North Shore businesses, large and small, believe that the time has come for a balanced approach to energy — and after this past winter the moment is right for action to lower energy costs and address climate change.
Whether running a small business, a major industrial operation or simply budgeting for home energy bills, we all share a reliance on affordable energy. But more and more, rising energy costs have become a major deterrent to economic development and job growth. To remain competitive with other regions, we must ensure we don’t burden local businesses with outrageously high energy costs which put us at a significant disadvantage.
Two years ago, we surveyed our members on economic issues important to them and high on the list was the rising cost of energy. It wasn’t surprising — after all, our region already was paying the highest energy costs in the continental U.S., adding around $1 billion per year to energy bills for families and businesses.
More surprising is that two years later, we still haven’t addressed this issue. Indeed, while there are a number of admirable and well-intentioned measures being considered, costs continue to rise. To make matters worse, we’re also facing serious environmental and power grid reliability challenges.
In December and January, our region burned 2 million barrels of oil over two weeks to generate electricity — significantly increasing our carbon emissions. Why was this necessary? Because we didn’t have access to enough cleaner-burning natural gas to meet the demand for both heating and power generation. As a result, we were depending on oil and coal for as much as 40 percent of our fuel mix – emitting enough carbon to wipe out 75 percent of the benefits we get from solar power every year. Even with all that extra coal and oil burn, according to the nonprofit operator of our power grid, New England was as little as 36 hours from having to ration electricity. That’s right – we came dangerously close to rolling blackouts in the 21st century in New England.
To be sure, we must continue to foster renewables such as wind and solar to transition to a lower-carbon future and address climate change. But we also need to acknowledge that this transition will take time. Right now, when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, wind turbines and solar panels contribute little-to-no energy to our grid. In time, storage technology will likely be available on a larger scale and more affordable to help close that gap – but for the foreseeable future, we will need reliable, clean alternatives like natural gas to serve as a backstop so our lights stay on at home and our manufacturers can keep their assembly lines moving. Otherwise, no matter how much renewable infrastructure we build, we will continue to pay a premium to use oil and coal when the temperatures drop — and be faced with the threat of rolling blackouts.
Securing the North Shore’s energy future requires a responsible approach to meeting our energy needs today as we transition to renewables in the decades ahead. An energy policy that recognizes the conditions, constraints and opportunities in New England will ensure a better future for businesses and residents in our region.
Rob Bradford is president of the North Shore Chamber of Commerce.