Should states prioritize energy or environmental interests? Massachusetts asks, “Why not both?”
Can noise pollution from a wind farm make you sick? Can clean energy slow climate change? Energy and environmental concerns have always been difficult to separate, especially we grow more conscious of their effects on one another. Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to recognize their interdependence when the Patrick Administration combined oversight of energy and environment policy in one Cabinet-level secretariat.
The resulting Executive Office for Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) has since led by example, and its lead energy and environmental agencies partnered in 2011 to capitalize on early success. Once opposing forces, the Department of Energy Resources (DOER) and Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) now coordinate their clean energy policies through the Clean Energy Results Program (CERP).
With CERP, the Commonwealth hoped to “streamline agency assistance to clean energy developers, municipal officials, and the public, and create a science-based set of resources to inform project review… statewide.” For example, consider the conversion of capped landfills for photovoltaic solar generation. The process provides clean, renewable energy, but its construction may release methane trapped inside the landfill. Which interests take priority? CERP removes that regulatory and operational confusion by partnering from the start.
Increased coordination has made MassDEP more conscious of the state’s energy activities and focused DOER on sustainability aspects of energy development. In the short-term, MassDEP has leveraged its permitting expertise to better assist community and business leaders explore clean energy options. And in the long-term, DOER hopes to green-light additional clean energy projects on DEP-regulated sites – provided that they are developed responsibly to minimize impact on the surrounding environment.
Key to this coordination is the CERP database, a collaborative effort by DOER and MassDEP to monitor ongoing clean energy programs in Massachusetts from proposal to completion. The database tracks all clean energy development on public land and any private development that involves MassDEP. Projects are tagged by site type, funding source, utilized technology, and other factors of energy or environmental interest.
The end result is a tool that allows state officials to identify and prioritize clean energy development across the Commonwealth. The database makes previously separate tracking data readily accessible in one place. Officials can then target facilities which have not yet received sufficient investment, or highlight those sites which have led the state in clean energy development.
The CERP partnership illustrates a crucial interplay between the two agencies and their respective interests. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Massachusetts’ energy needs have grown substantially over the years and policymakers may consider protected land for future development. And while renewable energy generation is typically cleaner than fossil fuel-fired sources, scientists warn that it is not without environmental impact. Coordinating DOER and MassDEP activities around these realities makes sense, and good sense makes good policy.
Still, public policy does not begin and end with individual departments. CERP allows the responsible agencies to work within a consistent vision on clean energy issues so that environmental requirements are addressed at project inception. This eliminates the potential need to mitigate problems after project completion, ensuring that state funding and other assets are used as efficiently as possible. It also allows the Commonwealth to present a united front to outside entities like the business community or the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Clean Energy Results Program represents the best of state government, harnessing complementary interests across agencies to better serve the public. It has streamlined regulatory practices to expand the dialogue between energy policy and environmental protection, and improved on-the-ground implementation of those interests. The Program’s continued success sends an important message about the power of intergovernmental collaboration and its positive impact across Massachusetts.
A version of this article originally appeared on Energy Smarts, an energy policy blog produced by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER).