Boston’s health care industry is energy intensive

To help, DPU needs to act on new Mass Save incentives

THE CLIMATE CRISIS is already wreaking havoc on our planet’s ecosystems, weather patterns, and economies. Some of its most profound effects, however, will be on human health.  

Fossil fuel pollution from heavy industry, large buildings, power plants, and transportation represents a two-front public health threat. It poisons the air, causing health problems like heart and respiratory disease — especially in the frontline communities most exposed to the pollution. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions rapidly heat our planet, causing storms, heat waves, and drought that have already left an immense human toll that is expected to become much worse. 

Yet health care — the very industry responsible for addressing these public health impacts — plays an outsized role in fueling them. With unique demands for electronic equipment, ventilation, and transportation, health care is the second most energy-intensive industry in the United States, and its hospitals, labs, and other facilities use nearly twice as much energy as similarly sized offices. 

A recent report issued by Health Care Without Harm and the Boston Green Ribbon Commissiuon highlighted some good news: Boston’s world-class health care system reduced its climate pollution by about 18 percent over the last decade, even as the size of its facilities expanded. Largely driven by investments in renewable electricity by Mass General Brigham and Boston Medical Center, this is significant progress. But health care facilities have more work to do to meet the state’s goal of slashing climate pollution by 50 percent by 2030 and achieving net zero emissions by 2050, a mandate that was enshrined last year in state law. 

While investing more in renewable electricity is vital to cleaning up buildings of all shapes and sizes, one of the biggest challenges to decarbonizing large buildings is their heating and cooling (HVAC) systems. While this is a challenge for all large buildings, it’s an added one for hospitals, where HVAC not only controls temperatures but also works to prevent the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19. Their systems must be resilient so they can remain open and able to provide critical care to their patients despite extreme weather, including record flooding and storms, that climate change is making more common. 

Buildings are directly responsible for more than a quarter of Massachusetts’ emissions, and account for an even higher rate if you include their electricity consumption. So achieving the state and the city of Boston’s ambitious climate targets will require a stronger policy approach. It will also take technical innovation to reduce harmful air pollution and build more resilient energy systems to help facilities and the communities they serve weather the storms — both literal and figurative — that a changing climate will bring. 

Thankfully, Massachusetts isn’t starting from scratch. For years, Mass Save, the state’s leading energy efficiency program, has used a combination of rebates, interest-free loans, free efficiency upgrades, and other incentives to help make the homes and buildings of Massachusetts’ residents and business owners more efficient and resilient. The program has been effective and popular — putting the state on a path to meeting early greenhouse gas targets, helping countless people and organizations reduce their energy costs, supporting contracting jobs, and powering Massachusetts’ consistent ranking at or near the top of the most energy-efficient states. 

But now that the state has enacted stronger climate targets, Mass Save will need significant revisions and updates to help the state meet those new goals. The Department of Public Utilities, which oversees Mass Save, is currently considering a new package of incentives designed to equitably help organizations and homeowners reduce their energy use. Importantly, it includes programs to make it much easier and more affordable for companies, institutions, and residents to transition away from fossil fuels in favor of clean heating systems, such as heat pumps, that can be powered by renewable electricity. 

The Mass Save revisions include other important policies to help guide a fair and equitable clean energy transition. For the first time, Mass Save would include incentives designed to ensure program benefits extend to every community in the state, prioritizing those communities with the least resources and who face the greatest environmental burdens. A comprehensive workforce development plan seeks to create a clean energy workforce that is multilingual, multiracial, multiethnic, and drawn from all communities in the state. 

Many companies, investors, and large institutions support these policies because they are critical to the state’s efforts to build a cleaner, healthier economy. Several health care systems, for example, have set their own bold goals for reducing carbon emissions and improving public health, and count on programs like this to achieve those goals. These policies also make good financial sense, helping organizations save money on heavy-duty equipment and power costs, while reducing their exposure to the volatility of fossil fuel prices. It’s one of many examples demonstrating that climate action is not only good for communities and public health, but it is good business, too. 

Meet the Author

John Carlson

Manager of state policy, Ceres
Meet the Author

Winston Vaughan

Massachusetts director, Health Care Without Harm
It’s important to note that the Mass Save program is not a cure-all. Right now, there is not enough clean power in Massachusetts to electrify every building in Massachusetts. However, large-scale offshore wind and other low-cost, clean energy sources are rapidly transforming and decarbonizing our electric grid. As that clean grid of the future becomes a reality in the decades to come, we’ll need to prepare our buildings to utilize it. 

That means the Department of Public Utilities must approve the proposed Mass Save plan. A more ambitious Mass Save program that prioritizes electrification, deep decarbonization, public health, and equity is essential to building a sustainable and prosperous future for our Commonwealth and beyond. 

John Carlson is manager of state policy at Ceres and Winston Vaughan is director of climate solutions at Health Care Without Harm.