Last month, Senate President Therese Murray appointed me Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. This Committee is responsible for reviewing legislative proposals related to the development of renewable and non-renewable energy resources and the oversight of public utilities serving residents of the Commonwealth. As I begin my stewardship of this panel, I wanted to share some of my priorities and how my work as chairman can strengthen the economy of the Berkshires and western Massachusetts.
During my first campaign for State Senate in 2006, I said jobs would be my priority. Key to job growth and business expansion in western Massachusetts is guaranteed access to high speed, high quality and affordable broadband service. The Legislature and the Patrick Administration authorized $40 million in state bond funds for this purpose in 2008; to date the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) has successfully leveraged these funds to secure an additional $45.4 million in federal funding. Over the next two years the MBI will deploy these monies to connect the unconnected, in part, by installing state-of-the-art fiber network across western Massachusetts. As chairman, I will work closely with the MBI, utilities and other potential “last mile” internet providers to ensure this work is done efficiently. As chair, I will serve as the watchdog in this effort, because every day a Massachusetts resident remains unconnected is one day too long, and another economic opportunity missed.
While access to the information superhighway is vital, it is not enough to create a positive environment for job growth in our region. We must also continue the work of transitioning to a more efficient, clean energy economy. The Committee will focus on analyzing the implementation and progress of recently enacted energy policies, but let me be clear: this is not an exercise in changing course. Rather, we will examine the groundbreaking steps taken in Massachusetts since 2008 - evident locally in the vast array of solar projects in Pittsfield, infrastructure improvements in Becket, and residential solar programs in Lenox. As chairman, I will work with Committee members and Administration officials to determine which energy policies need improvement or are not performing as expected, which policies are successful, and identify ideas working elsewhere that merit replication here in Massachusetts. I believe this analysis ought to include reconsideration of how we treat hydroelectric power, to ensure we consider the full range of available renewable energy resources to meet the Commonwealth’s energy needs.
Finally, as chairman, my voice will be loud and clear on the proposed merger between Northeast Utilities (Western Mass. Electric Company’s parent company) and the Boston-based NStar. This merger could help improve the region’s economic environment, but we must be cautious as its implications are reviewed by the state Department of Public Utilities (DPU). I will encourage the DPU to consider merging the two existing service territories to lessen the impact of key investments in energy transmission and renewable energy development, while realizing economies of scale. I am wary of layoffs that may result from the merger which could impact the utility’s ability to respond to extreme weather events, such as the ice storm of December 2008. As this process moves forward, I will advocate that DPU should consider the warning issued by the Department of Energy Resources: this merger should not simply be measured on whether it “does no harm” to ratepayers, but also, how it furthers Massachusetts’ clean energy and energy efficiency goals.
These priorities - and many other issues before the Committee - will directly impact the ability of our region to add jobs, and for businesses of every size to grow and flourish economically. Please know as chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, I will do all in my power to ensure the results of these policy deliberations will bear positive results for those living and working in my district, as well as for the western Massachusetts region and the Commonwealth as a whole.
State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield) represents the 48 western Massachusetts communities of the Berkshire, Hampshire and Franklin District. He serves as the Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. This is his third term in the Massachusetts Senate.