push to encourage the purchase of large-scale hydropower against industry criticism that his bill represented government overreach into the market.

Baker addressed ISO New England’s annual meeting at the World Trade Center, describing the challenge facing his administration as finding a balance between lowering energy costs for consumers and businesses and furthering the state’s clean energy goals.

The governor has filed bills this year to lift the cap on solar power that can be sold back to the grid by public and private entities at retail rates and to authorize the solicitation of long-term clean energy contracts that would pave the way for large-scale hydropower to become part of the state’s energy mix.

[Watch Clip of: Baker Address to ISO New England]

TransCanada Vice President Mike Hachey, during a question-and-answer portion of the event, told Baker his hydropower bill would be a “massive government intrusion into the market” that could drive other competitors – most likely low- and no-carbon energy generators – out of the market.

“We’re kind of distressed with where this is going,” he told Baker. TransCanada, the multinational corporation behind the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project, owns pipelines in Canada, the United States and Mexico and has offices in Westborough.

[Watch: Baker Q&A]

Hachey said that when he asked Energy Secretary Matthew Beaton during a recent New England Council event for the data or analysis to support the Baker administration’s position, he was told by Beaton there wasn’t any.

Baker, visibly perturbed by the suggestion that his cabinet chief was unprepared, told Hachey he found it “hard to believe” that Beaton would tell anyone he didn’t have data to support his position.

“That’s not how he’s built,” Baker said, adding that if Beaton’s alma mater Worcester Polytechnic Institute ever heard this story they would “take away his diploma.”

Baker also challenged Hachey’s assertion that New England has a functioning competitive energy market that should not be interfered with.

“We pay somewhere between the highest and the second and third highest rates for electricity in the county. That’s a fact. So whatever’s going on in our competitive market, it’s not very competitive,” Baker said.

Hachey did not back down after the event, telling the News Service that the high energy costs in New England are related to state policies and inadequate gas transmission capabilities.

“If that stuff could compete, we wouldn’t be discussing it. They’d be in the market,” he said, describing Baker’s hydropower bill as a $20 billion subsidy to the hydropower industry.

Baker said he planned to talk with Beaton about Hachey’s comments, and when told that Beaton’s remarks were made during a public meeting, he said, “I look forward to seeing the video.”

The critique clearly struck a nerve with the governor, who later returned to the topic after fielding several different questions, asking Hachey specifically when Beaton told him that he had no data to back up the legislation. He was told that the comments were made during a New England Council event “a couple of months ago.”

A spokeswoman for Beaton confirmed that Beaton attended a New England Council meeting on July 15, and the Council said it was an informal meeting with the group’s energy and environmental committee and that no video or audio recordings were made. Another administration official later said the Department of Public Utilities had opened a docket to explore long-term renewable energy contract and would be able to conduct more detailed financial analyses after specific proposals are submitted.

Baker told conference attendees that he expects his solar and hydropower bills to be considered by the Legislature this fall, and he encourages anyone who wanted to reach out to lawmakers to impress upon them the importance of action.

“I think it’s important for them to know that from our point of view this is something we would like to see them take up before the end of the calendar year as opposed to the end of the session,” he said.

While Baker said he thinks there’s “significant interest” in the Legislature in taking action on solar energy, he recalled that discussions during the last session revolving around hydropower and a more comprehensive energy bill with the Patrick administration faltered.

“Let’s hope past isn’t prologue on this,” Baker said.

Since taking office in January, Baker has held multiple meetings with New England governors about regional solutions to meeting energy demands and reducing prices, and last month he traveled to Newfoundland for meetings with governors and Eastern Canadian premiers on the topic.

Based on the available research, Baker said “it’s hard to look at the data and not conclude” that additional natural gas capacity will be needed in New England. He said he’s also hopeful that the governors can find a way to build the transmission infrastructure necessary to import hydropower from Quebec.

“For us to be successful as a region, we need to behave like a region,” he said.

Some environmental groups have challenged the notion that New England requires additional natural gas capacity to meet growing demand, arguing that improved transmission infrastructure, efficiency programs and renewable energy sources could bridge the gap.

While in Canada, Baker said, the governors and premiers signed a resolution calling for a 35 percent to 45 percent reduction below 1990 levels in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

The governor said there was a lot of debate before the agreement was reached over whether to be more aggressive, and said he believed that “as the horizon gets a little clearer” it might be possible to move faster to curb emissions.

Copyright State House News Service