STATE HOUSE, BOSTON — The Blackstone Valley bills itself as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, and New Bedford was once a major producer of the whale oil used in lamps and candles.

Now, business groups in those areas are asking lawmakers to boost the state's commitment to renewable energy, arguing that clean power can be the modern-day economic driver for their regions.

"It's important that the commonwealth look at hydro, that the commonwealth look at wind, and for us as a potential wind center, that's an economic boon for us," SouthCoast Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rick Kidder said. "New Bedford, in the days of whale oil, was the city that lit the world and now it has the opportunity at least to be a piece of the city that lights the wind, so it's something that's very important over time."

Kidder joined representatives from other Massachusetts chambers of commerce and the national organization Chambers for Innovation and Clean Energy to visit the State House this month, where they met with lawmakers to discuss energy policy.

A law signed last August requires Massachusetts utilities to procure 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind and 1,200 megawatts of new hydro, solar and land-based wind by 2027. Three offshore wind developers agreed last September to use the 26-acre New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal as a staging area, a development that could help the state begin to recoup its major investments in customizing that terminal.

Kidder said the law "can be an important step" but the group is looking for lawmakers to show a "continued commitment" to increasing renewables.

"To some degree legislation kind of forces technology and innovation," Kidder said in an interview. "This is one of those circumstances where because there are other states in this game, and perhaps they're in this game a little more heavily than we are at this point, perhaps we can learn from them and take advantage of economies of scale that make it easier for us to hit those numbers."

During the Industrial Revolution, factories along the Blackstone River drew their power from its waters. Now, the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce is housed in a former mill building that relies on geothermal heat, its president and CEO Jeannie Hebert said, and nearby factories are certified as energy efficient.

"It's a growing trend," Hebert told the News Service. "We have towns that are looking to put in some wind farms, and it's very important that in our area, where we pay ... some of the highest rates for for energy in the entire world, that we can become diverse in our energy sources and to work with legislators so they can understand and we as chambers can educate their constituents on the importance of these types of energy resources."

While policymakers have taken steps to increase renewable energy in Massachusetts, natural gas accounts for 46 percent of the state's electric generation capacity and 51 percent of residential heating, according to the Northeast Gas Association.

In a "state of the industry" report released this month, the association said that as the state transitions to a "more renewables-based grid" in the coming decades, gas-fired plants will "remain an essential aspect of Massachusetts' electricity grid, providing reliable and affordable baseload and backup power supplies."

Renewable energy "remains decades away from fully supporting Massachusetts' robust energy requirements," the report said.
Kidder and Hebert said the cost of health care and energy prices top the list of concerns they hear from business owners and they believe greater emphasis on renewable energy could drive down prices over time despite initial expenses.

"We don't want to lose any more of our manufacturing to other states or to have it move," Hebert said. "We need to keep it right here, so we need to get our energy in check and we need to do it now."

Kidder said investing in clean energy will also create new jobs in the industry, particularly in New Bedford, which could see "good, high-paying, on-land jobs as well as those that venture out from New Bedford to the wind farms itself."

--Katie Lannan, State House News Service

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