Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Rebecca Tepper, Commissioner of the Department of Energy Resources Elizabeth Mahoney, and Chair of the Department of Public Utilities James (Jamie) Van Nostrand participated in a panel.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A legislative hearing was held at the Berkshire Innovation Center last week to address rate increases in electricity, gas, and oil with representatives from the Healey-Driscoll administration and utility companies.
In the last two years, electricity rates have increased by an average of 12 percent and natural gas prices by 1 percent and Western Mass. communities feel that they are experiencing the brunt of it.
The session began with a panel discussion between legislators and the Secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Rebecca Tepper, Commissioner of the Department of Energy Resources Elizabeth Mahoney, and Chair of the Department of Public Utilities James (Jamie) Van Nostrand.
State Sen. Paul Mark, State Rep. Tricia Farley Bouvier, State Rep. John Barrett, and State Rep. Smitty Pignatelli were present.
Farley-Bouvier asked why the rates are higher in Western Mass than the rest of the state and was told that the cost to provide electricity to the area is greater, as two major components of rate making are the distribution costs and supply range.
"I would say, madam secretary, that your colleagues who are working on economic development, on housing on all of that, they're being faced with this challenge energy costs here, around density here, and what I say to literally every single secretary who comes to the Berkshires is ‘Stop using the metric of density, or ridership, for caseload across the state,' because it doesn't work," Farley-Bouvier said.
"It is not a metric that is fair, nor is it productive."
Barrett pointed out that Windsor applied for a municipal aggregation plan to lower electric rates 19 months ago and has not seen any procedural updates and said that the DPU has an "uppity attitude."
"There has got to be change here. There is no way in God's green earth that it's going to take 19 months for an aggregation approval for a community of less than 2000 people," he said. "So these are the frustrations and it's not even anger as much as it's just disappointment."
It was reported that the department has two new commissioners who are committed to making changes and that they are doing a "reset" because they have too many applications that have been pending for too long.
Nostrand said that they can do better and they will.
"It is not acceptable," he said. "And we're working really hard to try to straighten it out both to get rid of the backlog and going forward to make sure that we can get those applications in and out because you're right, it does make a difference."
Tepper said that the energy sector is going through significant changes as the state works to meet emission requirements set in the Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2050 while ensuring reliability, resiliency, and affordability for customers.
"So for a while now, several years, we've collected a lot of data and we have targets and we have plans, and today, we're focused on implementing those plans," she said. "And we're committed to doing that in an equitable way, particularly for the clean energy transition, spending a lot of time thinking about what that means and how that we can achieve that."
Tepper said it is helpful to understand where Massachusetts and New England sit in the energy landscape and what that means for prices. During the winter, the region's reliance on natural gas makes it sensitive to the global markets and susceptible to price hikes, she explained, and the price of natural gas is the price factor of rising electricity prices.
The secretary detailed numerous energy savings efforts that the administration has taken on.
The New England Clean Energy Connect project is on the horizon, with a transmission line capable of delivering up to 1,200 megawatts of renewable energy from Québec to New England and is expected to provide $150 million in annual savings. This was proposed in response to a Request for Proposals from the commonwealth for long-term, clean energy contracts.
Tepper also pointed to the first commercial-scale offshore wind farm that is being built off the coast of Massachusettes, coining it as "awe-inspiring."
"It's really exciting and that's going to be starting to deliver power this year so we're excited about that and the project will provide a very reliable and stable electricity for the commonwealth at an affordable price," she said.
"We have a long-term contract for that wind so we know and we are confident that that will result in affordable rates for customers and will help us, particularly in the winter, dealing with our peak electricity, the peak time of electricity."
In August, the administration issued a request for proposals for the largest offshore wind solicitation to date, inviting submittals for offshore wind generation to select up to 3,600 MW, which represents 25 percent of the state's annual electricity demand and is the largest procurement for offshore wind energy generation ever in New England.
Tepper explained that they are also focusing on power-generating infrastructure as an influence for pricing because "we're only going to get the benefits of clean energy if we can actually get it to people."
She reported that there will be a "significant amount" of transmission and distribution substations that will be built.
Mahoney explained that there is insufficient data to include heat pumps in the department's winter heating report for this year but lower electricity prices indicate that customers who use them should expect to see savings.
Heat pumps work like refrigerators, using electricity to move heat from a cool space to a warm space to change the temperature. During the winter the pumps move cold air outdoors and in the summer move the cool air indoors.
The administration sees an opportunity to transition to a clean energy future and will be thinking about the potential for job creation with the installation of heat pumps, Mahoney said.
"We know that this transition from fossil fuels to more efficient homes as well as efficient sources of decarbonized heating will reduce the uncertainty of heating costs attributed to price volatility of fossil fuels, particularly heating oil and propane, and decrease energy burden for our most vulnerable populations," she explained.
"And of course, part of our efforts in DVR is to reduce the energy burden for customers and the price volatility of fossil fuels."
The DPU oversees investor-owned electric power, natural gas, and water companies in Massachusetts.
Nostrand explained that they also oversee major utilities such as Eversource and National Grid, constantly monitoring them and encouraging them to adopt policies that benefit customers.
"Our mission is to ensure the utility companies provide safe, reliable, and reasonably priced service to Massachusetts customers," he said.
"In this rate setting process we seek to promote safety, security, reliability of service, affordability, equity, and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is now part of our core mission. Upon completion of a rate investigation, the department approves all substantiated and appropriate rates charged by both utility companies to Massachusettes customers."
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