The SolBid team recently sat down with Massachusetts State Senator Eric Lesser to discuss his take on the future of renewable energy (at both local and national levels), green jobs, and policy changes he hopes to see.
Lesser is well-known for his work in the Obama Administration and for being a leading voice in promoting East-West Rail in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Eric P. Lesser was elected to the Massachusetts Senate on November 4, 2014. He represents nine communities in the First Hampden & Hampshire District, proudly serving Western Massachusetts in his fourth term in the State Senate.
Lesser's legislative agenda focuses on the fight for greater economic opportunity and quality of life for Western Massachusetts, with initiatives around passenger rail, education, job training, innovation, and most recently, economic recovery and reinvestment in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prior to becoming a state Senator, Lesser worked in the Obama White House, first as Special Assistant to Senior Adviser David Axelrod, and later as Director of Strategic Planning for the White House Council of Economic Advisers. Lesser began as a young aide on President Obama’s historic 2008 presidential campaign, traveling to 47 states and six countries with then-Senator Obama and his senior team.
This pandemic has cost so many Americans their jobs and livelihoods. An immediate priority is getting people back to work. What potential do you see in the renewable energy sector contributing to job growth?
"COVID has obviously transformed everything about our lives. One area that I think is really underappreciated is actually the impact that it is going to have on energy policy. I think you’ve seen just by comparing the stock prices of clean energy companies like Tesla to oil companies, and you can see what the market is saying about where they think the future of energy policy is; not only in the U.S. but globally. I think that one of the things that we have come to appreciate from COVID-19 is just the role that comorbidities and underlying inequalities and environmental justice have played in the spread of the pandemic.
I'm coming to you from Western Massachusetts. The Greater Springfield Area has been rated the worst place to live in the entire country for asthma and part of the reason for that is of course our industrial legacy and also the fact that we have a six-lane highway going through a valley and a lot of air pollution that comes as a result of that.
Of course we also have a legacy of several coal-fired power plants in the area. I think that one of the things that we are appreciating coming out of COVID-19 is that we have to keep environmental justice at the front of mind. We have to keep health at the front of mind; especially respiratory ailments like asthma which are tied to pollution.
The sectors of our economy that are growing the most, and that are adding the most jobs right now, are in the clean tech space and its the building of those solar panels, the installing of those solar panels; it puts a lot of different people to work. I think that both in the immediate response to COVID in terms of getting our air cleaner, reducing those comorbidities, but also as we look into the future and into infrastructure investment and recovery, clean energy, and solar in particular, are going to be at the absolute top of the list."
You are familiar with President Biden from your years in the Obama administration. What immediate environmental initiatives can we expect from this new administration, what kind of longer, green impacts can we hope for?
"I think it is going to be very exciting and there is going to be a lot of potential. One of the most immediate changes that you are going to have is in the regulatory space. You are going to have an EPA Administrator that actually prioritizes protecting the environment and promoting clean energy development. Jennifer Granholm, who is going to be the new Secretary of Energy, she was the Governor of Michigan when I worked at the White House and I remember us working very closely with her and her team on the Recovery Act because she did a lot of the work back in 2009-2010 to help make Michigan a center for battery development.
Across the board you are going to see a group of people in charge in these key positions that know how important this is. Our own Gina McCarthy from Massachusetts, who was one of the key architects of the Obama clean energy policy, is going to be the Environmental and Clean Energy Czar at the White House moving forward.
I also think what you are going to see is energy and environmental policy really being part of every facet of government decision making and government policy. In the past sometimes we have unfortunately siloed energy; that’s something for the EPA to worry about or that is something for the Department of the Interior to worry about. I think what you are going to see is a sea-change in the Biden Administration where every government decision and policy is going to incorporate environmental justice and clean energy goals.
Just as an example: infrastructure. We know Joe Biden is ‘Amtrak Joe’. I am personally very excited to have him there because he is a big train buff, which has been a big priority for me. Historically infrastructure has been viewed as more of a jobs or economic growth point of view, and it is and of course, but it’s also a climate issue because investing in rail, investing in mass transit, investing in smart growth around transit helps reduce car dependency.
Another big priority will be trade policy; making the U.S. an exporter not only of oil, as we are now, but we should be exporting solar panels and technical knowhow about clean energy infrastructure. That I think is going to be the biggest change: the breadth of Federal decision making on so many levels is going to include the environment as a key determinant every step of the way."
As you know, Massachusetts has struggled with keeping available capacity within it’s Net Metering program. It has greatly affected Massachusetts businesses and their capability of going solar. What do you foresee for Net Metering in the future of Massachusetts?
"This has been a source of both policy frustration and some personal frustration for me because I have had multiple constituent businesses in my nine communities that I represent who have done the work. They invested in solar, they spent the money to install the solar panels; literally all they need to do is turn the switch to get it connected to the grid. They were promised that if they made these investments, put these panels on their roofs, that the policy would be there to allow them to get connected into the grid.
There is a very big fight going on right now because the utilities are doing everything they possibly can to block those connections, and of course, to block that net metering standard.
I think that one of the key tensions in how we do solar policy right now in Massachusetts is we rely too much on the utilities. They have a disincentive, let’s be honest, because they lose customers when people get their power independently from the sun rather than centrally from their power plant. We have to do a better job of delinking that and doing everything we can to promote more solar development.
I’d also say that policy innovation, and engineering and technical innovation, is very important; the continued growth of very high-performance batteries and the improved efficiency of the panels themselves. All of those things are really important innovations that are helping with the penetration of solar into more and more markets so we need the policy to catch up to that. We need the policy to properly incentivise that.“
Bill S.2995, "An Act creating a next-generation roadmap for Massachusetts climate policy" For those who are not aware, can you bullet point some of the primary benefits contained in this bill?
"The heart of the bill is a net zero commitment by 2050 which would enshrine in Massachusetts Law that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would have net zero emissions by 2050. We put a set of benchmarks leading up to that 2050 goal in five year increments that become progressively more aggressive as you get closer to that 2050 goal. The idea here is not only to set the very top level, broad goal far into the future, but to set aggressive iterative benchmarks along the way so that we can measure progress.
One of the exciting things about clean energy is that it’s a way to leverage talent. It is a way to also create our energy and keep more wealth locally because it is going to be using our sun and our wind and we’re going to be generating the energy locally, using that energy locally, and we will be using local people to do the innovation that we need to get there."
What do you see as the most prominent environmental threat facing the Commonwealth and the nation as a whole? What realistic avenues do you see being utilized to combat it?
"First I think obviously the biggest threat, the existential threat that we face, is from human-caused climate change based off of greenhouse gas pollutants and the real weather results and the atmospheric impacts of that. I would point out that the tendency is often for us to be very doom and gloom about environmental policy. Certainly explaining the stakes to people is very important but something that I have personally tried to do a lot in this space is to also talk about the opportunity.
We know we have to do something about greenhouse gas emissions. We know that we have to do a lot to reverse the effects of climate change. Yes, there are a lot of reasons to be scared about that, and to be doom and gloom, but I also think the solutions that we are going to collectively marshal are going to create opportunity for people, are going to make life better for people, and are going to improve peoples’ health and are going to create a lot of jobs.
Here are just a few examples: If we took more cars off of the road, if we moved more towards electric vehicles, if we moved more towards incentivising rail as an alternative to cars, not only is that going to be easier for people; it is also going to improve health outcomes. I mentioned asthma in Western Massachusetts being a particularly bad issue. If you no longer have emissions from automobiles at the same levels that you do right now, you’re going to have healthier outcomes. You’re going to have less people with asthma; that is going to save money for our healthcare system.
"I think we’ve got to marshal a kind of sense of common purpose around environmental policy and say, 'Yes, it is scary, and if we don’t do anything we are going to be in really bad shape, but you know what? Solving it isn’t scary. Solving it is actually going to be a path to a much better set of outcomes for all of us.' My friendly advice to the environmental community, and I work on this too, let’s change the conversation to be one of proactivity and positivity about what the options are rather than this is really scary, we need to do something."
You have always had a focus on millennial issues. How do you see that generation influencing how we think about climate change and renewable energy?
"I think for millennials there are a couple of things. First, I think that we are going to be living with the impacts of climate change for a lot longer. I also think that frankly a lot of the ways that the baby boomers lived in sprawling suburbs, with long commutes, is just not the way our generation wants to live. Granted, COVID-19 has maybe changed this, we don’t fully know this yet, but the trend was certainly towards denser living, being closer to work, being closer to entertainment, and in general just living a more sustainable lifestyle.
I just think that for millennials, culturally we are there in terms of a more environmentally conscious mindset. I think we are going to live with the stakes for much longer. Now we’re having kids ourselves as a generation so that also makes you think a little bit about generational obligations. Honestly, the previous generation left us a world that is in pretty rough shape, by any objective standards. I think what that exists in our generation is a sense of common responsibility.
The other thing that I would point out, which is interesting, is millennial-elected officials tend to be less partisan and less interested in the hand to hand combat of our baby boomer counterparts. I think that our generation just approaches these issues from more of a prospective of common purpose."
Do you think as a nation we could ever be 100% reliant on clean and renewable energy sources like solar, wind, etc. What do you think it will take to get there?
"I think so. I mean 100%? There are very few things in life that are 100% but can we meet the climate goals and we can see dramatically more solar power, dramatically more wind, dramatically more geothermal? Can we see a future in which oil and gas and fossil fuels are actually a relatively small portion of energy generation? Absolutely. I think we are already moving in that direction. Again, don’t take my word for it; look at Wall Street. Clearly Wall Street has turned a corner and now feels that the investment and the place the be is on the clean energy side.
I think Exxon Mobil stock has fallen more than any major company in modern history in the last few years. I think it is interesting to point out that they were the most profitable company in the country just a few years ago and now I don’t even think they are in the top forty. If someone had said that to you five years ago, we would have thought that was crazy, so a lot can happen and a lot can change very quickly. I do think that we actually have a very bright future ahead of us but we’ve got to marshal the innovation and show people what a future with clean energy looks like.
For me personally, it’s self-explanatory. It’s a future without Western Massachusetts being the number one asthma capital of the country. It’s a future without having 6,7, and 8 year olds having to leave school for days at a time because they have asthma and they have to get taken care of at a hospital. It’s people not having to live next door to a biomass plant that burns 1,200 lbs of wood a day, down the street from a school. That’s the future that we’ve got to paint for people. It’s people being in charge of their own energy; creating their own energy and not having to pay energy bills.
We just did a major economic development bill that is also on the Governor’s desk. Imagining these incredible ports we have; Gloucester, New Bedford, Fall River, that have frankly fallen into disrepair. Imagine that completely redeveloped as a base for shipping and for moving wind turbines, just as another example. I think we’ve just kind of got to paint a picture for people of just how exciting the future is with these issues front and center."
Over the past few years, one of your more passionate projects has been to bring high-speed rail to the Commonwealth. What do you foresee as the overall environmental benefits this would bring to Massachusetts?
"It would be the single biggest environmental project that the state has ever done. I can’t think of one, maybe the original building of the MBTA, but there was no internal combustion engine back then so the comparison is not quite the same. In Massachusetts, 40% of our greenhouse gas emissions come from automobiles, come from transportation.
This project would take tens of thousands of cars off of the road. It would probably do more than anything we could do to reduce emissions from the transportation sector, which is I think the single biggest sector in terms of air pollution and environmental impact in the state so it would be an absolute game changer. Again, this would probably be the most transformative environmental project that the state has ever undertaken and it would be one of the biggest job creators and economic development tools the state has ever undertaken.
I think that previous generations viewed the environment and the economy as kind of a trade off. I think that was very much a construct of an old form of politics which was you can either have environmentalism or environmental protections or you could have a growing economy and the reality of it is that is just not true. The east-west rail project is an example of that. It’s a jobs project, it's a housing project; it would create a lot more housing in a lot more parts of the state, and it is a significant environmental project all in one."
Lastly, Representative Jack Lewis asked Bay Staters to vote on a state dinosaur. We are huge fans of dinosaurs here, so much so that we have a replica raptor skeleton in our lobby. So we would like to ask, what is your favorite dinosaur and why?
I had a big model of one in my room when I was a kid. Also the little arms are kind of fun. It’s so big and has those tiny arms so I’ve got to go with the tyrannosaurus rex.