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IN THE NEWS: Downing Discusses Upcoming Bills With Environmental Advocates
February 08, 2011

By Andy McKeever
iBerkshires Staff
10:29AM / Tuesday, February 08, 2011

PITTSFIELD, Mass — State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, met with local and state environmental advocates Monday to discuss upcoming state legislation.

The senator got a head start on his new role as chairman for the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Joint Committee with about 30 representatives of local advocacy groups, who crammed into Downing's North Street office to hear what is to come of the environment in the next legislative session.

"For me this is about listening and updating people about what is going on," Downing said after the meeting. "I think it will help me be a better committee chair."

The meeting is one of many the nonprofit lobbying group
Environment Massachusetts is setting up across the state with legislators. The group advocates for environmental programs; among its priorities this year are a bill that will increase incentives businesses and individuals receive to produce solar power and a bill that would require all new building construction to be "net-zero" by 2030.

"Net-zero means that a building will produce more energy than it consumes. It kind of sounds futuristic," Environment Massachusetts Director Ben Wright said. "But if the U.S. House of Representatives can pass it, I don't see how we could not."

Downing said the net-zero building legislation will not likely come before his committee, but the solar energy one will. Downing agreed that net-metering for solar power is something the state Senate should analyze to make solar more affordable.

"There are a lot of people who want to do solar either at their home or their business but are concerned about the cost," he said.

The senator said he will look at all aspects of the bill before voting, and that includes judging its cost-effectiveness and how aggressive the state should be. If renewable energy is pushed too aggressively it will cause a massive shift away from the power companies, which will raise rates for those who cannot afford to make the switch, he said. The Senate should encourage a smooth transition to renewable energy, he said.

Downing also addressed other issues coming before the committee in the next sesson that will affect the county.

For instance, the committee will be keeping a close eye on the merger between Western Massachusetts Electric Co. and NStar, Gov. Deval Patrick's bill to streamline permits for wind turbines, and another bill that would extend the Department of Conservation and Recreation's authority, Downing said.

The state will need to regulate where wind turbines can go to find a balance between renewable energy and devastating sight lines, he said. Downing said he will be supporting efforts to allow regional input on proposed wind farms but still wants to expedite permitting on private land.

"When projects get held up for too long the only ones who benefit are the lawyers arguing each side," Downing said. "We know there are some good projects and there are some bad projects but I still think we can have state standards and set up a process to say yes or no quicker."

Downing also was questioned about other forms of renewable energy beyond the well-known wind and solar projects, such as hydroelectric dams that could have even greater potential.

"There are some forms of renewable energy that are further along than others," Downing said. "We can't just sit and wait until it is perfect. We need to act now and be prudent knowing better things can come along."

He also will be looking at a bill to expand bottle deposits to water, flavored waters, coffee-based drinks, juices and sports drinks. Attempts to expand bottle deposits beyond carbonated beverages have failed in past years.

However, despite the need for additional state funding for environmental projects – the state ranks near the bottom in the country in spending on the environment – the state's spending on health care needs to be fixed first, Downing said.

"If you care about anything funded by the state you care about health care," Downing said. "Health-care costs in Massachusetts have skyrocketed in a way they haven't in any other state."

About $10 billion of the state's $30 billion budget goes to health care, he said.

Afterward, Wright said the meeting was one of the best Downing has run and noted the county has a lot of advocates taking lead rolls in environmental groups.

"There was a real quality and depth here that we haven't had in other meetings," he said. "This was an impressive turnout."


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