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.’ ”

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 Utilitiesissued last weekallows 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-spikinghand-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.