Hunger and the clean energy transition

Affordability has to be factored into the debate

TWO EVENTS that made the news recently caught my attention. Both highlight one of the most important challenges we’re tasked with solving as we commit to a cleaner energy future.

The first event was a Boston University professor’s days-long hunger strike protest of a proposed facility in Weymouth that would be part of our region’s infrastructure – Enbridge’s plan to build a compressor station to transport natural gas to commercial and residential heating customers across the state.  In his demonstration against the project, Nathan Phillips, an advocate for clean energy and electrification, chose not to eat.

The second event was a policy briefing on the shortage of low-income heating assistance.  Elizabeth Berube, the deputy director of Citizens for Citizens, a group that helps people cope with rising energy prices, told electeds that thousands of their constituents don’t have money for heating bills, and must choose between paying their energy bills and buying food. So, like Phillips, they, too, are choosing not to eat. But their hunger isn’t voluntary.

As the president of National Grid in Massachusetts, which delivers natural gas to 930,000 Massachusetts residents and electricity to 1.3 million, I’ve met and attended the same meetings as Phillips. I respect his passion for climate leadership; it’s one that I share.  I also am familiar with the demographic Berube referenced in the heating aid policy briefing. Nearly 20 percent of our customers qualify for this type of assistance and many struggle to pay their gas and electric bills.

Climate change is a reality, and we must work across public and private sectors to fight it together. But there’s another reality we can’t ignore.

About 25 percent of Massachusetts residents still rely on oil for their heating needs. Fewer than one in six residents heat with electricity.  More than 50 percent heat with natural gas, which is about half the cost of heat produced with electricity.  Requests for new gas services are outpacing our ability to fulfill them. They come primarily from oil customers, who, when they convert to gas, realize an average annual cost savings of $1,000, and reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by 3 tons – displacing about 700 gallons of heating oil use.

And therein lies our challenge. How can affordability underpin our clean energy transition?

We believe we don’t have to choose between electricity and gas any more than our customers should have to choose between heat and food.  We seek to decarbonize both networks alongside each other.  The gas network of the future can look very different than it does today, with low carbon fuels traveling through infrastructure already connected to millions of homes and businesses.

The urgency we all have to fight climate change has polarized the policy conversation, and our options are too often framed as absolutes.  Some advocate that the only choice is 100 percent conversion to all-renewables and total electrification today, with no room for a thoughtful transition that utilizes the gas network and achieves maximum economic and environmental benefit from our customers’ investments.

In New England, where electricity costs are among the highest in the country, economic fairness must underpin our transition while we embrace deeper innovation possibilities. We are investing in these possibilities, which include utilizing the existing gas network to deliver renewable natural gas. We’re exploring options for geothermal heating, and, on a parallel path, we’re reducing energy consumption through what have been recognized as the best energy efficiency programs in the nation.

Meet the Author

Marcy Reed

Massachusetts president/Executive vice president for US policy and social impact, National Grid
We need more solutions and choices, not fewer, as we work to solve one of the greatest challenges of our lifetime.

Marcy Reed is Massachusetts president and executive vice president for US policy and social impact at National Grid.