Ben Downing: Never Say Never

Jun 13, 2019

The Baker administration recently announced a plan to double Massachusetts’ procurement of offshore wind. Given the mounting data about the severity climate crisis, the announcement is good news. Tapping into the potential of offshore wind is key to solving climate, especially in the Northeast. Just as important is the lesson about the scale of action needed.

For too long, the offshore wind opportunity in Massachusetts was stuck in a debate framed by the terms of a single project and site. Without public sector commitment and leadership on the scale necessary to show more than a one-off opportunity, companies and investors watched from the sidelines. Policymakers were stuck either being concerned about making a large commitment that failed, setting back a nascent industry for years, or the cost of action, while dismissing or ignoring benefits.

Thankfully, the Obama administration took the necessary steps to ultimately break the logjam. By working through various federal agencies to map ideal offshore wind zones, the federal government removed enough of the siting hurdles and uncertainty to interest developers and make investors more comfortable. With reason to believe a market could form, they then began engaging local stakeholders. Working with elected officials at all levels of government, the industry began to make a case to the legislature for a commitment to offshore wind beyond what any state or region had done thus far.

When this effort began, the newly elected Governor had long been an opponent of offshore wind and had been skeptical of most renewable energy mandates. At the same time, the legislature was fresh off of a session in which it failed to pass a large scale renewable procurement aimed at meeting the states climate goals.

As a Boston sports fan, I have learned to never say never. So if you had asked me what the odds were of the legislature passing and Governor Baker signing a massive offshore wind procurement, I’d have said there was a very slim chance. And that would have been coming from a supporter, an optimist, and someone who was intimately involved in the process. If you then laid out the cascading effects of the initial Massachusetts procurement - shockingly low winning bids, a series of similar commitments up and down the eastern seaboard, ultimately coming back to Massachusetts where that newly inked goal would be doubled - I might have told you, as Kevin Garnett famously said, anything is possible. And yet, that is where we are.

Anything is possible when we go big on climate. Anything is possible when advocates, activists, elected officials and other stakeholders come together for a common goal. Governor's minds can be changed, hurdles can be overcome. Anything is possible. But to make it so, we need a response to the climate reality that recognizes the severity of challenge we face. Going big on offshore wind is necessary, but it isn't sufficient. If we are going to change direction on climate, similar commitment must be made on all fronts - all renewables, efficiency, conservation, transportation, land use and more. The reality is daunting, but I am hopeful because Massachusetts experience has shown - anything is possible.

Ben Downing represented the westernmost district in the Massachusetts Senate from 2006 to 2016. He is currently a vice president at Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based solar energy company, and an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University.

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