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Q&A with Gov. Patrick on Massachusetts energy policy

<p>Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick shares his insights about the Commonwealth&#39;s energy policy and transition to renewable sources.</p>

Last week, the two-day VERGE conference in Boston kicked off with opening remarks from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

Gov. Patrick was an appropriate luminary to inaugurate an event that focuses on the convergence of energy, information, building and transportation technologies, because Massachusetts has been so dynamic in transforming its energy economy in recent years.

In his remarks, Gov. Patrick highlighted the Commonwealth's growth strategy around clean energy and clean tech, which has focused on three pillars: education, innovation and infrastructure. He noted that Massachusetts is at the end of an expensive energy pipeline, subject to the whim of global markets. In addition to environmental costs, Massachusetts spends billions on its annual energy tab, with 80 percent of energy spending outside of the Commonwealth.

One specific administration goal has been to address that vulnerability, while simultaneously creating new technologies and businesses that ultimately would have Massachusetts viewing the rest of the world "as our customers." The Commonwealth has had some success in this area. It's now No. 1 in energy efficiency spending, having surpassed California for the second year in a row. It also has reached the Patrick Administration's stated goal of reaching 250 megawatts of solar by 2017, and done it four years ahead of time. As a consequence, it has now re-set the bar at 1,600 megawatts by 2020.

Massachusetts is also building a port for offshore wind projects in New Bedford, boasts the world's largest wind blade testing facility in Charlestown, and aims to be a regional powerhouse in offshore wind energy development. Patrick also noted that solar deployment is up by 71 times since 2007 and wind installations have increased more than thirty-fold, and 72,000 people are currently employed in the clean tech industry.

Gov. Patrick had a brief moment after his introductory comments and before running off to his next appointment, and was kind enough to to share with me his insights about Massachusetts energy policy and his time in office.

Kelly-Detwiler: You noted that 80 percent of the money spent on energy in Massachusetts goes to out-of-state companies. What can the Commonwealth be doing to promote even more economic benefit from its energy policy?

Patrick: I used to be in the oil business, and understand upstream and downstream components of that business and how fast it's evolving. More and more folks in traditional fossil fuels business are coming to understand that they also have to master an understanding of the clean tech sector. If we do that here, then the job creation opportunities are limitless. So much of this depends on technology solutions, which we can help create.

Photo by Goodwin Ogbuehi for GreenBiz Group

Kelly-Detwiler: How do we engage more of our less economically well-off citizens in this energy transformation?

Patrick: The labor unions have been particularly focused in training people to undertake energy efficiency retrofits, and they have been intentional in reaching out to chronically underemployed communities. One thing I have noticed about employment -- people tell other people they know about job opportunities. So if some people in that strata make it, others can follow. I think we are on our way to democratizing this new industry.

Let's take an example, a company not far from here called Next Step Living. They do audits and retrofits and they have grown from 5-6 employees to 400 or 500 in the last few years

Kelly-Detwiler: How can Massachusetts promote more involvement of small-scale capital and smaller resources -- rather than just multi-million-dollar wind farms -- in the renewable energy transformation?

Patrick: Candidly, I don't know the answer to that. What has happened in solar may happen with wind -- with reduced installation costs over time. Small scale wind -- kilowatts instead of megawatts -- is still pretty expensive, and its acceptance has been slower than solar. There are also issues with local acceptance. But there's a good chance that somebody is eventually going to figure out how to have a small turbine on the roof which may change everything and further democratize the industry.

Kelly-Detwiler: Looking ahead to, say, 2025, when you've been out of office for over a decade, what would you like to see in terms of energy accomplishments that have taken root?

Patrick: Taking root is the operative term. When you have a job like mine, you sometimes wonder what will last. My hope is that the interest in, and the instinct to explore, sustainable alternative energy continues. I don't think we know today what the solutions are going to be in 10 or 20 years, but there are a lot of people thinking about and working on solutions. If we keep this momentum going, a lot of good can come from it. I don't want this to be a fad, but a habit of thinking and being.

Kelly-Detwiler: Looking back on the past years of your administration, what have been the biggest energy surprises -- either positive or negative?

Patrick: My biggest surprise? This will sound naïve, but perhaps reflects my lack of expert understanding of the industry. I'm pleasantly surprised by the impact that solar has had in this cloudy and cool New England environment. We have 351 cities and towns in the Commonwealth, and all but eight have some kind of solar installation today. That wasn't true when I came to office.

The other surprise? It has been a bit frustrating how much of a tug of war it has been with the utilities to get them to play in this space. You'd think it would be in their interests too and I think the more enlightened leaders get that, but it has been somewhat of a challenge.

Kelly-Detwiler: Do you have any parting thoughts?

Patrick: Let's just keep it going. We get fossil fuel from some of the most volatile places in the world. To be independent of that is huge. It has political and economic implications well beyond the oil and gas industry. The excitement today about shale gas and domestic supplies is really great, but it's only half the equation because we still have the environmental issues. I'm hopeful about the generation after mine who really do seem to be taking climate change seriously. I just hope it's not too late. I have a lot of faith in the imagination of this next generation, so I don't think it will be.

This article first appeared at Forbes and is reprinted with permission.

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