Repurpose, don’t scrap, existing pipeline infrastructure

Modernizing our infrastructure will produce lots of good union jobs

THE RACE to net zero emissions is on, and we have a lot of work to do to get there and not a lot of time to do it. Nowhere is that truer than here in Massachusetts, where the 2030 deadline to slash our emissions in half is bearing down on us. Now is no time to limit the options we need to realize that objective or to put the men and women out of work who will help us get there.

Only six months ago, Maine voters overwhelmingly rejected the New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line, which was expected to start delivering enormous amounts of clean hydropower to the Commonwealth by the end of next year. While large procurements of wind power are planned for the Commonwealth in the years ahead and solar power resources have room to grow, even still we will need to add an unprecedented amount of additional renewable resources here in Massachusetts, given our climate and temperature extremes, to reach net zero.

Time and again, we have been told that we need multiple pathways to net zero by experts like ISO New England, the New England grid operator in Massachusetts. And yet, the Senate climate bill has chosen to embrace a single, short-sighted, and enormously expensive solution that would actually shut these voices down and allow communities to ban new energy pipeline infrastructure as 2030 approaches. Fortunately, the House recognizes that increased electrification actually requires more electricity.

At the same time the Senate is trying to do an end run on a near-complete proceeding into the future of our gas infrastructure. The DPU 20-80 proceeding, under assault by a small group of activists, produced a robust, data-supported and stakeholder-driven  report that analyzes many pathways that reduce emissions in Massachusetts.  What it found was that “all electrification” strategies are not as mathematically supported as those that will yield faster, more affordable pathways to a state of 7 million people and its economy.

Because it doesn’t agree with these findings, the Senate is trying to turn a legitimate public proceeding into a kangaroo court. By ignoring the potential of our pipeline infrastructure to deliver clean fuels like hydrogen, renewable natural gas (RNG), and geothermal to homes and businesses, the Senate puts our 2030, 2040, or 2050 statutory emissions reduction mandates at risk.

The 20-80 findings show us another way. Indeed, as a report by UMass Lowell recently showed, the case for using fuels like hydrogen generated by wind or solar turbines for transportation, electricity generation, and home heating is strong.  Climate leaders from Germany and France to California and Oregon are actively exploring these resources and the Biden Administration invested $9.5 billion in clean hydrogen as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. Others aren’t waiting to act, with leaders from Britain and Australia to New Jersey and Texas now actually blending hydrogen with natural gas to decarbonize their energy sources.

Lost in this debate has been the impact on working men and women. Here in Massachusetts, ratepayers have invested billions in our energy transmission and distribution infrastructure. Modernizing this infrastructure would require some of our mostly metal pipelines to be retrofitted with hydrogen-ready plastic – reminding us that these types of smart long-term investments don’t just distribute clean energy but preserve and create good union jobs. Jobs that can’t be outsourced.

Unfortunately, many of the activists driving this “all electrification” debate don’t care about jobs or those who rely on them. Caitlyn Peele Sloane of the Conservation Law Foundation recently suggested that Massachusetts utilities are only interested in preserving this infrastructure to “keep their current business models.” She ignores how the utilization and maintenance of existing energy infrastructure can support net zero objectives – but also how these good union jobs help us advance social and economic mobility. By repurposing, rather than abandoning, pipe infrastructure to transport non-carbon emitting energy, Massachusetts can support skilled career paths that reduce the gender and racial wealth gaps.

The Legislature has a huge chance to get this right simply by not getting it wrong. No one is suggesting we tear up our roads as we transition to electric vehicles. Why in the world would we ever consider doing the same with our pipes? The Commonwealth needs all the clean energy it can get – and our infrastructure is a critical asset in our race to realize a low carbon future in the years ahead. The clock is ticking.

Harry Brett is the New England representative of the United Association of Plumbers, Fitters, Welders, & Service Workers.