Massachusetts: Will the economy take the wind out of Patrick’s plan?


Erin Ailworth | The Boston Globe

Shortly after taking office in January 2007, Governor Deval Patrick made Massachusetts part of a landmark regional coalition to reduce greenhouse gases from area power plants. That April, he released a 13-page directive outlining some of his environmental policies. And in the nearly two years since, the state has produced a flood of green bills, mandates, orders, fledgling programs, and other goals.

As a result, some say Massachusetts has positioned itself as a leader in energy and environmental policy. But others question whether Patrick’s lofty goals can be reached, especially given how far the economy has fallen since they were proposed.

Indeed, the state’s timetable for its green initiatives appears ambitious. For example, within the next eight years, it wants to increase the state’s solar power capacity from 7.2 megawatts to 250 – almost 35 times current capacity. To reach its wind power goal of 2,000 megawatts by 2020 – up from today’s modest 6.62 megawatts – generating capacity must be multiplied more than 300 times. Other mandates, such as those related to energy efficiency and alternative fuels, are just as dramatic.

“Whether any of these goals are achievable within the time frame, in my view, is going to depend critically on three factors over which the state has no control,” said Robert Stavins, an environmental economist and director of Harvard University’s environmental economics program. “One is the pace and depth of the economic recession and recovery.” The other factors, Stavins said, are “the rate, nature, and timing of the federal government’s economic stimulus package,” which contains significant funding for green projects, and federal energy policies that could trump state and local plans.

Already, the faltering economy and related credit crunch have dampened the plans of some clean tech start-ups and young green businesses looking to grow in Massachusetts – though the sector has taken less of a hit than many others. Also, Cape Wind – an offshore wind turbine project that could account for as much as a fifth of the state’s wind-power goal – has been slow in winning approval.

Meanwhile, following the rollout of federal subsidies for renewable energy, the state recently halved its rebate for residential solar installations from $2 to $1 per watt installed.

Still, Ian Bowles, head of the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, believes the optimism of 2007 won’t succumb to the widespread economic pessimism of 2009, at least when it comes to environmental and energy issues.

“We’re making very strong progress on all these goals,” Bowles said, calling them the “building blocks” that will allow the state to reach even loftier milestones, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent, from 1990 levels, by 2050.

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