We must pursue a real plan for net-zero emissions by 2050

Solution proposed by gas companies is 'business as usual'

AS THE COMMONWEALTH moves forward with its ambitious mandate to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, it’s essential that we have a real plan for implementing a real solution. Failure to adopt a concrete plan at best means piecemeal, uncoordinated and inefficient action. At worst, it could mean major disruption and harm to workers and ratepayers.

A full 27 percent of the state’s emissions come from buildings, mostly from burning gas for heat, cooking, and hot water, meaning that any plan to significantly reduce emissions must address the building sector.

Climate-harming emissions are not the only problem caused by using gas in buildings. It’s unhealthy – burning it spews harmful pollutants and carcinogens into the air both inside and outside the home. It’s unsafe – explosions resulting from old, deteriorating gas pipelines have caused several recent tragedies in Massachusetts and elsewhere. It’s increasingly expensive – not only in the bills ratepayers must now pay for costly gas, but also in the charges we will be expected to pay (think in terms of billions of dollars) for pipe replacement already scheduled far into the future.

The global consensus is that we must quickly discontinue gas use to avert catastrophic warming. But knowing we need to get the Commonwealth’s two million homes off gas and figuring out how to do this are radically different animals.

Fortunately, the Future of Clean Heat Act charts a viable course for the Commonwealth. It sets out a comprehensive strategy over the next 25 years for an efficient, cost-effective, and just transition from the current system – where buildings are heated by combusting fuels that are hazardous to health, safety, and the climate – to a system where buildings are heated and cooled with clean, renewable thermal energy like heat pumps.

The bill incentivizes gas companies to reinvent themselves as clean thermal energy companies so that instead of perpetually replacing aging gas pipes, they electrify neighborhoods and install geothermal energy networks in which buildings are efficiently heated and cooled by ground temperatures. The law would require gas companies to make specific and robust plans for the transition off gas and report on their progress annually. Importantly, the bill provides funding for low- and moderate-income customers who cannot afford to electrify their homes without assistance, and it requires the retention and retraining of skilled gas workers who might otherwise be displaced.

Massachusetts gas companies were required last year to submit a plan for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. But the “clean and renewable solution” they put forth is dangerous, unrealistic, and expensive, while making only a modest dent in emissions. Their proposal would continue business as usual — pumping combustible gas into pipes — with a few added twists to make them appear climate-friendly.

The hallmark of their “clean energy” claims is replacing fossil-sourced methane with methane from landfills and agriculture, which is called biomethane. However, methane – regardless of where it hails from – is still methane, traveling through the same leaky pipes and producing the same carbon when burned, resulting in a big emissions footprint. Biomethane is also expensive to produce and almost impossible to deliver in the volume that would be needed.

Even worse, gas companies are proposing to mix up to 20 percent hydrogen into biomethane – an extremely inefficient and expensive gas to produce cleanly. Adding hydrogen exacerbates the health and safety problems already present in the current gas system because it is more explosive than methane and releases the lung irritant nitrogen dioxide when burned.

Gas companies are hyping this climate “solution” so that they can maintain their very profitable business model of spending billions of ratepayer dollars replacing gas pipes – to the tune of $40 billion over the next few decades. If you had $40 billion to spend, and an urgent need to address climate change, would you continue to prop up dead-end, greenhouse gas emitting infrastructure or invest it in a real clean energy solution?

Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Jennifer Armini

State representative, Marblehead
Meet the Author

Steven Owens

State representative, Watertown
The roadmap laid out in the Future of Clean Heat Act is carefully considered. It puts the safety and health of the public first, facilitates an equitable transition off gas, and, most importantly, significantly reduces emissions to diminish climate change and protect the planet.

We have neither time nor resources to waste to meet our climate goals. Let’s pass The Future of Clean Heat Act to chart our path to a safer, healthier, and livable future.

Cynthia Creem is chair of the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change. Jennifer Armini and Steven Owens sit on the House Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change.