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Energy deal’s a coup, but just a step

State’s goals on clean energy still largely unfulfilled

By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / February 17, 2012
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The breakthrough deal state officials struck with utilities NStar and Northeast Utilities earlier this week will help push Governor Deval Patrick closer to fulfilling his goals of increasing clean energy use in Massachusetts - but it also highlights just how far the state must go to achieve those ambitious targets.

Under landmark environmental legislation passed in 2008, Massachusetts utilities must get 15 percent of their power from renewable energy supplies by 2020. To help make that happen, Patrick has said he wants 250 megawatts of solar power capacity installed in Massachusetts by 2017 - more than triple the amount currently available- and 2,000 megawatts of wind power capacity by 2020; currently the state has just 44 megawatts.

The governor has also been pushing utilities to increase their energy efficiency through conservation programs with annual goals set by the state.

“We absolutely have a lot of work to do,’’ acknowledged Richard K. Sullivan Jr., Patrick’s secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs. “The governor always sets an ambitious goal.’’

Those efforts are now slated get a boost from NStar, which on Wednesday committed itself to several major environmental initiatives in exchange for the administration’s blessing of its proposed $17.5 billion merger with the Hartford-based Northeast Utilities.

The deal, which will take effect if the merger is formally approved by state regulators, is a coup for the Massachusetts officials, who had insisted the utilities’ partnership should promote cleaner sources of energy.

Under the agreement, NStar promised to buy 129 megawatts of power from the offshore Cape Wind project, as well as to solicit contracts to build 10 megawatts worth of solar power. Together that would be enough power to supply at least 35,400 homes.

Those commitments would meet 4 percent of Patrick’s solar target and 6.5 percent of his wind power goal. In addition, Cape Wind has already sold half its output, or 234 megawatts, to National Grid, which would add nearly 12 percent toward the governor’s wind target.

Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for Cape Wind, said the project’s developer hopes to begin construction of the 468 megawatt offshore wind farm next year. The project, however, still faces several hurdles, including multiple court challenges and a determination from the Federal Aviation Administration about whether the 440-foot turbines would be a hazard to planes.

If Cape Wind does not begin construction by the end of 2015, NStar has committed to purchasing a comparable amount of power from another project.

While environmental advocates said the utilities’ agreement is encouraging, they also acknowledged that there is still a long way to go. Though the state and the utilities have routinely hit conservation targets, they have struggled to get consumers to willingly purchase renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, which cost more than conventional energy.

“We need a lot more of everything [but] I think this is a definite step in the right direction,’’ said Jeremy McDiarmid, Massachusetts director of Environment Northeast, a regional environmental advocacy group.

NStar spokeswoman Caroline Allen said the promises the utility made take its “environmental commitment to the next level.’’

Other pledges made by NStar include: implementing a test program to help build charging stations for electric cars; adopting additional conservation methods that will lower ratepayers’ overall electricity consumption; and educating customers about “the importance of the Commonwealth’s climate change goals.’’

Western Massachusetts Electric Co., a subsidiary of Northeast Utilities, will also work to improve its customers’ energy efficiency.

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.

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