National Grid has new vision for heating

Plan relies on renewable natural gas, green hydrogen

THERE IS OVERWHELMING evidence the world is experiencing the impacts of climate change, and that we must move away from fossil fuels.  As an energy company serving millions of people in the Northeast (National Grid), and as an organization representing over 3,400 businesses in Massachusetts (AIM), we’re both deeply invested in not only assisting in the transition to a fossil-free future, but also understanding how this transition will impact the businesses and residents of Massachusetts

Fortunately, Massachusetts is already far ahead of other states. Not only have we rallied around a net zero carbon emissions goal by 2050, but we also already have nation-leading energy efficiency programs, and solar development and electric vehicle incentives.

But it’s not enough.

Building heat represents more than a quarter of total carbon emissions. And it presents its own unique set of challenges.  With an older building stock, it will take decades and billions of dollars to insulate each home or business and install the number of heat pumps and electric appliances needed to meet our goals. In some cases, primarily in the commercial and industrial space, custom designs would be necessary, adding complexity and cost.

Tackling these challenges in the scale and speed needed to reach our goals requires more than one single solution. Now is not the time to discard ideas, particularly those that are data and science based.

Last month National Grid filed with the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities a plan that outlines how we plan to get to a decarbonized heating future.

And, this week, National Grid has expanded on that plan by announcing that it is going fossil-free across its US footprint with the introduction of a new vision for heating, based on three basic principles:

First, any solution must be fair, affordable, and preserve customer choice.  With a typical whole house electric conversion costing $20,000 to $60,000 (and for businesses, much more), this option is not only unreasonable, it’s unrealistic.  Compared to a high electrification approach, National Grid’s plan lets customers have clean energy with their existing appliances and heating equipment, reducing the cost to them while still achieving the same net zero goal.

Second, any solution must lower carbon emissions. Higher electric demands due to heating (and the growth of electric vehicles) are predicted to quadruple the need for electric power. Until renewable energy becomes a large part of our energy mix—not likely for two decades—those increased loads, particularly during the cold winter months, will be generated by coal and oil, increasing emissions, and negating any climate savings by switching to all electric options.

Finally, we cannot abandon a skilled workforce – especially National Grid’s frontline union gas workers in Massachusetts who are uniquely qualified to help enable this clean energy transition.

Driven by those principles, National Grid’s vision lets customers utilize most of their existing heating systems and appliances, avoiding replacement before their end of life, and saving money while achieving clean energy goals.

It starts with maintaining and enhancing our state’s highly regarded energy efficiency program.

For energy that cannot be eliminated through energy efficiency, natural gas in the existing network can be replaced with 100 percent fossil-free fuel comprised of renewable natural gas and green hydrogen. Under this scenario, hybrid heating systems that use efficient heat pumps will be backed up by our fossil-free gas network during the coldest months.

Rounding out the plan will be targeted electrification and geothermal networks.

Renewable natural gas (RNG) is produced from the decomposition of organic matter before it releases greenhouse gases and green hydrogen is generated by renewable energy or from low-carbon power. Hydrogen can be blended with renewable natural gas, up to 20 percent by volume, run through existing gas networks, and be used in customer appliances without significant upgrades to infrastructure or equipment.

RNG is immediately available and could supply at least half of the total gas needed to heat our homes and buildings.  Currently, nearly 20 states have advanced policies to enable a clean gas future, mainly focused on advancing RNG mandates and customer programs.

Meanwhile, green hydrogen is currently gaining lots of interest, particularly at the federal level. The US Department of Energy recently announced its “Hydrogen Shot” target to reduce the cost of clean hydrogen by 80 percent over the next 10 years, bringing it in line with current natural gas costs. Additionally, a recent study by the AIM Foundation concluded that if the cost was right, green hydrogen could play a major role in reducing greenhouse gases in Massachusetts by helping decarbonize multiple sectors, including heat, power generation, and transport.  Hydrogen is also particularly useful for high intensity industry.

Meet the Author

Stephen Woerner

President, National Grid New England
Meet the Author

Robert Rio

Guest Contributor

About Robert Rio

Robert Rio is the Senior Vice President and Counsel at the Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

About Robert Rio

Robert Rio is the Senior Vice President and Counsel at the Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

We do not have to make a false choice between fighting climate change and using the existing infrastructure and appliances on which so many of us rely. The time is now to focus on enabling a future where all our energy needs are met without fossil fuels.  We can make this vision a reality.

Stephen Woerner, is president of National Grid New England and Robert Rio is senior vice president and counsel, government affairs at Associated Industries of Massachusetts.