With a $400 million infusion, Massachusetts shifts transition to electric vehicles into drive
In a move hailed as a major step in the state’s climate battle, Massachusetts has approved a $400 million plan to install tens of thousands of electric vehicle chargers as part of an effort to encourage larger numbers of drivers to switch from gas cars to electric.
The order from the state’s Department of Public Utilities, issued last week, allows electric utilities Eversource, National Grid, and Unitil to put a surcharge on ratepayers’ electricity bills to support the build-out of needed infrastructure. Under the plan, the utilities over the next four years will upgrade and lay wires to support chargers and offer rebates to individuals and businesses looking to install them at homes, apartment buildings, workplaces, and public locations like retail parking lots. The plan reserves money for charging hubs in poor and minority neighborhoods, as well as for marketing the rebates.
Amy Boyd, vice president of climate and clean energy policy for Acadia Center, a clean-energy advocacy group, said she was glad to see the order, but said she would rather “have it be more of a strategic, government-led, undertaking, as opposed to industry-led.” That would allow for the planning process to take into account the bigger climate picture, she said, like whether to co-locate solar or battery storage along with chargers, or to think about upgrading transformers at the same time to facilitate increased energy demands from the electrification of heating.
Read the full article in The Boston Globe here.
Advocates say Massachusetts clean heat policy needs focus on heat pumps, equity
Massachusetts climate advocates say a clean heat standard proposed by state officials could fail to create meaningful progress toward decarbonization if it overvalues alternative fuels and doesn’t prioritize equity.
“The devil is in the details,” said Amy Boyd, vice president of climate and clean energy policy at the nonprofit Acadia Center, one of several environmental groups closely following the developing state policy.
In January 2022, then-Gov. Charlie Baker convened a Clean Heat Commission to develop strategies for decarbonizing the state’s building sector, which accounts for about 40% of its total emissions. Among its final recommendations released in November was the adoption of a clean heat performance standard.
The policy would create a system similar to a renewable portfolio standard but for heat instead of electricity. Heating fuel suppliers would be required to contribute to clean heat projects, likely by buying credits generated from activities such as heat pump installations and weatherization improvements. Over time, the amount of clean heat credits required would increase.
Read the full article at Energy News Network here.
The winter energy crunch, what it costs, and what it will take to fix it
Connecticut’s first-ever Comprehensive Energy Strategy, released 10 years ago, was built around natural gas. Gas was cheap, plentiful and cleaner than oil or coal. It was touted as a bridge from those fuels to renewables for electric power, and better than oil for heating. The CES set out to convert hundreds of thousands of homes to gas heat.
But that strategy came with a big red flag, now all too familiar.
“The interstate pipeline system that supplies Connecticut’s natural gas is already constrained, and there is limited liquified natural gas (LNG) capacity in Connecticut. At current use rates, there will not be enough interstate pipeline, storage, or peaking capacity to serve a large-scale addition of new customers,” the CES said. “Underestimating and purchasing too little capacity could lead to reliability issues (i.e., a shortfall in supply during peak winter season).”
And that is precisely what happened. Ten years later we are facing another winter of price-spiking, hand-wringing and finger-pointing over the current shortfall.
“Because this is an urgent situation now that we haven’t resolved in the past decade, we need all of the parties to come to the table. And we need the federal government, ISO New England and the New England states to work cooperatively to craft a set of solutions that can keep the lights on,” Birchard, formerly of Acadia Center said. “Those solutions have to start with clean energy.”
She singled out demand response, which alters the power need through systems such as control of thermostats, lighting, industrial processes and even the number of elevators that are operating in buildings.
“They don’t require the huge transmission lines. They don’t require the huge infrastructure and time processes that some other types of investments do,” Birchard said.
And there’s storage that allows for collection of excess power. Eversource fired up it first storage project a few months ago – 25 megawatts of battery capacity in Provincetown.
“We had three or four outages this summer,” Nolan said. “11,000 customers never knew we had an outage. It rolls right through it with that battery.”
Read the full article in CT Mirror here.
Gov.-elect Healey taps EPA’s Melissa Hoffer as state’s first climate chief
Gov.-elect Maura Healey announced Monday that she’ll appoint Melissa Hoffer to become the state’s first “climate chief.” Hoffer currently serves as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s principal deputy general.
“Melissa Hoffer has an incredible track record as a fierce climate advocate,” said Kyle Murray, the Acadia Center’s Massachusetts senior policy advocate. “She has proven again and again that she has what it takes to both listen and lead, and she knows the urgency of the climate crisis. I am confident that she will hit the ground running immediately and help guide our Commonwealth toward our decarbonization goals.”
Read the full article in WBUR News here.
Scientific journal investigating UMass hydrogen study after revelations of gas industry influence
A peer-reviewed scientific journal has begun investigating a study it recently published on the use of hydrogen as a heating fuel in Massachusetts, citing a Globe investigation that found the authors failed to disclose gas industry funding and the role of a lobbyist aligned with the industry.
A research integrity specialist for the journal Frontiers in Energy Research, which published the study in September, said in an e-mail that the Globe’s account led the journal to open its “own internal investigation into the aforementioned manuscript to assess the situation and establish the facts of the matter.”
If the investigation finds conflicts that call into question the study’s findings, it could lead to a retraction.
The study, by scientists at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, endorsed the use of so-called green hydrogen for heating buildings in Massachusetts and recommended the state consider adopting hydrogen as a clean fuel. The American Gas Association and gas interests in Massachusetts have been promoting hydrogen as a climate-friendly alternative to carbon-emitting gas. Adopting such a plan on a large scale would allow gas utilities to continue operating and profiting much as they do now but with a different fuel.
But many scientists say using green hydrogen as a replacement for natural gas — or mixing it with natural gas or other fuels, as the gas industry has also proposed — isn’t feasible for reasons that include high cost, safety risks, and hydrogen’s potential to harm the climate. What’s more, they say, continuing to push green hydrogen as a climate-friendly option could delay progress on more realistic climate solutions.
Beyond that, many experts say there simply isn’t enough of either gas available to feasibly heat homes.
A report by National Grid found there is ample renewable natural gas in the Eastern United States, but Ben Butterworth, the director of climate, energy and equity analysis at the clean energy advocacy organization Acadia Center, said he has not seen any independent research supporting that conclusion. Studies including a 2021 Princeton report called “Net Zero America” have found that similar supply issues face green hydrogen, because producing it at scale requires so much wind or solar power.
“It makes absolutely no sense that we would be talking about using this for residential and commercial uses,” he said.
Read the full article in The Boston Globe here.
5 takeaways from R.I.’s climate update report
PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island on Monday released a draft report outlining the progress it’s made and the progress it will need to continue to make in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to curb climate change.
The report is part of the state’s landmark Act on Climate law of 2021, which sets binding climate emission reduction targets starting in 2030. By 2050, the state must reach net zero emissions. A final version of the draft report is expected later this month, but this is pretty much what you’ll see in final form.
As noted, based on the models in this report, Rhode Island will still miss its emission reduction targets by 2030 even if it adopts certain efforts to curb climate change. So what more can be done that the report isn’t suggesting? Well, here’s one example: Advocates have called for the state to fully fund the state’s Transit Master Plan and its Bike Mobility Plan.
The report says those contain good ideas, but that’s “not possible at this time.”
“I would say that like any other policy priority, it’s not accurate for the administration to say that fully funding those plans is not possible,” said Hank Webster, Rhode Island director of the Acadia Center. “It’s a choice, a policy decision not to fully fund those well vetted and approved plans that have been collecting dust.”
Still, Webster describes himself as an optimist, and was overall sanguine about the report and the state’s ability to get to where it needs to go.
“We have the technology and policy solutions that we need to get there,” Webster said.
Read the full article in The Boston Globe here.
Solving the Winter Energy Problem with Acadia Center
Year after year, the operator of New England’s electric grid, ISO-New England (ISO-NE), announces a risk of blackouts during the winter. New Englanders are stuck in a Groundhog Day scenario, asking: if this threat to the region’s electric grid happens every year, why hasn’t it been fixed by now? At a recent webinar for the Acadia Center community, our staff took on these vital questions.
Melissa Birchard, Acadia Center’s Director of Clean Energy & Grid Transition, explained how ISO-New England operates the region’s power grid and electricity markets. ISO-NE, with the backing of the federal government, has the power to institute measures like rolling blackouts to keep the electricity system safe during the winter. Although rolling blackouts would only occur if winter weather were to be unusually severe and prolonged, state utilities have been asked to plan for this possibility.
The region’s overreliance on natural gas is the root cause of these problems. New England has increased its use of natural gas to generate electricity by a massive amount in the last 20 years. New England relies on natural gas for over 50% of its fuel mix each year, which is risky both because an overreliance on any one fuel creates a liability and because natural gas is not produced locally in New England and is, therefore, more difficult to have on hand and subject to price spikes. Because natural gas is a fossil fuel, it also contributes to extreme weather, perpetuating the risk of blackouts. Our targets for climate health all involve eliminating the use of fossil fuels like natural gas now and in the coming years.
In the winter, natural gas is in high demand not only in New England, but around the country and the globe. It’s this increased demand that threatens rolling blackouts and that causes consumer bills to rise, as gas supplies are preferentially delivered to utilities to provide heat, rather than merchant generators to keep the lights on. This winter has added challenges due to Russia’s war in Ukraine, restricting global imports from a major global supplier of natural gas. In addition, supply chain issues due to the pandemic and climate change are elevating risks. These factors have made prices skyrocket and the chance of blackouts rise.
Acadia Center’s answer to this problem, which we detailed in a recent explainer written with our partners, is clean energy. Clean energy provides solutions for near-, medium- and long-term problems.
These solutions include:
- Resource Diversity – Stopping the overreliance on gas.
- Demand Management – Managing consumer demand in smart and strategic ways. This can include using residential solar and batteries to support the electric grid, automatically adjusting lighting and device charging, or delaying energy intensive processes in industrial facilities to help lighten the load on the grid during key stretches of time.
- Bringing online clean, renewable energy – Resources like offshore wind are strong in the winter and healthy for our planet.
- Energy storage – Saving energy for the times of highest demand, in short, medium, and long duration.
To implement these solutions, we need to scale up clean energy and transmission lines for newly generated clean energy to travel across the region. We also need to get behind new technologies and modern energy markets. Many of these solutions need to be driven by the New England states and ISO-New England working together.
Amy Boyd, Vice President, Climate & Clean Energy Policy, detailed some solutions consumers can implement in the near term. The biggest thing consumers can do is make sure their homes are as energy efficient as possible and shop around to get off fossil fuels. Alternatives like community choice aggregation offer more options and often come in at a lower cost than traditional utility bills due to greater diversity and added renewable energy. Community solar can also be a great way to participate in clean energy located in your community, even if you can’t add solar panels to your own roof.
It’s important to remember that rising energy costs and the risk of blackouts can disproportionately affect renters, lower income people, non-English speakers, and environmental justice populations. These communities are most likely to live in homes that are not weatherized or connected to green energy, meaning they are on average 25% less efficient, cost five times more to heat, and create 50% of greenhouse gas emissions The winter energy problem is a threat to everyone but presents even more serious concerns for these communities, so we need green solutions to help these communities that need it most.
You can watch the webinar any time to hear more about this topic, find more for consumers looking to lower energy bills, and hear Amy and Melissa answer questions from the audience. This webinar was made possible by the Acadia Center donor community, and we’re so grateful for the support. If you’d like to join Acadia Center in the fight for the clean energy system of the future, please donate here.
Massachusetts Utilities Hope Hydrogen and Biomethane Can Keep the State Cooking, and Heating, With Gas
There is great uncertainty in Massachusetts’ path to decarbonization, and two conflicting visions are emerging for the future of the state’s gas system. Central to the conflict are questions over the role of alternative gases in the transition to clean energy, as well as the future of the gas industry as a whole. And as invisible as the gas is itself, some of the industry’s influence on the energy transition has been hidden from view, as underscored by emails released this week by a watchdog group.
As gas utilities and advocates debate the future of the gas system, state regulators have deferred to the utilities to construct the initial plans for decarbonization. In a variety of avenues throughout the state, utilities have used their influence to promote their preferred decarbonization options, often out of the public eye. Environmentalists argue this is putting the state’s climate goals in jeopardy.
“Is a gas utility going to plan against its best interests for the sake of the Commonwealth’s decarbonization goals, or for the sake of ratepayers in the Commonwealth?” asked Kyle Murray, a senior policy advocate at the Acadia Center, a nonprofit that focuses on climate and energy policy. “I’m not sure that’s even fair to them, as they have shareholders that they need to deliver a profit to. So there’s a fundamental problem with who draws up the plans.”
Read the full article in Inside Climate News here.
Heat Pumps in Real Life – Part 2
If you’ve been hanging around Acadia Center’s blogs for very long, you’ve heard about how air source heat pumps work by moving heat, rather than generating it – so they can be 3-4 times as efficient as gas, and how “a heat pump is probably the biggest thing that consumers can to do help fight the climate crisis.” You might have even seen my colleague Ben Butterworth’s multiple photos in the Boston Globe as the face of heat pumps, or read about the lessons I learned back in May when investing in seven mini-splits to electrify my 1880s house.
But have you heard that under the Inflation Reduction Act, starting in 2023, heat pumps will be eligible for rebates and tax credits of up to $8,000, in addition to the rebates already in place from state programs like MassSave?
Here’s what I’ve learned from living with my heat pumps through one of the warmest summers in Boston, and into a fall that’s been both cooler than usual and repeatedly hit 70 degrees in November.
Power Cool: Even though this August was the hottest on record, my heat pumps kept my family comfortable and well air conditioned. Last year, we had one AC unit and a ton of fans to see us through August, and it was miserable. We spent too much time and money at the movie theater, mall, water parks, and other desperate ways to keep cool. This year, we happily spent our days at home in comfort. My daughter even discovered a “power cool” setting that sounded like a jet engine but felt amazing as it rapidly cooled her room. We did use 38% more electricity in August than the year prior but were easily 100% more comfortable, and spent roughly the same, once you factor in the movies and water parks. Although my home isn’t a good candidate for solar, I’m going to look into a community solar program, to be able to reduce our bills for next summer.
Dehumidification settings matter: My son’s asthma was flaring up late this summer and his room smelled even funkier than you’d expect for a 9-year old’s bedroom. I had a mold inspector come check things out. He didn’t find any mold but did find that the humidity levels in most of the house were 68-72%. Way too high. After some frustration, I dug into the settings on my heat pumps and discovered that the dehumidification mode (rather than the auto-cool setting I originally chose) resulted in a much lower humidity home with a much cooler feel. Better idea all around! So, watch out for humidity weirdness and play with settings. You may be surprised by what you find. Also run a full dehumidification cycle when you’re switching from cooling mode to heating season to make sure that you clear out all the moisture and prevent mold in the air handlers.
Keep it Clean: Although my instruction manuals said that I should clean the air filters monthly (and other filters periodically), I have only done it twice in the 6 months the heat pumps have been part of our family. Both times, though, there has been a lot more dust than I predicted. These things really are filtering the air! It’s important to keep the filters clean to maximize air flow, reduce the amount of energy they need to expend, and keep your air quality high. I’m going to put an alert on my calendar to make it more of a habit. I’d also encourage folks to install indoor units where they can reach them for maintenance – 10 feet into the air (like two of mine are) isn’t a great spot unless you love hanging out on ladders.
Shoulder season: I have been loving the flexibility that my heat pumps offer to heat up one room at a time or turn them on just enough to take the chill out of the air. With our radiators, it’s all or nothing and that first burst of heating inevitably wakes up my kids with all the banging. Especially on these days when it’s cold in the morning, but lovely by mid-day, I appreciate having the option to micro-adjust the temperature in my office or bedroom while leaving the rest of the house to float (because it also holds its temperature well after upgrading our insulation). And on the surprise 70-degree days, it’s nice to just turn the units off and not deal with residual heat like we would have with the radiators. As climate change makes our weather weirder, I’m glad to have equipment that can handle extremes in both directions and change up quickly.
Be a New Englander, Wear the Sweater: The first few days I tried to switch to heating mode, my heat pumps would run for a few minutes, then pause seemingly mid-cycle and show me an icon like a water droplet on top of a snowflake. This error message wasn’t included in any of the instruction manuals, and after some googling, I determined that it means that the outdoor temperature and humidity levels aren’t different enough from the indoor temp I’ve requested. In other words, my heat pump was telling me to suck it up and put on a sweater. It was right. Indeed, on the days when the temperature fell further, the error went away, and the unit started cranking out toasty warm air. I also remembered to lock closed all my windows, and that helped immensely, too.
The Financials: I got my full rebate from MassSave two months after it was submitted by my vendor. I’ve heard that it’s taking longer than in recent months because there’s been such a flurry of activity and rebate requests. Stay patient and keep checking the online tracker to see what’s happening. As I mentioned, my summer electric usage was 20-38% higher than last year (but we got a lot more AC out of the deal), but my fall usage has been within 15% of what it was. My gas use, however, was down 77% for the month of October. The biggest portion of my gas bills is now the $10 a month customer charge – indicating that once I get an induction stove and heat pump water heater, I can save even more by ditching gas entirely.
The Bottom Line: For me, the investment in heat pumps was more about comfort and doing what we could to decarbonize than it was about saving money. We have not saved much from the summer, but that’s to be expected with so much added air conditioning. I am excited to see how much we’ll save this winter! Check out the MassSave heating comparison calculator if you want to see the potential savings for your home. This year, I’m even looking forward to snow, so we can really see how the heat pumps fare and hope to make it through the winter without turning on our backup system. I’ll let you know in the spring!
Why Keeping Hydrogen Out of Easily Electrifiable Sectors Matters
Is hydrogen a clean energy source?
It depends. Hydrogen does not release greenhouse gas emissions when it is used, so, similar to electricity, what really matters from a climate perspective is how the hydrogen is produced. That can range from very dirty to very clean. The vast majority of hydrogen used today is made from natural gas and produces a lot of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Hydrogen produced in this manner is often referred to as “gray hydrogen.” There are also methods of producing “green hydrogen,” most notably by using renewable electricity to break water into hydrogen and oxygen through a process known as electrolysis. But, regardless of how hydrogen is produced, emerging research has found that – just like natural gas – hydrogen that leaks directly into the atmosphere is damaging to the climate.
What is hydrogen’s current role in our economy?
Today, hydrogen is used in industrial processes like oil refining and fertilizer production. In recent years, there has been expanded focus on the potential for using hydrogen to help decarbonize other sectors of the economy including power generation, transportation, and the natural gas distribution system. The question of whether to blend hydrogen into the natural gas distribution system to reduce the overall GHG emissions associated with using natural gas has been a particular hot button issue across the country, and particularly in the northeast.
Why is hydrogen suddenly a hot topic in the Northeast?
Many of the gas utilities in the Northeast have proposed hydrogen blending as a core strategy in their decarbonization plans and some are actively pursuing hydrogen blending pilot projects. The appropriate use of hydrogen was a key point of debate in the Massachusetts Future of Gas docket and four northeastern states (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts) have partnered to pursue a portion of the $8 billion of funding available through the Department of Energy to create a “regional hydrogen hub.” Hydrogen is a central point of discussion in the currently underway updates to Connecticut’s Comprehensive Energy Strategy and Connecticut recently formed a Hydrogen Task Force to study hydrogen’s role in the state’s economy and energy infrastructure. Hydrogen will also undoubtedly be a focal point in Rhode Island’s own “Future of Gas” docket that recently kicked off.
What are the key problems and limitations associated with hydrogen?
Even if hydrogen is “green” (i.e., produced with 100% renewable electricity), it still faces a number of issues and limitations. Perhaps most importantly, most experts agree that hydrogen can only safely replace 7% of the total energy flowing through the gas distribution system, dramatically limiting any potential climate benefit of hydrogen blending. We still need to decarbonize the other 93%. How? Gas companies have proposed replacing the remaining natural gas with so called “renewable natural gas” which is extremely problematic.
Additionally, the process of producing green hydrogen is inefficient and requires a huge amount of renewable electricity. As a result, for most sectors of the economy, it makes more sense to use clean electricity to “directly electrify” those sectors, rather than adding the inefficient middle step of converting that clean electricity to hydrogen. For example, using clean electricity to run a heat pump for heating a home is about five times more efficient and significantly more cost effective than using that same clean electricity to produce green hydrogen, blend that hydrogen into the gas system, and then burn that hydrogen in a boiler.
Because green hydrogen requires so much clean electricity to produce, producing green hydrogen at scale would require a ton of land to site the wind turbines and solar panels. We simply will not have enough land to produce green hydrogen at the scale necessary to decarbonize the whole economy. The limited green hydrogen we will have should be allocated to the sectors of the economy that are hardest to electrify, like aviation, shipping, and certain industrial processes. It is critical to use this limited resource strategically, and not waste it in sectors of the economy that are relatively easy to electrify, like building heating and passenger vehicle transportation.
Are there safety concerns associated with hydrogen?
Hydrogen does present unique safety challenges. It is the smallest molecule in the universe and is prone to leaks, highly combustible, and burns with a nearly invisible flame. So, while hydrogen is relatively safe in an industrial facility where trained professionals can constantly monitor the equipment, it does pose significant safety risk when you consider scenarios like people burning hydrogen in a furnace at their home.
What are the alternatives to hydrogen and why should we use them?
It is going to depend on the sector. As mentioned before, there are sectors of the economy that are exceedingly difficult to electrify such as shipping, aviation, certain industrial end uses, and chemical production. We are almost certainly going to need some amount of green hydrogen to decarbonize these sectors, but for many parts of the economy the main alternative is direct electrification using technologies like heat pumps and electric vehicles. For cars and home heating in particular, direct electrification is the superior alternative from basically any angle you can think of: Cost, efficiency, safety, and overall practicality.
Why should people be concerned about the gas company proposals to blend in hydrogen?
Direct electrification of homes using heat pumps and electric water heaters is a more cost-effective and safer means to decarbonize homes and save consumers money. Allowing gas utilities to blend hydrogen into the gas distribution system is a short-sighted decision that will only marginally reduce greenhouse gas emissions, cost ratepayers money, and distract from the more practical solution of electrification.
How do Acadia Center’s CLEAN-E and Beyond Gas Initiatives address these concerns?
Acadia Center is actively engaged in discussions around hydrogen in various forums in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Acadia Center is leveraging our technical expertise related to hydrogen and our analytical capabilities to question modeling assumptions through independent quantitative analysis, develop detailed public comments, present to state agencies, and educate partners. Acadia Center is also a member of the Connecticut Clean Energy Task Force Hydrogen Uses Working Group. Throughout all these processes, Acadia Center is providing technical analysis and research to demonstrate the limitations of using hydrogen in the gas distribution system and the benefits of electrification paired with energy efficiency.
How can people act on this and push for renewable, efficient sources of energy?
There are a few ways for people to get involved. You can write a letter or call your congressperson and advocate for hydrogen to be left out of the easy-to-electrify sectors like home heating and light-duty transportation. Additionally, weatherizing and electrifying one’s home with heat pumps and electric water heaters would lower demand for natural gas. The Inflation Reduction Act has made weatherizing our homes far more affordable, and you can learn more about that here.
For more information:
Ben Butterworth, Director of Climate, Energy, and Equity Analysis, firstname.lastname@example.org, 617-742-0054 ext. 111