Save the planet and money at the same time

Renewables now; natural gas is not a bridge fuel

THE AMERICAN OIL AND GAS industry spends a fortune trying to convince us that renewable, clean power sources like wind, solar, and geothermal are still unreliable and expensive. As mayor of a city on the front lines of negotiating for the energy needed to serve a growing local economy, I am here to tell you that is 100 percent false. Where our electricity comes from and what sort of climate footprint it’s leaving behind has become our business. The fossil fuel industry’s talking points are now as much of a relic as their product. The clean revolution has arrived. There is no choice between the climate and your pocketbook. We’re able to choose both.

Starting New Years’ Day, 26 percent of the electricity used in Somerville will be generated from renewable sources. That’s up from 20 percent in 2019. The share of renewables will rise to 30 percent in 2022 and we should be above 50 percent before the end of the next decade. What’s even more notable is the cost to local ratepayers will be 15 percent lower than Eversource’s standard residential rate. You’re reading this correctly; we are increasing our share of renewable energy and lowering consumer costs at the same time.

In fact, we even have an option by which local residents can get 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. Just two weeks ago, Mayors for 100% Renewable Energy (a group I co-chair with Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty, New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, and Easthampton Mayor Nicolle LaChapelle),  called for Massachusetts to be fully transitioned to renewable energy for all uses–including electricity, heating and transportation–by 2045. That’s looking like a fairly modest goal given the progress we’re seeing.

Yet despite the hard facts about energy costs, many New England business groups are still holding onto the out-moded view that, however good it would be for the climate, continued and massive investment in new fossil fuel infrastructure, particularly natural gas, is the only pragmatic way to meet our energy needs. They’re playing on the stale notion that gas is far cheaper than renewable energy – that we need it as a “bridge fuel” until renewables become  competitive.

But that excuse for ignoring our climate crisis doesn’t hold water. What we can’t afford is to keep propping up a bridge we’ve already crossed. Corporate giants are just trying to extend the fossil fuel era for as long as they can. Here’s a taste of the latest evidence:

  1. In a September report on fossil gas infrastructure, the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) concluded that “Just as falling natural gas prices have limited the economic life of legacy coal assets and led to a wave of coal plant retirements, falling clean energy costs are likely to compromise the economic position of gas generation . . . As utilization of pipelines falls, the average cost of delivered gas will increase by 30 percent to 140 percent from expected levels, imposing significant costs on customers and investors.”
  2. In a separate report, the Rocky Mountain Institute concluded that “if gas plants currently proposed are built, the falling costs of clean energy will render 70 percent of planned capacity uneconomic by 2035, leaving plants and $30 billion of proposed pipelines as stranded assets.”
  3. In its November 2019 “Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis,” the respected financial firm Lazard examined “investment costs, capacity factors, operating costs, fuel costs (where relevant) and other important metrics” to conclude that “certain renewable energy generation technologies are already cost-competitive with conventional generation technologies.”
  4. Last week the UN Environment Programme released a report declaring, unequivocally, “the time to begin planning for a wind-down of gas production is, as with other fossil fuels, already upon us.”

Sadly, that has not stopped the gas industry from trying to keep us addicted to fossil fuels. Instead of fixing the tens of thousands of leaks throughout the current pipeline system, which are contributing to wasteful releases of the heat-trapping gas methane, utilities are pushing ahead with ill-considered and expensive pipeline, compressor, metering station, and LNG tank farm projects in Weymouth, Ashland, Hopkinton, Charlton, Longmeadow, and along the Pioneer Valley.

The idea of supporting soon-to-be stranded assets when we could be going full bore into renewable energy portfolios of solar, wind, grid-scale storage, and geothermal heat pump systems should be a non-starter. The best deal for consumers and for our climate  is to stop building new gas projects and start transitioning to safer, healthier, zero-emission alternatives. When municipal officials like myself sit down to negotiate local energy deals, we’re not asking for new fossil fuels anymore than we’re asking for new whale oil.

Meet the Author

While we were all still talking about the future as if it were some distant, abstract concept, it showed up on our doorstep — with a lower-than-expected price tag.  It turns out we can save the planet and save money at the same time.

Joseph Curtatone is the mayor of Somerville.