Massachusetts lawmakers began 2021 by passing legislation limiting the state’s emissions in coming decades, codifying a broad, long-range target that Republican Governor Charlie Baker’s administration set out in a separate roadmap published in December.

Under the law, which still awaits the governor’s signature, Massachusetts must reduce emissions 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and 75 percent 1990 levels by 2040. The state will achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and carbon offsets may play a role.

In addition to establishing emissions requirements, the legislation ups the state’s renewable portfolio standard to 40 percent by 2030, increases its offshore wind targets from 3.2 gigawatts to 5.6 gigawatts and defines “environmental justice populations” in an attempt to include equity in policymaking.

“That one-two combination of a strong net-zero emissions standard and environmental justice protections demonstrate a commitment to making sure we’re listening to the science and that everyone benefits from the clean energy transition,” said Jeremy McDiarmid, vice president of policy and government affairs at the Northeast Clean Energy Council.

The bill also requires the state to set emissions targets for a swath of industrial sectors including electricity generation, transportation —passenger cars were the largest source of Massachusetts emissions in 2017, according to a state report — and heating and cooling for both residential and commercial buildings.

The legislation is more ambitious than the roadmap published by the Baker administration just before the New Year. That plan called for 45 percent emissions reductions by 2030. Governor Baker did not comment on whether he plans to sign the bill.

The bill leaves out any concrete commitment to significantly scaling renewables outside of the wind sector. Unlike some other states that have passed headline-grabbing legislation to reach 100 percent clean energy, Massachusetts policymakers have pursued clean energy and climate rules via separate bills approved over recent years. In 2018, the state passed its Act to Advance Clean Energy, which directed significant offshore wind procurements and established a first-in-the-nation clean peak standard that offers clean energy credits during times of high electricity demand.

Big boost for offshore wind, but solar seeks more certainty

Offshore wind got another boost this week, as lawmakers chose to upsize the capacity the state will rely on to meet emissions goals.

“The biggest winner in the bill as far as clean energy is wind,” said Stephan Roundtree Jr., northeast director at advocacy group Vote Solar. “[The bill] really is focused on offshore wind as the near-term driver of decarbonization.”

Even with a relatively modest renewable portfolio standard, Massachusetts has been able to grow a sizable renewables industry. Its Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program has elevated the state’s distributed solar market to among the largest in the U.S. while two offshore wind projects, Vineyard Wind and Mayflower Wind, have established Massachusetts as a geographic anchor for the U.S.’s burgeoning market. Offshore wind is forecast to bring $57 billion in investment to the East Coast over the next ten years, according to the American Clean Power Association, an energy industry trade group.

As for solar power, the new legislation does encourage the SMART program to be more inclusive to low- and moderate-income customers and clarifies some tax provisions around distributed solar installations, which garnered support from the solar industry. 

But advocates said Massachusetts still must work to guarantee it meets the bill’s wide-reaching goals. That’s a significant challenge as state governments continue to be focus on coping with a public health emergency amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“At some point we’re going to need a more comprehensive effort to help ensure all these clean energy technologies are working in sync to achieve that big goal,” said Dave Gahl, the Solar Energy Industries Association’s head of Northeast state affairs. “I would look at this as a sort of down payment on a broader energy transition that’s going to have to take place to reach these goals.”

Though Vote Solar broadly supports the bill’s mandates, Roundtree said the lack of solid targets for solar is “arguably inadequate” given the fact that the resource is expected to play a significant role in overall renewables growth nationwide in coming years. NECEC and SEIA are also concerned about provisions in the bill that open the door to utility ownership of generation, which may put a squeeze on renewables developers working in Massachusetts, depending on the law’s implementation.

Passed just weeks before president-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, Massachusetts’ new targets could become moot. Biden campaigned on a plan to push the U.S. towards the 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. That target is largely reliant on congressional action, however, with a Tuesday runoff in Georgia deciding control of the Senate and the feasibility of federal legislative action on climate change.