Activists and businesses are making the case to make solar, offshore wind, and electric transportation a priority.
Activists and businesses in Massachusetts say clean energy could be a powerful engine for job creation and economic growth as the country grapples with an economic slump brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“On the back end of COVID-19, there are going to be a lot of people who need to be re-employed,” said Elizabeth Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. “What better way to do that than in ways that drive decarbonization and make us greener and more healthy?”
With more than 41,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, Massachusetts has been among the states hardest hit by the pandemic. Gov. Charlie Baker has attempted to stem the spread of the virus by ordering the closure of all non-essential businesses and issuing strong guidance encouraging people to stay in their homes except for necessary activities.
As in the rest of the country, however, these measures have hit many businesses hard, leading to slumping sales, layoffs, and rising unemployment. The state’s higher education and medical sectors are both set up for major losses as schools have closed and hospitals have ceased most appointments and surgeries not related to the virus. Over the next 15 months, the state could see a budget shortfall of as much as $3 billion, according to a recent report from Tufts University’s Center for State Policy Analysis.
As leaders begin to plan for post-recession recovery, supporters say investments in solar, offshore wind, and electric transportation would offer two major benefits: the jobs that would be created as well as improved public health through the reduction of pollution and mitigation of climate change.
“Those are the types of projects that we should really be investing in — ones that use the economic activity we need to generate to solve the next crisis,” said Craig Altemose, executive director of the Better Future Project, a climate action advocacy group based in Cambridge.
Transportation is a sector policymakers need to be focusing on, advocates said.
The most recent stimulus bill included $25 billion in aid to transit agencies, many of which have seen revenue plummet as ridership has dried up. Future legislation is expected to include money for transportation projects as well.
In Massachusetts, transit agencies could use some of the funding they receive to accelerate existing plans to electrify bus services and expand commuter rail lines, supporters suggested. Money could also be dedicated to building more electric vehicle charging infrastructure and modernizing the grid to prepare for growing electrification.
“That groundwork-laying can and should be going on now,” Altemose said. “There is a lot of federal stimulus money coming down the pipe — we need to be identifying those shovel-ready projects.”
Solar energy is another area primed for growth. The sector has been somewhat shaky in recent years, largely because of uncertainty about state policy. However, the state energy department last week released its updated incentive program, doubling the size of the program, which many in the industry saw as a positive sign.
More, however, must be done if the potential economic and environmental benefits are to be realized, said some. Though the new rules carve out 5% of the program’s spending to encourage projects in low-income and under-served areas, that number should be significantly higher, said Stephan Roundtree, Northeast director for advocacy group Vote Solar. Furthermore, the updates do little to lower some of the barriers to adoption in these neighborhoods, advocates said.
Also, to further enhance the impact the solar industry can have on the recovery, the state should consider allowing solar construction to be among the first categories of work to resume as the pandemic subsides, a move that would create jobs and generate cost savings for consumers, said Ben Underwood, co-founder of Resonant Solar, a solar provider that works largely with low-income and nonprofit clients.
“At a time when lots of families and businesses might not have enough money to make ends meet, any service you can allow that lowers costs for people is a good thing,” he said.
Offshore wind is another vital clean energy sector in Massachusetts. The industry is set to take off in the state — and along the eastern seaboard — as soon as federal approvals for the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project and other pending developments come through, said Liz Burdock, chief executive of the Business Network for Offshore Wind, a nonprofit focused on promoting the offshore wind sector.
Most vital to the growth of offshore wind, Burdock said, is for the federal government to speed its approval process. Her organization is encouraging federal lawmakers to increase funding to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management so the agency will be able to deal with incoming applications as speedily as possible.
“If Congress is looking to do something to stimulate the economy, it could give the administration resources to allow [the bureau] to hire more staff to move projects through the process,” Burdock said.
How many — if any — of these approaches will be adopted remains an open question. But some are hoping that this unprecedented crisis is priming people — and the policymakers who represent them — to think in new ways about how society and the economy work.
“This crisis is helping us to question old notions of doing things just because this is the way it has always been,” Altemose said.
And advocates all agreed that, for clean energy policies and spending to make a difference, leaders and policymakers need to embrace a bold vision, rather than merely extending pre-existing strategies.
“If we raise our ambitions,” Henry said, “we raise our job prospects.”