As Massachusetts pursues ambitious climate goals, it continues to promote fossil fuels

The program, Mass Save, is run by utility companies under state supervision and distributes between $ 640 million and $ 700 million per year in rebates funded by a surcharge on utility customer bills. It is credited with having successfully reduced carbon emissions from home heating throughout Massachusetts since its inception in 2008. But in the past, those reductions have largely been achieved by encouraging conversions from oil to gas, a fossil fuel. less dirty than the state plans to phase out. .

However, in a package of proposed new incentives that would go into effect next year, Mass Save again provides substantial incentives to install gas and in some cases oil systems. And at a time when record heat waves are scorching the country and the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is at an all time high, experts said incentives now need to move sharply in the other direction.

“This draft energy efficiency plan still exists in the old mindset, the old world, where we actually don’t have to urgently do anything about the climate, or where energy efficiency doesn’t. has no role to play in helping us get to our goals, ”said Caitlin Peale Sloan, senior lawyer and vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation in Massachusetts. “And it is not.”

Ultimately, the state wants the vast majority of homes and businesses to have electric heat pumps that plug into an electrical grid powered by wind and other renewable sources. While the new incentives offered by Mass Save include robust rebates for heat pumps, the program plans to direct these rebates primarily to homes currently using fuel oil or propane, not the 52% of homes in the state. who now use natural gas.

Heat pumps are very efficient and provide cooling in addition to heating, but they come with high up-front costs. And with the low cost of natural gas and high electricity costs in Massachusetts, a shift from gas-fired heat pumps to electric heat pumps could cause these customers to see their energy bills go up. For this reason, some experts say, Massachusetts needs to rethink its incentive program.

“Now is the time to be aggressive in our gear changes, and we need to make it easier for the average person to improve their game and reach the level of efficiency,” said Rev. Mariama White- Hammond, Chief Environmental, Energy and Open Space Officer for the City of Boston.

The problem, critics say, is that homeowners who decide to replace their boilers are unlikely to want to start over for a decade or more. This means that conversions to natural gas or the replacement of existing natural gas equipment over the next few years will ensure sustained use of fossil fuels at least until the state’s 2030 deadline to cut emissions by half. carbon and probably longer.

“As part of this draft plan, Mass Save will continue to pour taxpayer dollars into new fossil fuel systems well beyond the time they are needed, on the verge of being too late,” wrote Kathleen Scanlon and Anne Wright, Clean Heat co-coordinators, Mothers Out Front advocacy group Clean Air Campaign, in a public commentary on the project.

Buildings account for nearly a third of all greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts. Without significant reductions in this sector, experts said, the state’s climate goals – reduce greenhouse emissions to 50% of 1990 levels over the next nine years and reach net zero by 2050 – could be out of reach.

The idea behind Mass Save when it launched in 2008 was to achieve significant energy savings by promoting more efficient home systems, and it worked. Around 80,000 households benefit from free energy efficiency assessments for houses in Mass Save every year. From its inception until the first quarter of 2020, Mass Save’s energy efficiency rebates resulted in a reduction of 5.6 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, according to the program. That’s roughly the emissions of 1.2 million passenger cars driven in a year, according to the EPA.

But because the program relied so much on natural gas to achieve these reductions, it found itself in a trap, said Peale Sloan of the Conservation Law Foundation.

“Based on the shift from coal and oil to gas, we have basically stuck at a level that may meet the 2020 target, but is significantly missing what we need to achieve for 2030, 2040 and 2050” , she said.

If the state is to meet its goal of net zero emissions by 2050, she and others say the transition from fossil fuels – including natural gas – must happen immediately.

Critics of Mass Save point to two big hurdles that stand in the way of swift action: first, the program prioritizes financial savings over energy savings, and second, the incentives it uses to encourage customers are decided by utility companies, including gas suppliers. The utilities review the program’s incentives every three years, and although the state provides a contribution, it has limited tools to ensure that its contribution is adopted.

“They are electricity and gas companies. There is an inherent conflict in the business models involved, ”said Cammy Peterson, director of clean energy at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and a member of the state’s Energy Efficiency Advisory Council, which oversees the Mass Save program. .

Bob Kievra, spokesperson for National Grid, denied that utilities are in conflict, in part because of the complicated profit model for utilities. “People can see us as delivering natural gas and think that every additional therm is a profit for us,” he said. “It just doesn’t work that way. “

Chris Porter, director of customer energy management for National Grid in New England, said his company and others were working on carbon-free emissions economic models that would make them players in a new energy landscape. “We believe that our existing natural gas infrastructure and that of all gas utilities have a role to play,” he said. “No one has all the answers on the right track yet, but it is being actively worked on,” he said.

The latest incentives offered by Mass Save are being reviewed by the program’s advisory board, a governing body that includes representatives from clean energy groups, the attorney general’s office, housing organizations, etc., and s ‘engages in months of negotiations with utilities over their proposed plans. The advisory board will vote on the plan. Over the past few years, he has approved incentive schemes offered by utility companies with little or no dissent. But this year he’s hoping for major changes, said board member Amy Boyd.

She said the council would call on utilities to move further away from fossil fuels and do more to push for the transition to heat pumps.

She said she would also work to make the new Mass Save offering more appealing to low and middle income consumers. In the past, Mass Save was mainly used by the inhabitants of the wealthier communities, where the use can be seven times higher than in less wealthy cities.

The State Department of Utilities will have the final say on the plan in January 2022.

A spokeswoman for Mass Save defended the natural gas rebates as a way to ensure customers opt for the most energy efficient equipment. “In the long run, customers save more money and use less energy than they otherwise would with the program offerings,” said Shaina Kaye. “In the absence of our programs, customers are more likely to purchase less efficient equipment, which would then increase costs for themselves and other customers in the long run. “

But as negotiations around the plan continue, some advisory board members and others are hoping to see incentives for heat pumps increase significantly right now, to help make the math work for current natural gas users who might want to change.

And there is hope it can happen, thanks to new requirements in the state’s climate plans.

The state’s climate plan to meet its 2030 climate targets calls for the elimination of incentives for fossil fuel equipment in new construction from 2022, and the phasing out of all incentives for fossil fuel heating. ‘here is the 2025-2027 mass savings plan. Climate legislation signed by Governor Charlie Baker earlier this year requires emissions to be reduced to 50% below 1990 levels by 2030 and to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and also stipulates for the first time that the state can demand massive savings to address specific greenhouse gases. reduction targets.

“Now, I hope that with the DPU’s consideration of climate inequity and an explicit climate target, the plans could actually give a really big incentive for heat pumps,” Boyd said. “Let’s go ahead and really put our thumbs up on electrification, and minimize what we pay to replace fossil fuel systems.”

Sabrina Shankman can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @shankman.

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