If Gov. Charlie Baker and legislative leaders are determined to realize their ambitious and well-stated goal of “net-zero carbon emissions by 2050” they need to accelerate the large-scale deployment of offshore wind energy and do so now because absent that contribution, the target will never be reached.
Net-zero doesn’t mean the commonwealth will stop emitting heat-trapping pollution altogether – it means reducing remaining emissions to a residual level, and ensuring that our forests, wetlands, farmlands and urban trees can absorb an equivalent amount from the atmosphere.
For Massachusetts to achieve a clean energy future, it will have to electrify the economy and decarbonize the grid.
That means increasing the development of renewable energy, including industrial-scale offshore wind; establishing aggressive efficiency programs, especially in the transportation and building sectors; and sequestering carbon by planting lots of trees and protecting more greenspace.
The alternative to kickstarting big wind is the status quo of fossil fuels. Sure, we’ll also use more solar, maybe some imported Canadian hydro, and a little already-approved wind, but that won’t be enough clean energy to get us to net-zero in 30 years.
We need to act with a sense of urgency that matches the climate crisis we’re in.
The present law to cut 80 percent of carbon emissions by 2050 seems modest and out-of-date compared to the net-zero emissions target recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and now under consideration on Beacon Hill.
However, lawmakers need to draft a roadmap on how to get there and it must include a meaningful contribution from offshore wind.
Despite strong potential and an urgent need for increased clean energy, today, we have no industrial scale offshore wind farms in America.
That has to change, and Massachusetts can be a leader.
Across the pond, Europe can boast a 30-year history of successful offshore wind energy, with more than 4,000 turbines spinning over their waters.
The US has just five operating structures planted in the sea bed off Block Island.
The opportunity is there to do more.
Between 2013 and 2018, the Interior Department issued seven wind energy leases in the deep federal waters off Massachusetts – often referred to as the “Saudi Arabia of wind.”
Four years ago, Bay State lawmakers passed the Energy Diversity Act requiring electric distribution companies to purchase 1,600 megawatts of energy from those sites – enough to power 800,000 homes. Two years later, the Legislature followed-up with the Clean Energy Act requiring a study of what doubling that procurement would look like.
Since then, only two contracts for wind development at 800 megawatts each have been awarded by the commonwealth, one of which, Vineyard Wind, has been unnecessarily delayed by a complicated federal permitting process.
This is a slow and insufficient pace to get us to a substantial and sustainable green energy economy.
With the federal government now considering more leases in the Gulf of Maine, while expanding others, the legislature should authorize specific requirements for the offshore wind energy procurement needed every year until we get to net-zero carbon emissions.
A recent study by The Brattle Group shows that Massachusetts will need something like 25,000 megawatts of offshore wind energy to contribute at least half of our clean energy needs and get us to the 80 percent carbon reduction by 2050.
That means escalating offshore wind opportunities significantly to get us to net-zero Wind provides not only clean power but clean jobs. According to a recently issued report by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, the first 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power will result in almost 10,000 jobs.
These are jobs for planning, permitting, constructing, and operating the turbines, and related support infrastructure, and operating the ports.
Massachusetts can position itself as not only a construction and support center for offshore wind, but also the East Coast’s educational and innovation hub for this new industry.
First however, some bold policy initiatives must emanate from Beacon Hill, clarifying to consumers, developers, and the supply chain that it is serious about moving forward with the advancement of industrial-scale offshore wind. Once that happens, financiers, entrepreneurs, and energy analysts will signal to developers around the world that there is certainty in the Massachusetts market and it is open for business.
Absent that action, it’s business as usual as the planet burns, seas rise, and storms get stronger.
Jack Clarke is the director of public policy and government relations at Mass Audubon and a Gloucester resident.