Hydrogen shouldn’t have a role in heating buildings
Green hydrogen should only be used where decarbonization is difficult
NATIONAL GRID New England President Stephen Woerner recently wrote an op-ed noting how Greek architects practiced “a methodical, systematic style that appropriately balanced aspiration with sound architectural order for enduring results.” He compared this approach to National Grid’s planned strategies for injecting hydrogen and “renewable natural gas” (RNG) into our current pipeline system that distributes fossil (natural) gas to homes and businesses. Had the ancient Greek architects utilized such a short-sighted approach, the Parthenon would have long since crumbled to dust.
Far from the safe and successful heating source that National Grid describes, hydrogen is a highly combustible fuel that poses a significant safety risk in the context of residential and commercial buildings. In fact, the lion’s share of energy flowing through the gas system would still be made up of methane, a greenhouse gas that is more than 84 times as potent as carbon dioxide.
This methane can come in several forms – natural gas, “renewable natural gas,” or “synthetic natural gas” – but they all suffer from a common problem: producing, distributing, and using these fuels results in massive amounts of methane being released directly to the atmosphere. Updates to New York state’s greenhouse gas accounting for natural gas emissions revealed that over 47 percent of total emissions associated with natural gas consumption in New York are the result of methane leaks along the entire gas supply chain. Massachusetts has gas infrastructure that is in similar shape, if not worse.
In “Majority of US Urban Natural Gas Emissions Unaccounted for in Inventories,” a long-term study by Harvard scientists released in 2021, the authors found six times more methane leaking into the air around Boston than reported in the Massachusetts Greenhouse Gas Inventory compiled by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.
Of the six cities studied in the analysis, Boston had the highest natural gas leak rate (4.7 percent) from “well pad to urban consumer.” Because of these leak rates, any plan that relies on distributing a significant quantity of methane through the gas distribution system, like National Grid has proposed, will fall well short of the Commonwealth’s net zero target in 2050.
We agree with National Grid that there are industries which are genuinely difficult to decarbonize, such as shipping and aviation, and will require creative solutions that include green hydrogen. However, that is a far cry from utilizing it for home heating, where better choices are available. It’s essentially the equivalent of saying you could heat your home using $20 bills as kindling in your living room fireplace. Sure, you may be able to do it, but is that really the wisest idea?
Green hydrogen is, and will continue to be, an extremely limited resource. Using it in buildings is a low-value use of a high-value resource and will only make it more challenging to decarbonize the hardest-to-electrify sectors of our economy. Massachusetts has already laid out a roadmap for the future of heating that involves electrifying most buildings – the least-cost “All Options” scenario in the Massachusetts 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap calls for electrification of over 90 percent of residential space heating and 95 percent of residential water heating by 2050.
Whole-home electrification via heat pumps can save energy and money, especially when paired with common-sense weatherization improvements like insulation and air sealing. Heat pumps are also efficient and affordable, especially given the many incentives available at Mass Save, as well as the soon-to-be or already available options in the Inflation Reduction Act. All-electric heating is economical, with affordable housing making up 78 percent of all residential net zero and net zero-ready square footage, up from 54 percent in March 2021. Even without the incentives, an average home that fully converts from propane to heat pumps could save $1,650 annually on fuel. The annual fuel savings from converting to a heat pump will pay for the cost of installation in 5-11 years, and rebates from efficiency programs can increase fuel cost savings and reduce the payback period.
Heat pumps, despite their name, also cool homes significantly more efficiently than traditional air conditioning systems and save money on electric bills in the summer by displacing less efficient air conditioning units. And for those concerned about winter weather, heat pump technology has made major advances over the years, with many models heating homes comfortably in the coldest temperatures.
Maine, the coldest state in the Northeast, has installed over 82,000 heat pumps over the last nine years, including over 21,000 in 2021 alone. Vermont, the region’s second coldest state, has installed heat pumps in about 1 percent of its homes every year since 2015. Heat pumps, paired with properly weatherized buildings, can reliably and affordably keep Massachusetts’ residents warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
Right now, we have the chance to adopt solutions that truly transform our building, transportation, and power systems. We cannot follow the old models and systems that led us to the climate crisis in the first place. Our Commonwealth can embrace realistic and proven solutions. Saving green hydrogen and “renewable natural gas” for limited purposes in hard-to-electrify sectors, and electrifying buildings quickly with highly efficient systems is that solution.
Kyle Murray is the senior policy advocate for Massachusetts at the Acadia Center.