By Ariel Wittenberg
September 14, 2014 12:00 AM
NEW BEDFORD — It was just after midnight on Aug. 1 when Wind Energy Center Director Matthew Morrissey received the text: “You’re all set.”
The short message signaled the defeat of a renewable energy bill in the House of Representatives that had threatened to dash New Bedford’s offshore wind hopes by giving utilities an incentive to sign 30-year long contracts with Canadian hydropower, potentially pushing offshore wind, and New Bedford’s economic future, out of the market.
The text was sent by offshore wind’s new and unlikely ally in the Statehouse: Rep. Patricia Haddad of Somerset.
That’s right; Somerset, of Brayton Point coal-fired power plant fame.
But with the plant set to go offline in 2017, taking more than 30 percent of Somerset’s tax revenue with it, Haddad has done an energy-policy 180, aligning herself with offshore wind interests in the hope that whatever economic development the industry brings to New Bedford will spread to Somerset.
That turnaround is no fluke, the result of concentrated lobbying on the part of New Bedford’s delegation. Haddad is a powerful ally to have, serving as Speaker Pro Tempore, second only to the Speaker in the House hierarchy.
It’s that role that brought her to the rostrum for the final hours of the House’s summer session when allies of the renewable energy bill, which never made it out of committee, were trying to tack it onto other pieces of legislation to sneak it through.
Haddad gaveled the amendments down, blocking the initiative from becoming law.
“We breathed a sigh of relief when we received that final text message from Rep. Haddad on the rostrum telling us ‘You are all set,'” Morrissey said.
ANYTHING TO KEEP THE LIGHTS ON
Haddad’s embrace of New Bedford’s offshore wind dreams may seem counter-intuitive because the district she represents has always been about coal. Until 2011, the Fifth Bristol District was home to not one, but two coal-fired power plants. Even after the smaller Somerset Station closed in 2011, the Brayton Point plant still paid $13 million in taxes annually and employed some 240 people.
“The coal was very important to us,” said former Sen. Joan Menard, D-Somerset, who held Haddad’s position before running for state Senate in 2001. “It provided the tax base of the town; the people that worked in the plants either lived in Somerset, Swansea or Fall River. It was everything we represented.”
Though Haddad considered herself an environmentalist when she ran for office in 2001, she said she soon realized she needed to become more pragmatic. She learned to love coal.
“We needed the coal,” she said. “I know people don’t like coal from an environmental point of view, but from a pragmatic point of view, we needed it.”
Haddad held her position even as public opinion outside her district came to despise the fuel, and Brayton Point, as dirty. The plant often topped a “Dirty Dozen” list of the biggest polluters in New England. In 2007, the EPA instructed Brayton Point to build two cooling towers after it found the plant’s release of hot water into Mount Hope Bay responsible for fish kills there.
At the time, Haddad told the Fall River Herald News that she didn’t think the plant was “solely responsible for the decline in the fish population.”
This month, she told The Standard-Times that although she still thinks other factors contributed to the fish kills, she now sees the cooling towers as necessary to make the plant “a good neighbor.”
“We had to do anything we could to keep the lights on,” she said.
In October 2013, Brayton Point’s owner, Equipower, had other plans. The company decided to close the plant by June 2017 after failing to reach a price agreement with ISO-New England, which runs the region’s power grid.
By 2017, Somerset’s largest tax payer will be gone.
FORMING AN ALLIANCE
It’s not by mistake that Haddad settled on offshore wind as the solution to Somerset’s coal problems. It was the result of a concerted lobbying effort on the part of New Bedford city officials and legislators.
Haddad said when she heard the plant was closing she began frantically searching for options to bring revenue to the town.
Could they turn the plant’s blueprint into a solar farm? Into a wind farm? Could the state research a way to generate energy from the tide of the Taunton River?
“I lay in bed at night and thought about what to do,” Haddad said.
Officials in New Bedford came up with the solution.
Brayton Point is home to a high-capacity transmission connector that offshore wind developers would need to bring the power produced offshore into the electric grid. These cables are not common, and the one located in Somerset is in a convenient spot for wind farms off the coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
New Bedford didn’t approach Haddad about the idea until a renewable energy bill introduced to the House in February was sent to the Ways and Means Committee.
Because offshore wind farms require large investments up front and take eight years to construct, developers often use power purchase agreements with utilities as a way to attract investors and show them that they will see good returns if they are willing to wait.
The bill before the Committee would have required utilities to enter into 20- to 30 year-long contracts with renewable energy generators. Hydro-power generated in dams would, for the first time in state legislation, count as “renewable,” and officials worried that would open the door for projects already underway in Canada to eat up the contracts and push offshore wind developers out of the market.
That jeopardized New Bedford’s vision of spurring economic development by becoming a hub of America’s burgeoning offshore wind industry.
The city needed allies to defeat the bill in the Statehouse, and lobbied Haddad to become one of them.
“She obviously has a very important position in the Statehouse and Somerset certainly stands to benefit from the success of offshore wind because of the cable,” Mayor Jon Mitchell said.
The local delegation sent Rep. Antonio Cabral, D-New Bedford, to approach Haddad.
“We knew if we could get her to be active, not just supportive, it would help us either amend the bill or defeat it, as we did,” Cabral said.
Cabral wasn’t the first to approach Haddad in opposition to the bill; colleges and universities worried about electricity prices also had, along with small electricity generators. But he was the first to bring her a feasible plan to help Somerset’s economy.
“I was at the point where I was feeling like a little kid, jumping up and down, waving my arms screaming for people to pay attention to our financial situation in Somerset, and in they walked with an answer,” Haddad said.
Menard put Haddad in contact with Morrissey at the Wind Energy Center and the two set to work trying to amend the bill to include a carve-out for offshore wind or, if that failed, to kill the bill entirely.
“Through just a few short meetings, it crystallized for her that this was a regional economic opportunity being put at risk,” Morrissey said. “Having her in the leadership of the House made our New Bedford delegation particularly potent.”
Together they lobbied the Ways and Means Committee and the bill never made it out of committee.
Haddad’s newfound affection for offshore wind caught the attention of the National Wildlife Federation.
In mid-July, the organization released a report about which states were doing the best to promote offshore wind. The report highlighted New Bedford’s efforts to be at the forefront of the industry. NWF chose Mitchell and Haddad to speak on the city’s behalf on a conference call about the report.
“For someone like her, who is so known for being a staunch advocate for coal for many years, for her to make such a strong call for offshore wind is very powerful,” said Catherine Bowes, senior manager for climate and energy at NWF
Bowes said she remembered being surprised by “how genuine” Haddad’s comments were on the call.
“I was really inspired,” Bowes said. “Before we went on the call, I knew she was inclined to be supportive for offshore wind and had accepted our invitation, but when she started talking you could tell she was ready to fight for the issue.”
That fight came down to the wire. While the bill itself had stalled in committee, its supporters were determined to attach it to another piece of legislation to sneak it through on the last day of the House’s summer session.
Haddad was on the rostrum holding the gavel that day, and prevented two amendments from going through before the session ended, signaling the bill’s defeat.
“It was shocking to people because she had been so pro-coal for years,” said Shanna Cleveland of the Conservation Law Foundation, which opposed the renewable energy bill and closely followed its progress through the state Legislature.
“Given her personal experience facing down the problems that arise when our energy past confronts our energy future, it was a decisive turning point when she staked out offshore wind as key to Massachusetts’ economic future,” Cleveland said.
Sen. Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, was responsible for setting up opposition to the bill in the Senate, and watched Haddad do the same in the House. He said he had been ready to filibuster the bill if it got to the Senate, but Haddad, acting as goal keeper, didn’t let it get to that.
“It was an interesting lesson in power play,” he said.
LEADING THE EVOLUTION
With that bill defeated, Haddad isn’t giving up. The issues of energy diversification that the bill sought to rectify are not going away.
This time, Haddad and the New Bedford delegation will take the offensive, crafting their own bill with offshore wind interests in mind.
“I want the jobs,” she said. “I want the jobs of SouthCoast to be part of the process.”
In the meantime, she has been keeping a watchful eye on New Bedford legislators — and their political opponents — to make sure they stay on message and do not endanger the process. Two weeks ago, Alan Garcia, a candidate for state representative in the 9th Bristol District, said in an interview on YouTube with The Baystate Exchange that he did not believe the state should support power purchase agreements.
“My concern is I think that if we require these utility companies to purchase this, we will be in a sense monopolizing and taking away the price competitiveness,” he said in the clip, which has 73 views. “I love the fact that they want to do renewable energy but it has to be affordable to the consumer.”
Haddad and Morrissey both saw the video. She suggested Morrissey write a letter to Garcia educating him about offshore wind issues to correct his “disturbing opinions,” and Morrissey agreed.
Garcia initially said he would sit down with Morrissey to discuss the issue, but now, having lost his primary election, said he would not.
“At this point, I’m not sure if I can be of any help to them,” Garcia said. He said his comments stemmed from “some online research” about the industry and that he had not anticipated the reaction he received.
Later, Haddad said the incident showed “how constantly vigilant” the New Bedford delegation had to be about support for offshore wind.
“If a candidate does not educate themselves about an opportunity of this magnitude, I have to step in,” she said. “Negative public proclamations about what we are trying to do undermine our position.”
Haddad said she still hasn’t given up on coal, or “energy diversity,” as she has come to call it since supporting offshore wind. If Equipower came to her tomorrow and said they would keep Brayton Point running beyond its 2017 expiration date, “Of course I’d have to be with them,” she said.
But she said she also realizes that there must be short and long-term solutions to providing SouthCoast jobs and new sources of energy, and she sees offshore wind as a way to help in the long term.
“Real independence from fossil fuels is not right around the corner whether you want to believe it or not,” she said. “But I am very willing to lead the evolution.”
Follow Ariel Wittenberg on Twitter @awittenberg_SCT
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