We need to start using less natural gas

Gas system expansion projects should be scrapped

WITH THE  CORONAVIRUS pandemic raging, it’s hard to think about anything else. Yet precisely because this is a time of major upheaval, we need to recognize, and prepare for, the changes it brings. We will get through this and, when we do, we want to make sure our Commonwealth emerges stronger and better.

So, please, take a moment to think about this: When it comes to public health, public safety, fighting climate change, or simply getting the best energy prices for consumers, Massachusetts has more reasons than ever to begin a transition away from fossil gas. This moment in history offers the best opportunity we’ve ever had.

Nearly 70 percent of the state’s electricity is generated in gas-fired plants. Gas has already pushed coal and oil out of the market, not because it is cleaner but because it is cheaper. But even our gas utility companies acknowledge in their official Three-Year Energy Efficiency Plan, 2019-21 that demand for gas is declining, thanks to improved efficiency, rising average temperatures, and the growing use of renewable energy. The current pandemic has suppressed overall demand even more – and it’s unlikely to pick up for many months to come.

Since our gas distribution system was already operating below capacity, this downward shift in demand means that there is simply no point in building new gas infrastructure anywhere in Massachusetts. We do not need — nor should customers pay for — pipelines, compressors, and other projects designed to bring in more gas than we have now.  Yet in Agawam, Longmeadow, Ashland, Hopkinton, and Westborough, gas companies continue to press ahead with plans for multi-million-dollar expansions of the state’s gas infrastructure. The big Enbridge compressor station now under construction in Weymouth offers no benefits at all for Massachusetts customers – that gas is on its way north to Canada, to be exported to Europe. So the profits go to a private company, while the project’s well-documented environmental and safety hazards remain here with us.

At the same time that gas demand is going down, the price of renewable wind and solar energy has also dropped precipitously. Combined with the emergence of grid-scale storage solutions, renewables now offer reliable, competitively-priced clean energy that makes gas-fired electrical plants both expensive and obsolete.

And here’s the clincher: If we are serious about answering Gov. Charlie Baker’s call for a net-zero carbon energy system by 2050, we have no choice but to start using less gas. Fortunately, we can now do just that while saving money at the same time.

“If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” So, let’s stop utilities from building gas projects that provide additional supply we don’t need while raising overall energy costs. Let’s require that any new utility project demonstrate that the additional energy is needed and that the project will deliver that energy to ratepayers at the lowest cost. The Legislature could require the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities to adopt these two requirements as part of their approvals process; if they did so, gas expansion projects will disappear. Virginia enacted just such a new law on April 6th.

Once these changes are made, Massachusetts will be well on the way to “de-carbonizing the grid.” Municipalities are stepping up by voting to limit the installation of gas in new construction; Brookline was the first but Newton, Cambridge, and others are following close behind. Utilities will discover that developing grid-scale geothermal systems is a good way to maintain revenue even as they embrace clean energy. Fossil gas won’t disappear overnight, but it – and its greenhouse gas emissions – can be phased out in an orderly way.

Meet the Author

Emily Norton

Ward 2 city councilor, Newton
If you still think gas is less expensive than clean, renewable energy, then please take a closer look at the new reality of energy economics. As we plan our post-pandemic future, we have the chance to fight climate change, save money for ratepayers and strengthen our economic recovery.

Emily Norton is the Ward 2 city councilor in Newton.