Baker emissions roadmap sets ambitious targets

Calls for energy retrofits of 1m homes, 750,000 electric vehicles over next decade

This story was updated at 2:30 p.m.

THE BAKER ADMINISTRATION on Wednesday rolled out a draft plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade that calls for energy retrofits of 1 million existing homes, higher efficiency standards for all new construction, the deployment of 750,000 electric vehicles, preservation of the region’s nuclear power plants, and a dramatic expansion of the state’s offshore wind industry.

In broad strokes, the Baker administration’s plan for reaching net zero emissions by 2050 calls for stepped-up energy conservation efforts and much greater electrification of the state’s transportation and building sectors, which currently account for more than two-thirds of emissions.

As part of electrification, the state will have to increase the production of renewable, low-emission electricity by building a large offshore wind industry, expanding the production of solar power, and reorienting the region’s transmission network to allow more imports of renewable power from outside the state and the region.

“If we’re going to meet our ambitious climate goals and achieve net zero by 2050, then this is really the decade for action,” said Kathleen Theoharides, the secretary of energy and environmental affairs, in a briefing with reporters.

Theoharides called for a 19 million-ton reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, which would render a 45 percent reduction in emissions compared to 1990 levels. The state is expected to hit a 25 percent reduction compared to 1990 levels by 2020.

Theoharides said her office looked at 40, 45, and 50 percent emission reduction targets for 2030, and concluded the 45 percent target, which would be legally binding on future administrations, provided the best balance between reaching the emissions goal and keeping costs in check.  Going above 45 percent, she said, would have driven up costs too fast. “It would be an unnecessary disruption to the economy,” she said.

Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said the Baker administration should have been more aggressive, pushing for at least a 50 percent emission reductions target for 2030. “Given the urgency of the climate crisis, this is not bold enough,” Henry said in a statement.

Since passage of the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2008, Massachusetts has focused most of its emissions-reduction attention on obvious targets, like the electricity generation sector, where a relatively small group of businesses operate. But, as the state moves forward, it is now targeting the millions of individuals who drive cars and heat their homes and businesses. According to the state’s 2030 report, 5 million light-duty cars and trucks generate 60 percent of the state’s transportation emissions and 3 million residential households generate 60 percent of emissions from buildings.

“The strategies to achieve emissions reductions in the 2020s necessitate influencing millions of smaller transitions over the next 10 years,” the report said. “It will take action at all levels of government and in all sectors of the economy.”

The 2030 plan calls for energy retrofits (“green” heating and insulation) of 1 million existing homes and 350 million square feet of commercial property. It also calls for the development of a new building code emphasizing energy efficiency for new construction. The secretary said the governor intends to establish a Commission on Clean Heat.

“The number of buildings using natural gas, fuel oil, and propane for space and water heating must begin to steadily and permanently decline, and the deployment of heat pumps and building envelope improvements retrofits must become widespread,” the report says, noting that customers who heat with gas may see a price hike in the short term.

The 2030 plan envisions 750,000 electric vehicles on the road by the end of the decade, which would be a huge increase from current levels. Administration officials said there are roughly 30,000 electric and hybrid vehicles on the road currently.

By 2030, the state wants zero emission vehicles to account for half of all light duty vehicle purchase. By 2035, Theoharides said, only zero-emission light-duty vehicles will be sold in Massachusetts under the proposed plan.

The secretary said the state’s participation in the regional transportation climate initiative, which caps emissions from vehicle fuels and also raises funds for clean energy investments by putting a price on the carbon contained in the fuels, is expected to play a complementary role by reducing vehicle emissions over time.

The Baker administration plan also calls for reducing commuter vehicle miles traveled by 15 percent, which aides said was the equivalent of reducing overall vehicle miles traveled by 4 percent.

Theoharides and her aides said the target was doable given the surge in telecommuting kickstarted by the coronavirus pandemic, but historical trends are not promising. Since 1990, according to the state’s report, vehicle miles traveled in Massachusetts have steadily increased and vehicles have gotten bigger and bigger, boosting emissions and wiping out gains from higher vehicle fuel efficiency standards.

The state’s electric grid has become a lot greener over the last two decades, but it still has a long way to go if electricity is going to be the fuel that powers the economy of the future. As of Wednesday afternoon, the region’s power grid operator reported that 62 percent of New England’s electricity was being generated by power plants fueled by natural gas, 21 percent by nuclear, 9 percent by renewables ,and  8 percent hydro.

Theoharides wants to dramatically expand the development of renewable, clean energy. She said the goal for this decade is to bring online the current 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind that have been procured already and authorize additional procurements. By 2050, she said, the state needs to have 25 gigawatts of offshore wind in place, 15 times the amount the state hopes to have in operation by 2030.

Theoharides and her aides said the existing nuclear power plants in Seabrook, New Hampshire, and Millstone, Connecticut, need to be preserved. “Keeping those resources online is very important,” Theoharides said.

If offshore wind fails to grow as fast as expected, Baker administration officials say new nuclear power plants may be needed. According to the Baker administration long-range 2050 report, “If offshore wind resources cannot be fully realized, new nuclear resources would be an economically viable alternative for supplying low carbon electricity, but concerns about safety and the disposal of radioactive waste make it unlikely that new nuclear resources would be sited in New England in the future. Future breakthroughs in small modular reactor technology or even fusion technology could change both of these dynamics, but neither technology has been, or appears likely to be, commercialized and affordably deployable.”

Dan Dolan, the president of the New England Power Generators Association, said the administration’s plan is a good first step. “Today’s analysis is important in laying out a vision for the future, but it does not tell us how to get there,” he said. “The New England Power Generators Association strongly believes that there are two guideposts to chart the path forward. First, we must work to internalize the costs of climate change into the economy to support new investments and guide consumer choices. That should be done through putting a meaningful price on carbon emissions in the electricity, transportation, and heating industries. Second, the New England electricity markets should be improved to better account for the services that will be needed in this changing economy.”

In her presentation to reporters on Wednesday, Theoharides repeatedly referenced how the role of the state’s utilities – Eversource, National Grid, and Unitil – will change over the coming decades as customers transition away from natural gas and increasingly embrace electricity. Just as utilities act as middlemen for the state in negotiating contracts with offshore wind developers, Theoharides suggested the companies may play that same role with homeowners and businesses transitioning to new heating systems. Utilities also may play a role in building out the electric vehicle charging infrastructure needed for drivers to embrace electric vehicles.

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Bruce Mohl

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About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

By 2050, Theoharides said, the Baker administration does not envision the elimination of all emissions. She said the state hopes to offset a certain amount of emissions by sequestering carbon in new forests, wetlands, and other offsets.

Theoharides said the administration’s draft plan will be open for public comment until February 22.