Massachusetts residents are feeling the crunch as utility prices soar

As utility bills spike across the commonwealth, we speak to Beth Chambers of Catholic Charities about how the price hikes are hitting low-income consumers. We also explore why costs are up and what energy consumers can do to conserve.

Here’s a helpful resource for Massachusetts residents that WBUR reporters Yasmin Amer and Miriam Wasser put together in November. It’s still relevant today.

This segment aired on January 24, 2023.

Power to the people: How activists are working to change New England’s grid operator from the inside

Last fall, in between meetings about how to stop coal trains destined for the region’s last coalburning plant, a group of climate activists quietly turned their attention to another, perhaps less obvious, pursuit: Getting elected en masse to an arcane group affiliated with ISO-New England, the region’s power grid operator.

In late November, roughly 100 members of No Coal No Gas showed up at a meeting of the Consumer Liaison Group, successfully electing six members to its governing committee.

The short-term goal was to earn some level of access to ISO-New England—a famously opaque entity that plays a critical role in determining whether the region can meet its emission-reduction targets. The consumer group doesn’t have any real power to influence the grid, but it does have a guaranteed audience with ISO-New England four times a year.

“ISO is putting its thumb on the scale to choose fossil fuel fired resources in the name of reliability,” said Amy Boyd, vice president of climate and clean energy policy for Acadia Center, a clean-energy advocacy group. “The people’s interest in having climate goals met shouldn’t have to run at cross purposes to their interest in keeping the lights on. We can do both of these things at once.”

In Pennsylvania, heat pumps could be a climate change solution

Buildings are second only to transportation as sources for greenhouse gasses, according to Amy Boyd, vice president of Climate & Clean Energy Policy at the Acadia Center in Boston, which helps Northeastern states meet climate targets.

University of California, Davis study found installing a heat pump could cut carbon dioxide emissions, the main cause of global warming, around 38 to 53 percent from home heating.

“Eliminating the greenhouse gas emissions that are coming from our heat, particularly in the Northeast, is one of the biggest things that an individual consumer can do to fight climate change,” Boyd said.

Because it’s only moving heat around, not creating it, heat pumps are up to four times more efficient than a standard furnace. In the summer, they can reverse themselves, doubling as air conditioners. They rely on heat exchangers, clever pieces of technology that are behind refrigerators and freezers. On a modern heat pump, they can pluck heat out of even the coldest outdoor air.

“Even if it seems cold to your eye, if it’s any warmer than the vacuum of space, then there is heat out there to be moved,” Boyd said.

Right now, about 10 percent of homes in the U.S. use heat pumps. That number will have to go up if the country is going to meet its climate goals.

Top environmental issues facing RI lawmakers in 2023: Solar farm siting, curbing emissions

PROVIDENCE — How do you follow up on two legislative sessions that have been heralded as the best for policymaking on the environment in Rhode Island history?

With even more bills aimed at tackling climate change, protecting natural resources, reducing trash and expanding investments in renewable energy.

That’s what advocates with some of the state’s leading environmental groups want to see in the new session as it gets underway.

They say that state legislators can’t rest on their laurels after a pair of groundbreaking years in the General Assembly that began with passage in 2021 of the Act on Climate, the emissions-reduction law that’s designed to form the foundation for Rhode Island climate policy, and followed last year with, among a flurry of other bills, one that updates a key law for purchases of cleaner power and another aimed specifically at ramping up offshore wind development.

But if Rhode Island were to adopt a statewide ban, it would be the first in the nation, said Hank Webster, Rhode Island director of the Acadia Center, one of the groups that proposed a moratorium on new gas hookups on Aquidneck Island. And he believes it may not even require legislation but could rather be done by the administration of Gov. Dan McKee.

“I think the Act on Climate anticipated this question,” Webster said, pointing to provisions in the law that he and others argue empowers state agencies to take action to rein in emissions.

The Acadia Center, a regional clean-energy group, and a host of other organizations including The Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, are also focused on revamping energy efficiency programs. The state’s efforts to insulate homes, replace outdated appliances and take other steps to conserve energy have long been viewed as among the most effective in the nation, but observers say there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Climate change is making power outages more common

A powerful weather system is pummeling New England with rain and snow, leaving tens of thousands of New Englanders without power.

It’s something that could happen more frequently thanks to climate change, unless the region takes serious steps to prepare.

More than 18,000 people across Massachusetts — including more than half of the towns of Warwick, Ashby, Hubbardston, and New Salem — were experiencing outages Monday afternoon, according to the state’s Emergency Management Agency. Tens of thousands of customers are also experiencing outages in New Hampshire and Maine.

The disruptions come just one month after some 170,000 customers in New England lost power on Christmas Eve during a winter storm.

During storms, low temperatures can push up demand for fuel as people stay in their homes, while putting stress on power plants. But the even bigger problem is that they can cause disruptions at the neighborhood level, said Amy Boyd, vice president of climate and clean energy policy at the environmental nonprofit Acadia Center.

“Power interruptions are overwhelmingly caused by local disruptions like tree branches, ice, wind, or animals knocking out local distribution power lines,” she said.

New England clean energy goals slam into oil reality

New England power plants burned more oil for electricity on a single day during last month’s deep freeze than they have in four years, underscoring the gap between Northeastern states’ clean energy targets and the current resource mix in the region.

Oil resources supplied 29 percent of a six-state region’s power on Dec. 24 as temperatures hovered in the teens, natural gas supplies tightened and some generators failed to perform as expected. The amount of electricity generated by oil that day was higher than it had been since a weekslong polar vortex hit New England in January 2018, according to an E&E News review of annual reports from the regional grid operator on fuel use.

New England and New York are the only parts of the country that rely extensively on oil resources for backup power when other electricity supplies are expensive or in short supply. In both regions, oil is used sparingly throughout the year, having accounted for 0.2 percent of the total electric load in New England in 2021, according to ISO New England, the area’s nonprofit grid operator.

“It’s been years that this back and forth switching between fossil fuels has been going on, and it’s not improving,” Amy Boyd, vice president of climate and clean energy policy at Acadia Center, a New England-based environmental advocacy group, said in an email. “We need to instead come to a better solution.”

‘There’s a dam breaking:’ Cities and towns start to kick fossil fuels with new building code

Brookline and Watertown last week became the first communities in the state to adopt a new building code discouraging the use of fossil fuels in new buildings, and 22 more cities and towns have signaled they intend to take similar action, in what climate advocates say is the first large-scale test of Massachusetts’ willingness to wean itself from gas and oil.

The new code, finalized by the state Department of Energy Resources last month, adds new requirements to the current building codes in communities that choose to adopt it. It stops short of being an outright ban of fossil fuel heat, but by requiring stringent energy efficiency measures and add-ons like solar panels in buildings that plan to install gas line connections, it is likely to sharply curtail it.

Even some of the most staunch supporters of the electrification movement have some concerns about the new code. Kyle Murray, the Massachusetts program director for the clean energy advocacy group Acadia Center, said that some additional measures may be needed to ensure low income residents are not negatively impacted, though he noted that on the whole, things are moving in the right direction.

“Cities and towns are leading the way, and I think we’re going to see a sort of point where — I don’t want to use disaster metaphors — but there’s a dam breaking,” Murray said. “We’re going to see these cities and towns do it and then we’re going to see so many more cities and towns say, ‘Oh, yeah, we can do this too.’ ”

Acadia Center staff look ahead to 5 key areas of focus in 2023.

Potential Impacts of Grid Modernization Advisory Council in Massachusetts Already Taking Shape

Creation of the Council

On August 11, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed comprehensive climate legislation that will help boost offshore wind, adoption of electric vehicles, and building decarbonization. Among the many pieces of this extensive legislation was a requirement to develop of a Grid Modernization Advisory Council (Council). As part of this provision, electric distribution companies would be required to develop grid modernization plans and submit them to the Council. Acadia Center is hopeful that this Council will ensure that utility grid modernization plans are regularly updated, maximize benefits delivered to ratepayers, and provide for greater stakeholder input and public participation. Even before its members have been appointed, we are already seeing the impact of this new entity.

Grid Modernization Dockets, DPU 21-80 through 21-82

On Wednesday, December 2, the Department of Public Utilities (Department) issued a ruling in DPU Dockets 21-80 through 21-82, grid modernization proceedings for Eversource, National Grid, and Unitil. These proceedings required the companies to submit updated grid modernization plans, as well as plans to achieve full-scale deployment of advanced metering infrastructure. The companies submitted separate plans that included a ten-year grid modernization vision, a five-year strategic plan, and a four-year investment plan covering 2022-2025.

Acadia Center generally supported the implementation of these plans, but argued for some changes. We were concerned that 1) the proposed timelines for implementing time-varying rates (TVR) were far too slow; 2) by using an opt-in approach to TVR, the companies’ assumed customer participation rates were significantly lower than would be optimal to deliver the maximum possible benefits to customers; 3) the AMI plans did not propose specific AMI deployment performance metrics; 4) the plans either made passing mention or no mention of equity or environmental justice; and 5) the companies did not prioritize data access for customers and third-party vendors.

Acadia Center had some success in the proceeding, achieving some direct wins, such as the Department asking the companies to include a uniform statewide approach to evaluating equity of preauthorized grid modernization investments. However, a number of requests were left up in the air, thanks to the development of the new Grid Modernization Advisory Council.

The Department evaluated grid modernization performance metrics proposed by the companies and found some of them wanting, specifically the grid-facing and AMI performance metrics. They found that “additional work [was] needed in collaboration with the parties to develop performance metrics that appropriately track the quantitative benefits associated with grid-facing and customer-facing investments, and progress toward grid modernization objectives.” The Department also acknowledged several stakeholders’ arguments about the timeline for TVR and directed the companies to work with stakeholders “to identify AMI meter deployment strategies that may expedite and maximize the availability of TVR products to customers during the AMI deployment period.” The companies must now convene a stakeholder process to settle a number of outstanding issues, including the two above. This stakeholder process will convene at the soon-to-be-created Grid Modernization Advisory Council, where there will now be significantly increased transparency, deliberation, and stakeholder participation and input.

Grid Modernization Advisory Council Impacts in Other Dockets

We have also seen the impact of the coming Grid Modernization Advisory Council in other dockets. DPU 20-75-C was a long-winding docket assessing electric distribution companies’ optimal solutions for long-term planning for the interconnection of distributed generation facilities. Unfortunately, despite significant time and work invested by stakeholders and the Department, the Department opted to close its investigation in light of the creation of the new Council. While Acadia Center is concerned by the seemingly wasted time and effort in that docket, the long and overwrought process highlighted the need for reforms that will hopefully be provided by the Council.

Similarly, in DPU 22-22, an Eversource rate docket, the Department declined to move ahead with several pieces, including an electrification framework and revised peak periods, noting that certain factors would have to be settled at the newly created Council.

Acadia Center is hopeful that this coming Council will result in comprehensive and state-of-the-art grid modernization plans and a transparent and open stakeholder process to address these important issues.

 

For more information:

Kyle Murray, kmurray@acadiacenter.org,  617-742-0054 ext. 106

Mass. DPU Continues Fossil Fuel-Dominant Business-As-Usual

Earlier in December, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) approved a petition by Eversource Energy to supply new gas service in the Town of Douglas, MA (DPU Docket No. 22-107). The town had initially requested gas supply as part of an economic development project and stated that gas service was a prerequisite before commercial and industrial customers would bring operations to the town. Douglas does not currently receive gas service, so to meet anticipated customer demand, Eversource must build new gas distribution infrastructure.

The DPU rejected arguments by Acadia Center and others that building brand new gas infrastructure is at odds with the Massachusetts’ climate goals and is not in the public interest. The Massachusetts 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap makes clear that to meet the state’s greenhouse gas emission reduction requirements, we must move rapidly away from fossil fuels towards clean and non-emitting alternatives.

Although the Douglas case involves a relatively small project, multiplying many small projects like this one will keep Massachusetts dependent on expensive fossil fuel infrastructure, rather than on a pathway of reducing emissions and ensuring a clean, equitable energy system for all residents.

And while the Douglas case and the DPU’s approval are not unusual, the proceeding is an important example of why Massachusetts must reform utility regulation and how a lack of reform will continue to result in business-as-usual outcomes that work in the interest of the fossil fuel industry.

Acadia Center’s RESPECT proposal seeks avoid these business-as-usual outcomes by reforming how long-term distribution planning is done. RESPECT proposes two key reforms to break down planning silos planning and reduce the financial conflicts of interest inherent to utility planning today. First, states should conduct comprehensive and independent energy system planning that incorporates more meaningful stakeholder input. Second, states should create neutral, statewide Planning Entities that can facilitate long-term planning and separate the entity that does the planning from the entity that owns the infrastructure and therefore has a financial stake in the outcome of the planning decisions.

The Douglas case can help us see how RESPECT reforms would lead to better outcomes. In its request to the DPU, Eversource included a short letter from National Grid (the electricity provider in Douglas) which explained that providing an all-electric solution—an option that would be much more aligned with the state’s climate goals—would require system upgrades that would take two to five years to complete.

Stakeholders, including the Attorney General’s Office, questioned the information provided by National Grid and expressed concerns that the underlying data and analysis was not made public. When asked about specifics of the electrification study that National Grid conducted, Eversource claimed that it “has no information to impart on the electric distribution service requirements” because it “is not the electric distribution service provider for the Town of Douglas.” (DPU 22-107, AG-1-5).

RESPECT attempts to break down exactly these types of planning silos. Under business-as-usual, in which gas and electric utilities are not required to fully coordinate on long-term planning efforts, problems like a two-to-five-year time horizon for electrification upgrades will not become apparent until a utility requests approval for new fossil infrastructure. By that time, as we’ve seen with Douglas, it will be easy for a utility to claim that electrification upgrades will take too long, and because the town need gas service now, the DPU should approve the new fossil infrastructure.

Successful implementation of RESPECT reforms would help to avoid scenarios where fossil fuel interests continue to win out over cleaner alternatives. RESPECT reforms would also enable greater transparency and access for stakeholders that are traditionally excluded from the planning process and would ensure that long-term planning prioritizes equity, environmental justice, and greenhouse gas emission reductions in addition to safety and reliability.

Acadia Center is working to implement utility planning reforms in Massachusetts through legislation and is hopeful that such reforms can help stakeholders, regulators, and utilities reimagine what is possible for the Commonwealth’s energy future.

 

For more information: 

Kyle Murray, kmurray@acadiacenter.org,  617-742-0054 ext. 106 

Oliver Tully, otully@acadiacenter.org, 860.246.7121 ext. 202