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Renewable energy fans flex lobbying muscles in Massachusetts

Posted October 4

FILE - In this May 8, 2009, file photo, Len Bicknell walks from his house to his garage where his solar energy panels are mounted on the roof in Marshfield, Mass. Renewable energy interests are flexing their newfound power not just with solar panels and wind turbines but in the corridors of the Massachusetts Statehouse. An Associated Press review of state lobbying records found that more than $4 million came from pro-renewable/anti-fossil fuel groups trying to get the ear of state lawmakers in 2016. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, File)

— Renewable energy advocates are increasingly spending more on lobbying to capture the ears of Massachusetts lawmakers.

An Associated Press review of state lobbying records found that in 2016, energy interests reported spending a combined $6.7 million lobbying Beacon Hill. Six out of every 10 of those dollars — or about $4.1 million — came from groups pushing renewable energy initiatives or fighting against fossil fuel-related projects, like the construction of natural gas pipelines.

In 2015, combined energy lobbying topped $4.6 million, with about 40 percent coming from backers of renewable energy.

The single biggest spender on energy lobbying in 2016 was a group opposed to the creation of a natural gas pipeline. Other groups included solar energy companies, promoters of offshore wind projects, groups warning about the effects of global climate change and firms working to bring hydropower from Canada.

It's even more of a dramatic shift from 2005, when just two dozen companies reported spending a total of about $1.2 million on lobbying. Few of those companies were primarily involved in renewable power.

The spike is tied in part to ongoing debates on Beacon Hill about how fast the state should increase its reliance on renewable energy — wind, solar, hydropower — as a share of its overall energy portfolio. The aim is to reduce the use of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas-emitting power plants, which are major contributors to climate change.

It may also be a sign of a tipping point, with renewable energy advocates increasingly able to make their voices heard alongside the fossil fuel industry in the political arena.

Just this week, more than 80 renewable energy supporters delivered a letter to lawmakers asking to eliminate a cap on the state's net metering program. The program lets homeowners, solar developers and local governments sell excess power they generate back to the electricity grid for credit.

Ben Hellerstein, of the advocacy group Environment Massachusetts, said it's no surprise renewable energy supporters are increasing their lobbying.

"The growth of clean energy is accelerating and goals that once seemed ambitious are now within reach," he said, pointing a target set by Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick of 1,600 megawatts of solar energy by 2020 — a target the state has already surpassed.

The next, far more ambitious goal, is a statewide commitment to 100 percent renewable energy, he said.

The lobbying wasn't all on the renewable energy side.

The American Petroleum Institute spent nearly $290,000 on lobbying in Massachusetts last year. Steve Dodge, executive director of the affiliated Massachusetts Petroleum Council, said the money went to promote everything from natural gas and pipeline items to fighting what he called anti-consumer legislation that would increase costs for motorists, businesses and heating oil customers.

"The Massachusetts Petroleum Council also actively supports bills and regulations that would secure funding for environmental cleanup programs that have been substantially cut by the governor and legislature," he added.

There are other signs of an ongoing, long-term shift in Massachusetts' energy future.

Earlier this year, New England's largest coal-fired power plants — the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset — powered down for the last time.

In August, the state received nearly four dozen bids for a contract to add more renewable power — enough to power about 200,000 homes — and then issued a second request for proposals for off-shore wind projects. Combined, the two plans are expected to generate about 2,800 megawatts of power.

Also in August Republican Gov. Charlie Baker released new rules aimed at bringing Massachusetts into compliance with a state law calling for a 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade.

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