Decarbonization road map has some gaping holes

Power reliability and cost need to be addressed

GOV. MAURA HEALEY has gotten off to a good running start on implementing the Commonwealth’s plans to combat climate change by establishing an Office of Climate Innovation and Resilience within the governor’s office and appointing a climate chief. The state’s long range climate change plans are embodied in the “Massachusetts 2050 Decarbonization Road Map,” which aims to reduce Massachusetts greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent of the 1990 baseline by 2050 and  achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, through a near-total reliance on renewable energy sources and battery storage for electricity.

If implemented, the plan will require a huge transformation of the electricity generation sector, shifting away from reliance on natural gas and other fossil fuels to generate electricity and instead relying on solar and wind sources.  It would also require 100 percent electrification of building space and water heating and a massive increase in the number of electric vehicles, among other initiatives.

But it is unlikely that the Commonwealth will achieve these goals despite good intentions and the expenditure of billions of dollars of taxpayer and ratepayer money.

Conversion to electric vehicles and 100 percent building electrification will double the  state’s electricity demand. We all know that there are days when sun doesn’t shine (every night and cloudy days) and there are  often calm periods of little to no wind. When solar and wind facilities aren’t generating, the New England power grid operator will need other “dispatchable zero emissions” power sources to generate electricity that can be turned on (and off) as needed to meet high electric demand while generating zero GHG emissions.

The 2050 Decarbonization Road map admits that solar and wind cannot supply all electricity demand during certain peak periods and that new dispatchable zero emission generation technologies — currently not commercially available — will be needed as a backup when solar or wind generation is unavailable.  Moreover, the Road Map assumes that nearly all gas-fired generation will be out of operation by 2050. If that happens, what will keep the lights on and your heating system going when the sun is not shining and there is a low wind condition on a cold February night, particularly if the hoped for dispatchable zero emission generation facilities do not materialize? Hope is not an adequate plan for assuring electric reliability.

The possibility of electricity shortages if we have to rely on intermittent solar and wind  facilities and  all natural gas-fired generation is shut down by 2050 is confirmed by ISO-New England, the grid operator. ISO-New England reports indicate  electricity demand will have to be met by new dispatchable (under any conditions) zero emissions technologies that are currently not commercially available at scale.  The grid operator warns that a transition to 100 percent solar and wind means that dispatchable generation capacity and generation reserves will be reduced, making the electric generation system less reliable. The grid operator also  indicates that to maintain generation reliability a certain amount of natural gas-fired generation will have to remain on line in the electric generation mix, to provide electricity when renewable energy sources can’t operate due to adverse weather conditions.  This is anathema to climate change zealots who don’t want any fossil fuel generation and who don’t recognize that maintenance of electric reliability in this age of dependence on all things electric is a  priority.

The Massachusetts 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap  also indicates that it would rely on imports of electricity from Hydro Quebec in Canada. So far the transmission line from Hydro Quebec in Canada into Maine has been blocked. Massachusetts can’t rely on electricity imports from Canada. We must maintain a controllable supply of electricity in the state.

Buildings generate 27 percent of greenhouse gasses in Massachusetts. The  2050 Decarbonization Roadmap  plans to eliminate the use of oil or natural gas for building space and water heating and require 100 percent heating electrification by use of electric powered heat pumps.  However, 100 percent electrification of buildings in the near term may be an  impossible goal. It may be feasible to change the state building code to require 100 percent electrification for new construction, but 100 percent electrification of existing buildings is not going to happen anytime soon. It is very costly to pull out a building’s heating system to install electricity-based heat pumps. Oil or gas heating systems generally last 30-50 years, and thus a transition to electric heat pumps could take a generation to accomplish. And the oldest and least efficient buildings are inhabited by those least able to afford costly conversion of their heating system to 100 percent electric and, if they do, they will increase their electric bill substantially.

Building decarbonization isn’t going to occur unless the state financially supports the transition to 100 percent electric heat by heat pumps and then subsidizes increased electric costs for the lower income families. The Road Map doesn’t address how all this will be paid for.

Massachusetts  has been a leader in combating climate change and taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the aggressive and well meaning state decarbonization plans ignore two basic priorities.

First, the electric system must remain reliable at all times and be able to supply electric power when the sun is not shining and during low or no wind conditions. Electricity is an absolute necessity of life for this electricity-dependent society.

Massachusetts energy policy makers and regulators should heed the warnings of ISO-New England and take steps to ensure electric reliability in all weather conditions with a conservative reserve margin of electricity generation, even if some gas-fired generation facilities need to remain in operation.

Second, the other priority not adequately addressed in the Road Map is the cost of total state energy system decarbonization. Unbelievably, there is no cost analysis to be found in the 2050 Decarbonization Road Map. A similar zero greenhouse gas plan in New York is estimated to cost $350-$500 billion.  Subsidization of solar, wind  and battery storage facilities, transmission lines, electrification of the transportation system, and building decarbonization will undoubtedly cost Massachusetts  citizens billions of dollars, and this is a regressive cost imposition that will be disproportionately paid by lower income families. A transparent cost analysis of the Commonwealth’s decarbonization plan is a necessity before these steps are implemented, and means and methods of paying for the initiatives must be put into place by executive and legislative actions.

It makes no sense for Mass ratepayers and taxpayers to be paying huge undisclosed costs to obtain a less reliable electricity system in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts 2050 Decarbonization Road Map is a good start to the mammoth task of reducing the Commonwealth’s greenhouse gas emissions over time to net zero, but electric reliability at an affordable cost must  take equal priority with costly decarbonization plans that will certainly benefit the world but be disproportionately paid for by the Commonwealth’s taxpayers and ratepayers.

Arnold R. Wallenstein is an attorney who represents independent power producers in Massachusetts and other states. He is on the board of advisers of a solar photovoltaic company and is the principal member of the in Boston.