In a major milestone for the federal and New England electric grid, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) announced on March 8th that it had completed the required final environmental impact statement for Vineyard Wind, the nation’s first industrial-scale offshore wind (OSW) facility, to be located off the coast of Massachusetts. Slated for completion by mid-2024, this 800 MW project will power the equivalent of 400,000 homes with renewable energy, and it represents just the beginning for a burgeoning clean energy industry. The Biden administration recently announced plans to develop 30,000 MW of OSW by 2030 in the Northeast.
The emergence of a homegrown clean energy economy provides Massachusetts with an opportunity to end our long-running dependency on natural gas (more accurately called “fossil gas”), reduce the amount of money sent out-of-state, and build a strong and local engine for economic growth. Massachusetts has recognized the vital role that OSW will play in the gas-less future. The Commonwealth recently published its Energy Pathways Roadmap, a planning and analysis process to identify cost-effective and equitable pathways to reaching the 2050 target of reducing emissions by at least 85% by 2050, a target that was recently enshrined into law. The analysis notes that “offshore wind is the backbone of decarbonized electricity generation in Massachusetts,” with all modeled pathways requiring at least 15 GW of regional offshore wind by 2050.
Due to significant land constraints and the potential for delays in siting projects and transmission that limit onshore renewable development in the region, OSW will be a crucial resource for decarbonizing Massachusetts’ electric grid. OSW will displace polluting and dangerous gas infrastructure, which is currently the dominant energy resource on the grid (over 50% of electricity was generated from gas in 2020 regionally). With increased wind at night and winter, when demand for heat is highest, OSW will be able to meet peak demand for electric home heating.
According to the Massachusetts 2050 Roadmap, in all modeled scenarios, gas demand in the electric power sector needs to decrease drastically in the next 10 to 15 years. The graph below shows that regardless of the scenario in the Commonwealth’s modeled analysis – including one where it adds new pipelines — if we wish to meet climate targets, production of electricity from in-state fossil gas power plants must fall from roughly 70% of generation today to 37% by 2025 and 15% by 2030, finally decreasing to less than 10% between 2040 and 2050. Massachusetts’ modeling indicates that now is the time to decarbonize the grid, rather than in some distant future. Acadia Center, in our recent public comments on the Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2030, made similar points that now is the time to reduce our dependence on gas and make this decade count.
To better understand the strategy behind this rapid decline in gas demand and how this will impact our chances at reaching net-zero economy-wide by 2050, it helps to think of what the Commonwealth needs to do between now and 2050 in ten-year increments.
2021 to 2030 – Use Offshore Wind to Push Out Gas Generated Electricity
Between 2021 and 2030, Massachusetts must focus on decarbonizing the electric sector through a rapid and sustained buildout of offshore wind, in addition to hydropower imports from Canada, while continuing successful utility and distributed solar, onshore wind, and energy efficiency programs. Decarbonizing the electric sector will serve as the low-carbon backbone for a broader decarbonized economy. As more OSW comes online, the less gas Massachusetts and the region will need. In the words of former Massachusetts utility regulator Paul Hibbard, “the less offshore wind there is, the more generation from gas-fired, carbon emitting power plants there will be. It’s almost a 1-to-1 offset.”
2030 to 2040 – Electrify, Electrify, Electrify
In the following decade, as the electric grid is increasingly low-carbon, it will be necessary to aggressively electrify home heating and vehicles. While there are serious and successful efforts underway right now to electrify these sectors in New England, by 2030 the region will have the low-carbon grid ready to reap the climate, public health, and consumer benefits of a decarbonized grid. According to the 2050 Roadmap’s modeling, high-efficiency electric air-source heat pumps need to overtake fossil gas heat in residential buildings by 2034 and in commercial buildings by 2036. For light-duty vehicles, the 2050 Roadmap predicts that electric vehicles could overtake fossil fuel vehicles sometime in the mid-to-late 2030s. During this time, the region will continue to add OSW and other renewable resources, as well as battery storage and flexible demand response, increasingly pushing out gas generation.
2040 to 2050 – Sustaining the Zero Carbon Economy
In the last decade before mid-century, it will be crucial to continue to build on the success of the previous decades through continued investment in renewable energy and electrification while working to fully retire the remaining gas resources in the region. Even as late as 2045, the Commonwealth projects that gas will rely on between 1% to 5% of total electric demand during periods of peak demand. Massachusetts and other New England states project that the region will infrequently run its fleet of fossil gas generation in the region through 2050 to balance the operational needs of the grid, while providing backup to renewables.
While the natural gas industry claims that gas is a “bridge fuel” to a cleaner future, much of Massachusetts’ planning documents rely on polluting and dangerous gas resources through 2050. It is time for policy makers to realize that for our region, gas is a bridge too far, one that the region needs to get off as soon as possible by decarbonizing the grid, shifting to all-electric homes, electric vehicles, and continuing to invest in energy efficiency and innovative demand-side technology solutions.
We know that polluting and dangerous fossil gas resources are more likely to be in environmental justice communities. It is necessary then to invest in renewables and electrification while deploying long-term energy storage, dynamic load management, and smart grid transmission technologies in order to eliminate demand for gas and to shut down polluting plants. Making full use of decarbonization technologies will help wean our state off its addiction to fossil gas and shorten the fossil gas bridge.