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3 Questions: Secretary Kathleen Theoharides on climate and energy in Massachusetts

Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs discusses the state’s plans to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and how to get there.
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Photo of three people in yellow hard hats and jumpsuits standing in a field in front of smoke
Kathleen Theoharides (center) oversees the Commonwealth’s six environmental, natural resource, and energy regulatory agencies. In this role, the secretary joined MassWildlife for a prescribed burn on April 8 at the Birch Hill Wildlife Management Area. This habitat management practice benefits wildlife, can enhance firefighter and public safety, and improves outdoor recreational opportunities for Commonwealth citizens and visitors.
Photo: Josh Qualls

Massachusetts is poised to be a national and global leader in the fight against climate change. This spring, Kathleen Theoharides, secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, spoke with MIT Energy Initiative Director Robert Armstrong at a seminar focused on Massachusetts’ emissions-reduction plans. Here, Theoharides discusses the state’s initiatives to address the decarbonization of key sectors to help the state achieve these goals.

Q: In March, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed new legislation addressing climate change. What is the scope and mission of this bill? And how does it work with preexisting programs to address key climate concerns for the state?

A: Governor Baker has offered long-term support to make Massachusetts a model of climate action. He further strengthened this commitment to achieving net-zero by 2050 when he signed this climate change legislation, which now gives Massachusetts the most ambitious emissions-reduction goals in the country. So, what does this legislation do? There are a number of really critical pieces in it, some of which we have been working very hard on at the executive branch level already. First and foremost, it codifies into law the state’s net-zero target. This will help to accomplish things such as provisions to make our appliances more energy efficient and allow municipalities to opt into highly efficient codes for new construction; it includes important nation-leading provisions that will help us protect our environmental justice communities, significantly push development in offshore wind, and much, much more.

We recently released a 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap, which has set the table for much of the work that we will be doing in the next 10 years to get us on track to hit our 30-year target. This report is a combination of two years of science-based analysis using models and analytical tools to explore in great detail what steps the Commonwealth and the region need to take to achieve this goal while maintaining a healthy, thriving, and equitable economy.

The long-range analysis of the 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap has helped inform our Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2030, which aims to achieve a 50 percent emissions limit by the end of the decade. Based off the report, we determined a number of really ambitious goals that we need to meet by 2030. For the heating sector, this includes retrofitting about 1 million homes, making sure that all new construction is highly efficient, and helping people adopt clean heating solutions. In the transportation sector, we need around 750,000 electric vehicles on the road, and also to achieve a reduction in vehicle miles traveled by 15 percent. We also need to build and interconnect 6,000 megawatts (MW) of clean energy and modernize our electric grid to support the development of these clean energy resources. This plan is really our map of how to make these changes over the next decade, and a lot hinges on the work we do with our federal partners and with other states.

Here are some specific programs we’re working on to help us achieve our 2030 plan.

  • First, we’re working on whole-scale market reform by modernizing our electric grid to support the development of clean energy in the Commonwealth and across New England.
  • Second, we’re convening a first-in-the-nation Commission on Clean Heat, which will bring together many different stakeholders to provide the governor recommendations on the heating sector.
  • Further, we are updating our Energy Efficiency Plan. Massachusetts is a national leader in energy efficiency, and we hope to further align energy efficiency with the state’s climate goals and to improve program equity by increasing participation from groups which have traditionally been excluded from this process.
  • Energy storage has been a large component of our work in this space, especially since the governor took office and we launched the Energy Storage Initiative in 2015. One notable success is that by including energy storage incentives directly into our solar program, we have approved nearly 1,600 MW hours of energy storage, exceeding our initial 2025 target of 1,000 MW hours.
  • Finally, we have been working hard on our Transportation and Climate Initiative program, which is a cap-and-invest program that’s been in the works for the past five years. We anticipate that this will drive pollution in the sector down 26 percent by 2030. We’ve been working with nine other states and expect many more to come into the program — this has been a critical opportunity to reduce emissions in the sector, deliver cleaner energy, and reinvest the proceeds in paving the way for a new future of transportation.

Q: What are some of the most exciting and recent developments for the state in terms of climate and energy?

A: On May 10, the federal-level Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approved the development of Vineyard Wind — an 800 MW offshore wind project located off the southern Massachusetts coast — making it the largest approved offshore wind project in the United States to date. This key, long-awaited milestone was supposed to happen in my first couple of months on the job as secretary in June 2019. It was close to being final, and then it got pulled back in the federal permitting process as more projects came on. This recent approval has given us a lot of momentum, and a lot of hope for the future as these projects move forward and start delivering the clean energy, jobs, and environmental benefits that are so needed.

On March 11, we extended that momentum. Our Department of Energy Resources filed a request for proposals (RFP) for the third round of our 83C Offshore Wind Energy Solicitation. That RFP is now open for bids, and there are several key changes we’ve made in the solicitation that are worth highlighting. First, we’ve baked in a little bit more time for the federal permitting and review process. Second, we’re proposing to allow bids from 200 MW all the way up to 1,600 MW, which would be a doubling of any of the approved projects we’ve had to date. The allowance for larger-sized bids is intended to capture potential efficiencies related to transmission cabling, as well as the use of onshore transmission interconnection points. Additionally, this RFP is really a result of extensive stakeholder engagement, which has led to some important changes that will allow us to build on the Commonwealth’s commitment to environmental justice and to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workforce. For the first time, the RFP will require bidders to submit DEI plans that include a workforce diversity plan, a supplier diversity program plan, and more. Finally, the RFP includes both an environmental and socioeconomic impact evaluation. This will ask bidders to detail any potential impacts — both positive and negative — including assessments of cumulative environmental impacts on environmental justice populations and host communities. Overall, we are really excited about these developments in the offshore wind space and think it helps to move the entire industry in the right direction.

Q: In what way do you see Massachusetts being able to work with federal, private, and public partners moving forward? Are there any areas where you see room for growth and collaboration?

A: Our administration and the legislature have had a long-standing, bipartisan record of partnership, particularly around energy and climate issues, which has helped us to make Massachusetts a leader in the field. I think the state’s bipartisanship really could serve as a model for how those at the federal level could go about passing important climate change and environmental laws. One of the things I’ve spent a lot of time on in this role and in my prior role as the state’s undersecretary of climate change was trying to highlight bipartisanship and consensus around the need for climate change solutions. We as a nation have the opportunity to build strong economies, to create a clean energy workforce, and to really be leaders among other nations on these issues. Thanks to the new legislation and other activities being undertaken within the Commonwealth, we once again added to our record of national leadership on climate change and have taken a significant step to reduce emissions and to really turn up the action on climate change in this next critical decade, while also protecting vulnerable communities in the pursuit of achieving this goal.

It is critical that we continue to work with other states and regions in addition to fostering federal partnerships. Working to upgrade transmission capacity with our neighbors both in New England and Canada in order to ensure the connection and distribution of new renewable sources, from hydropower in Québec to onshore wind in places like Maine, is one critical component. Additionally, our six-state regional transmission organization, ISO New England, doesn’t currently reflect the policy goals around climate change that most of the states have. Moving forward, there needs to be more input from participating state leadership towards ISO’s governance and we all need to engage in scenario-based, forward-looking, long-term transition planning to understand how to meet the energy needs of the future. Finally, we all need to accommodate greater proactive participation from environmental justice communities so that we’re building this new, regional energy system in a way that is inclusive and avoids conflict.

We are looking forward to finding new ways to partner with educational institutions and initiatives such as the MIT Energy Initiative and others at MIT. We have a great richness of resources here in the Commonwealth, especially in terms of our educational opportunities. There are tremendous areas of overlap, and I am excited to see how we can all work together toward this major decarbonization goal we have as a state, and now as a nation.

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