The Covid-19 pandemic, inflation, and the war in Ukraine have combined to cause unavoidable delays in implementation of Massachusetts’s ambitious goals to tackle climate change, state Senator Mike Barrett said during his April 19 presentation at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) Earth Day Colloquium. But, he added, he remains optimistic that the goals will be reached, with a lag of perhaps two years.
Barrett, who is senate chair of the state’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, spoke on the topic of “Decarbonizing Massachusetts” at MIT’s Wong Auditorium as part of the Institute’s celebration of Earth Week. The event was accompanied by a poster session highlighting some of the work of MIT students and faculty aimed at tackling aspects of the climate issue.
Martha Broad, MITEI’s executive director, introduced Barrett by pointing out that he was largely responsible for the passage of two major climate-related bills by the Massachusetts legislature: the Roadmap Act in 2021 and the Drive Act in 2022, which together helped to place the state as one of the nation’s leaders in the implementation of measures to ratchet down greenhouse gas emissions.
The two key pieces of legislation, Barrett said, were complicated bills that included many components, but a major feature of the Roadmap Act was to reduce the time between reassessments of the state’s climate plans from 10 years to five, and to divide the targets for emissions reductions into six separate categories instead of just a single overall number.
The six sectors the bill delineated are transportation; commercial, industrial, and institutional buildings; residential buildings; industrial processes; natural gas infrastructure; and electricity generation. Each of these faces different challenges, and needs to be evaluated separately, he said.
The second bill, the Drive Act, set specific targets for implementation of carbon-free electricity generation. “We prioritize offshore wind,” he pointed out, because that’s one resource where Massachusetts has a real edge over other states and regions. Because of especially shallow offshore waters and strong, steady offshore winds that tend to be strongest during the peak demand hours of late afternoon and evening, the state’s coastal waters are an especially promising site for offshore wind farms, he said.
Whereas the majority of offshore wind installations around the world are in deep water, which precludes fixed foundations and adds significantly to construction costs, Massachusetts’s shallow waters can allow relatively inexpensive construction. “So you can see why offshore wind became a linchpin, not only to our cleaning up the grid, but to feeding it into the building system, and for that matter into transportation, through our electric vehicles,” he said.
Massachusetts’s needs in addressing climate change are quite different from global averages, or even U.S. averages, he pointed out. Worldwide, agriculture accounts for some 22 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and 11 percent nationally. In Massachusetts the figure is less than one-half of 1 percent. The industrial sector is also much smaller than the national average. Meanwhile, buildings account for only about 6 percent of U.S. emissions, but 13 percent in the state. That means that overall, “buildings, transportation, and power generation become the whole ballgame” for this state, “requiring a real focus in terms of our thinking,” he said.
Because of that, in those climate bills “we really insisted on reducing emissions in the energy generation sector, and our primary way to get there … lies with wind, and most of that is offshore.” The law calls for emissions from power generation to be cut by 53 percent by 2025, and 70 percent by 2030. Meeting that goal depends heavily on offshore wind. “Clean power is critical because the transmission and transportation and buildings depend on clean power, and offshore wind is critical to that clean power strategy,” he said.
At the time the bills passed, plans for new offshore wind farm installations showed that the state was well on target to meet these goals, Barrett said. “There was plenty of reason for Massachusetts to feel very optimistic about offshore wind … Everyone was bullish.” While Massachusetts is a small state — 44th out of 50 — because of its unusually favorable offshore conditions, “we are second in the United States in terms of plans to deploy offshore wind,” after New York, he said.
But then the real world got in the way.
As Europe and the U.K. quickly tried to pivot away from natural gas and oil in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the picture changed quickly. “Offshore wind suddenly had a lot of competition for the expertise, the equipment, and the materials,” he said.
As just one example, he said, the ships needed for installation became unavailable. “Suddenly worldwide, there weren't enough installation vessels to hold these very heavy components that have to be brought out to sea,” he said. About 20 to 40 such vessels are needed to install a single wind farm. “There are a limited number of these vessels capable of carrying these huge pieces of infrastructure in the world. And in the wake of stepped-up demand from Europe, and other places, including China, there was an enormous shortage of appropriate vessels.”
That wasn’t the only obstacle. Prices of some key commodities also shot up, partly due to supply chain issues associated with the pandemic, and the resulting worldwide inflation. “The ramifications of these kinds of disruptions obviously have been felt worldwide,“ he said. For example, the Hornsea Project off the coast of the United Kingdom is the largest proposed offshore wind farm in the world, and one the U.K. was strongly dependent on to meet climate targets. But the developer of the project, Ørsted, said it could no longer proceed without a major government bailout. At this point, the project remains in limbo.
In Massachusetts, the company Avangrid had a contract to build 60 offshore wind turbines to deliver 1,200 megawatts of power. But last month, in a highly unusual move for a major company, “they informed Massachusetts that they were terminating a contract they had signed.” That contract was a big part of the state’s overall clean energy strategy, he said. A second developer, that had also signed a contract for a 1,200-MW offshore farm, signaled that it too could not meet its contract.
“We technically haven’t failed yet” in meeting the goals that were set for emissions reduction, Barrett said. “In theory, we have two years to recover from the setbacks that I’m describing.” Realistically, though, he said “it is quite likely that we're not going to hit our 2025 and 2030 benchmarks.”
But despite all this, Barrett ended his remarks on an essentially optimistic note. “I hate to see us fall off-pace in any way,” he said. But, he added, “the truth is that a short delay — and I think we're looking at just a couple of years delay — is a speed bump, it's not a roadblock. It is not the end of climate policy.”
Worldwide demand for offshore wind power remains “extraordinary,” said Barrett, mainly as a result of the need to get off of Russian fossil fuel. As a result, “eventually supply will come into balance with this demand … The balance will be restored.”
To monitor the process, Barrett said he has submitted legislation to create a new independent Climate Policy Commission, to examine in detail the data on performance in meeting the state’s climate goals and to make recommendations. The measure would provide open access to information for the public, allowing everyone to see the progress being made from an unbiased source.
“Setbacks are going to happen,” he said. “This is a tough, tough job. While the real world is going to surprise us, persistence is critical.”
He concluded that “I think we’re going to wind up building every windmill that we need for our emissions reduction policy. Just not on the timeline that we had hoped for.”
The poster session was co-hosted by the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab and MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative. The full event was sponsored by the MIT Climate Nucleus.