OpEd: Hydrogen shouldn’t have a role in heating buildings

NATIONAL GRID New England President Stephen Woerner recently wrote an op-ed noting how Greek architects practiced “a methodical, systematic style that appropriately balanced aspiration with sound architectural order for enduring results.” He compared this approach to National Grid’s planned strategies for injecting hydrogen and “renewable natural gas” (RNG) into our current pipeline system that distributes fossil (natural) gas to homes and businesses. Had the ancient Greek architects utilized such a short-sighted approach, the Parthenon would have long since crumbled to dust.

Far from the safe and successful heating source that National Grid describes, hydrogen is a highly combustible fuel that poses a significant safety risk in the context of residential and commercial buildings.  In fact, the lion’s share of energy flowing through the gas system would still be made up of methane, a greenhouse gas that is more than 84 times as potent as carbon dioxide.

This methane can come in several forms – natural gas, “renewable natural gas,” or “synthetic natural gas” – but they all suffer from a common problem: producing, distributing, and using these fuels results in massive amounts of methane being released directly to the atmosphere. Updates to New York state’s greenhouse gas accounting for natural gas emissions revealed that over 47 percent of total emissions associated with natural gas consumption in New York are the result of methane leaks along the entire gas supply chain. Massachusetts has gas infrastructure that is in similar shape, if not worse.

In “Majority of US Urban Natural Gas Emissions Unaccounted for in Inventories,” a long-term study by Harvard scientists released in 2021, the authors found six times more methane leaking into the air around Boston than reported in the Massachusetts Greenhouse Gas Inventory compiled by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

Of the six cities studied in the analysis, Boston had the highest natural gas leak rate (4.7 percent) from “well pad to urban consumer.” Because of these leak rates, any plan that relies on distributing a significant quantity of methane through the gas distribution system, like National Grid has proposed, will fall well short of the Commonwealth’s net zero target in 2050.

We agree with National Grid that there are industries which are genuinely difficult to decarbonize, such as shipping and aviation, and will require creative solutions that include green hydrogen. However, that is a far cry from utilizing it for home heating, where better choices are available. It’s essentially the equivalent of saying you could heat your home using $20 bills as kindling in your living room fireplace. Sure, you may be able to do it, but is that really the wisest idea?

Green hydrogen is, and will continue to be, an extremely limited resource. Using it in buildings is a low-value use of a high-value resource and will only make it more challenging to decarbonize the hardest-to-electrify sectors of our economy. Massachusetts has already laid out a roadmap for the future of heating that involves electrifying most buildings – the least-cost “All Options” scenario in the Massachusetts 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap calls for electrification of over 90 percent of residential space heating and 95 percent of residential water heating by 2050.

Whole-home electrification via heat pumps can save energy and money, especially when paired with common-sense weatherization improvements like insulation and air sealing. Heat pumps are also efficient and affordable, especially given the many incentives available at Mass Save, as well as the soon-to-be or already available options in the Inflation Reduction Act. All-electric heating is economical, with affordable housing making up 78 percent of all residential net zero and net zero-ready square footage, up from 54 percent in March 2021. Even without the incentives, an average home that fully converts from propane to heat pumps could save $1,650 annually on fuel. The annual fuel savings from converting to a heat pump will pay for the cost of installation in 5-11 years, and rebates from efficiency programs can increase fuel cost savings and reduce the payback period.

Heat pumps, despite their name, also cool homes significantly more efficiently than traditional air conditioning systems and save money on electric bills in the summer by displacing less efficient air conditioning units. And for those concerned about winter weather, heat pump technology has made major advances over the years, with many models heating homes comfortably in the coldest temperatures.

Maine, the coldest state in the Northeast, has installed over 82,000 heat pumps over the last nine years, including over 21,000 in 2021 alone. Vermont, the region’s second coldest state, has installed heat pumps in about 1 percent of its homes every year since 2015. Heat pumps, paired with properly weatherized buildings, can reliably and affordably keep Massachusetts’ residents warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Right now, we have the chance to adopt solutions that truly transform our building, transportation, and power systems. We cannot follow the old models and systems that led us to the climate crisis in the first place. Our Commonwealth can embrace realistic and proven solutions. Saving green hydrogen and “renewable natural gas” for limited purposes in hard-to-electrify sectors, and electrifying buildings quickly with highly efficient systems is that solution.

This OpEd was published in CommonWealth Magazine.

Why electricity prices are rising unevenly across New England

You may have noticed that your most recent electric bill is higher than usual — and if that change hasn’t happened yet, it’s probably coming this fall. These price spikes are occurring across New England, but bills are rising more in some places than others.

Some ratepayers in New Hampshire saw the price of electricity double this summer, resulting in bills up to $70 higher, while many in Massachusetts are only paying an extra $11 per month.

If it seems unfair, blame the energy markets. And if it’s confusing because everyone in New England shares an electricity grid, well, read on.

“We just have a physical constraint of how much gas we can deliver through the pipeline system to New England,” said Ben Butterworth, director of climate, energy & equity analysis at the Acadia Center.

Read the full article at WBUR here.

High bills, blackout risks: Grave winter energy forecasts drawing lines across New England

During a media briefing Tuesday, clean energy advocates targeted perceived longtime messaging from the region’s grid operator ISO-New England that natural gas and reliability go hand in hand, a mindset they feel has kept renewable energy off the grid and ratepayers subject to the volatility of a global commodity.

Ahead of the forum, representatives from Acadia Center, Northeast Clean Energy Council, Slingshot, Conservation Law Foundation and Advanced Energy Economy said more natural gas is not the solution to the region’s reliability issues, and that ISO-New England should stop putting “too many eggs in one basket.”

Melissa Birchard, director of clean energy and grid reform at Acadia Center, said federal energy officials, state leaders and ISO-New England are all worried about keeping the lights on this winter.

 

Read the full article in The Providence Journal here.

 

Maine court finds part of referendum blocking transmission line to Massachusetts unconstitutional

An embattled transmission corridor considered critical to Massachusetts’ climate effort was given new life Tuesday, after a ruling by Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court seemingly brought it back from the dead.

The project, which would bring hydroelectric energy from Quebec, through the wilds of western Maine and into Massachusetts, is a key piece of how Massachusetts plans to convert its energy grid from fossil fuels to clean energy.

But a vote in Maine last year to block the project left the transmission line on life support, all but dooming a major piece of Massachusetts’ plan to rapidly clean its power grid and likely setting the state’s climate efforts back by years.

The ruling Tuesday is far from a full green light for the project. The judges found that part of the Nov. 2021 referendum was unconstitutional, sending the case back to a lower court to decide its future. It will be up to that court to decide whether enough of the project had been completed prior to the vote that stopping it now would be unconstitutional under Maine law.

But many clean energy advocates were heartened.

“Like everyone, we were waiting with bated breath to see what the court would say, and it wasn’t clear which direction they would go,” said Daniel Sosland, president of the clean energy advocacy group the Acadia Center.

Read the full article in The Boston Globe here.

How to decarbonize your home, with help from the Inflation Reduction Act

Looking to cut your home’s planet-warming pollution? The Inflation Reduction Act, which President Biden signed last week, could make that more affordable.

Decarbonizing your home can be expensive, but you don’t have to do it all at once, and government incentives can help. Massachusetts offers substantial rebates, especially for low-income people, through the Mass Save program.

Where to start?

To begin, consider getting a home energy audit — an assessment of your energy consumption. It’s free through the state’s Mass Save program and also covered by new federal tax incentives. Then seal and insulate your home to reduce the amount of energy it takes to heat and cool it, said Ben Butterworth, senior manager of climate and energy analysis at the Acadia Center, a clean energy advocacy organization.

Read the full article in The Boston Globe here.

Electric vehicle incentives are getting a total makeover

Thinking of buying an electric car? Two huge new climate policies — the Inflation Reduction Act that President Biden signed last week, and a major bill that Governor Charlie Baker signed Aug. 11 — include subsidies intended to make them more affordable.

The federal bill includes tax credits of up to $7,500 for new electric or fuel-cell vehicles, extending the previously existing tax incentives. Some plug-in hybrids qualify, too.

The new Massachusetts bill will increase rebates for new fully electric cars and fuel-cell cars from $2,500 to between $3,500 and $5,000 — the exact amount is yet to be determined — with an additional $1,500 rebate for low-income residents and an extra $1,000 for those who trade in an internal combustion vehicle.

But the state bill doesn’t include a timeline for implementing any of these changes. And it’s not clear how the new program will be paid for: The new climate bill sets up an Electric Vehicle Adoption Trust, but doesn’t actually fund it. (The money could come from a separate economic development bill, but the Legislature failed to complete it before the session ended last month, so the timing and outcome remain uncertain.)

For now, the old program is still open and funded until the middle of 2023, according to Kyle Murray, Massachusetts senior policy advocate at the Acadia Center.

Read the full article in The Boston Globe here.

RIPTA introduces new electric bus

PROVIDENCE – It runs quietly and has a green color scheme, but if there’s still any doubt about what powers the newest addition to the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s bus fleet, just look at the sign splashed across the side.

“I’m electric,” it declares. The million-dollar electric bus purchased with federal funds and unveiled Tuesday is set to go into operation before the end of the year on RIPTA’s busiest route, the R-Line, which runs from Cranston through downtown Providence and on into Pawtucket.

The current investments in cleaner vehicles represent a good start, said Hank Webster, Rhode Island director of the Acadia Center, a regional environmental group. “Some of these investments are going to take time to ramp up, but I think we’re doing a considerable amount in the near term,” he said. “The strategy of prioritizing routes that go through communities overburdened by pollution is a sound one.”

Read the full article in The Providence Journal here.

‘Electrify Arlington’ in step with new climate law

A new climate bill signed last week by Gov. Baker contains a provision aiming to change the carbon landscape in Massachusetts: 10 communities in the state can participate in a pilot program that bans the use of fossil fuels in new buildings and major renovations.

“Ultimately, we need to stop building with fossil fuels, and the easiest way to decarbonize our buildings is for them not to be carbon-full from the beginning,” Amy Boyd, policy director of the clean-energy advocacy group Acadia Center, told The Globe. “The more we keep building with fossil fuels, the harder it’s going to be.”

Read the full article in your Arlington here

Ten cities and towns are poised to ban fossil fuels from new buildings

The small housing development just off Main Street in Concord is almost complete. Many of the neat one-, two- and three-bedroom homes are already occupied, and the rest have just a few plumbing and electrical jobs that need wrapping.

From the outside, this 14-unit development looks relatively unremarkable — except for one key difference: there are no gas hookups, no oil or propane tanks. All the homes are completely fossil-fuel free.

In recent years, small developments such as Concord Millrun have cropped up in recognition that the climate crisis calls for radical changes in our use of fossil fuels. And now, a new climate bill signed last week by Governor Charlie Baker contains a provision that could change the landscape significantly: 10 communities in the state can participate in a pilot program that bans the use of fossil fuels in new buildings and major renovations. Where once they were the exception, in these 10 communities, fossil-fuel-free developments will become the rule.

And if the effort succeeds in those communities, advocates say, the rest of the state could eventually follow.

“Ultimately, we need to stop building with fossil fuels, and the easiest way to decarbonize our buildings is for them not to be carbon-full from the beginning,” said Amy Boyd, policy director of the clean energy advocacy group Acadia Center. “The more we keep building with fossil fuels, the harder it’s going to be.”

Read the full article in The Boston Globe here.

Major Win in Massachusetts with Clean Energy and Climate Bill

On July 21st, the Massachusetts House and Senate announced they had reached an agreement on a compromise climate change bill, released that bill unanimously from the committee of conference, and passed it in both branches. The sprawling 96-page bill touched upon practically every sector, including transportation, energy, and buildings. Governor Baker then sent the bill back to legislature with amendments, most of which were rejected, before ultimately signing the bill today. So now we’re just left with the question: “Uh, what’s actually in it?”

Acadia Center Priorities

As to be expected, the conference committee bill is a compromise bill between the separate climate bills passed by the two branches and contains significant elements from each proposal. Significant portions of Acadia Center priorities, including some listed below, were included in this legislation as well. The bill limits Mass Save from incentivizing fossil fuel equipment starting in 2025, aiming instead to promote electrification. It also requires the creation of a stakeholder Grid Modernization Advisory Council and adds a requirement for utilities to submit grid modernization plans to that Council. This language was based upon legislation which Acadia Center drafted in 2018. The conference committee legislation also allows regional solicitation for long-term contracts for offshore wind and transmission and creates a Clean Energy Transmission Working Group to do a full analysis of the barriers to major transmission upgrades. Acadia Center is specifically named as a member of that working group. The legislation also removes biomass from the Renewable Portfolio Standard, a concept for which Acadia Center has long advocated.

The Senate Proposal

From the Senate side, the compromise legislation increases rebates for ZEVs, adds an additional incentive for low-income customers, and requires new MBTA bus purchases to be ZEVs by 2030. It also aims to boost energy storage, fix some issues hindering the solar industry, and allows ten cities and towns to require fossil-fuel free new construction.

The House Proposal

The House climate bill primarily centered around offshore wind, and this final version reflects major elements of that as well. It aims to develop the offshore wind industry through infrastructure, investment, and job training. These sections also have a strong focus on economic inclusion and labor protections and fix issues with the procurement process, such as the conflict of interest stemming from utilities selecting winning bids.

Governor’s Amendments

In sending the bill back to the legislature, Governor Baker offered several pages of amendments, including $750 million in ARPA spending on clean energy. However, most of these were rejected. The legislature did accept a few, including the elimination of a price cap provision on offshore wind, something for which the Governor has long advocated.

What Isn’t In the Bill?

Unfortunately, as with most compromises, the final bill does not contain all that we hoped it would. It excludes a top environmental justice priority, which would increase air quality monitoring and require the state to establish baseline air quality for air pollution hotspots. It also does not include language which would have set up a successor to the state’s solar program or a provision to set electrification targets for the commuter rail system. Disappointingly, the final proposal also excludes significant swaths of dedicated funding that were present in the original versions, including funding for EVs, charging infrastructure, and clean energy.

Still, wide ranging climate improvements in nearly every sector is worth celebrating. The Governor, the legislature, and environmental activists deserve credit for delivering a strong climate bill and should take a well-deserved rest. Now let’s recharge and gear up for the climate bill for next session.

 

For more information:

Kyle Murray
Senior Policy Advocate-Massachusetts
kmurray@acadiacenter.org
617-742-0054, ext. 106