Fossil fuels ban would strain power grid

Electrification alone would not curb emissions

Climate change is real. We need to cut emissions and get on a path to net zero. Those are points on which the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association and Plumbers Local 12 along with building, labor, business, and other organizations in the state agree. There is disagreement, however, about the ways which the Commonwealth should achieve a renewable energy future.

One such area of disagreement is the fossil fuel ban that is part of the state’s climate law that was introduced and passed last year. It includes a provision for a pilot program that allows 10 communities to prohibit fossil fuels in new buildings and major renovations. Restricting gas and oil and moving to alternatives such as electric heat pumps for heating and cooling would place tremendous pressure on the region’s power grid–which, in turn, is largely powered by fossil fuels and would therefore do little to address the state’s sustainability goals. The ban would also have a number of other negative consequences, including an increase in the cost of energy for residents who can least afford it and higher construction costs, which would hamper development.

“We shouldn’t just be increasing our reliance on electricity and shutting off gas at the same time,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager. “We would be eliminating one source of energy without the ability to replace it. It defies common sense. It is, in my opinion, a reckless approach.”

Brookline first passed a similar ban in 2019, but it was deemed unconstitutional by then-Attorney General Maura Healey. Other municipalities tried to follow suit, which were also considered unlawful.

The climate law requires communities to get local approval and file a “home rule petition” seeking special permission from the legislature to participate in the pilot program. Thanks to pushback from the building trades and their partners, the program includes carve-outs, or compromises. Health care, life science, and biotech construction projects, for example, would be exempt from any fossil fuels ban. These buildings require massive amounts of energy and would need considerable electricity in the absence of gas. Also, participating municipalities would have to guarantee that 10% of its housing stock be affordable as defined by the state’s Chapter 40B statute. This concession from the state would help protect some of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable citizens from the effects of the ban.

The cities and towns that are vying to participate in the program include Cambridge, Brookline Newton, Lexington, Arlington, Concord, Lincoln, Acton, Aquinnah, and West Tisbury. The Martha’s Vineyard town of West Tisbury has since withdrawn from the program because it does not meet the affordable housing requirement. Boston and Somerville are among the cities hoping to take its place. The state’s Department of Energy Resources is supposed to issue regulations and details about the program, such as what constitutes a “major” renovation and how to best protect affordable housing, by July. The participating communities would then start the two-year pilot later this year or in early 2024.

As critics have pointed out, many of the municipalities hoping to join the program are comparatively wealthy and don’t represent a cross-section of the state. It’s one thing to impose a fossil fuels ban on single-family homes in a well-off suburb. Bringing Boston into the equation, with its mix of housing and economic diversity, would test the viability of the program, however.

All-electric buildings add about 20% to construction costs, which are then passed on to homeowners and landlords (who subsequently would pass it on to their tenants). In a region that is already plagued by high real estate prices and rents, that’s a challenging proposition. In fact, it is so worrisome, Governor Baker was considering vetoing the climate bill. He was concerned about the gas ban’s impact on affordable housing, something the state desperately needs. The increased cost of construction would make communities that prohibit fossil fuels less desirable to developers that build affordable housing.

Even after he signed the bill, the governor had misgivings. “I’ve thought for a long time that the cost and supply of housing in Massachusetts is, in fact, one of our most existential threats,” Baker told the Boston Globe when discussing the pilot program.

Forced to use heat pumps and other electrical appliances, homeowners and renters would then have to contend with significantly higher energy costs. The state has one of the nation’s highest electric utility rates. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, households in Boston, Cambridge, and Newton paid 75.3% more for electricity than the U.S. average as of October 2022.

“Heat prices would soar if working families in neighborhoods like Dorchester, Mattapan or towns like Lawrence or Lynn have to heat their homes with electricity,” says Andrew DeAngelo, GBPCA executive director. “The gas ban raises issues of economic equity.”

Banning gas in buildings would shift the energy burden to the electrical grid. But how is electricity generated?

“Gas and nuclear are the lion’s share of the grid’s resources,” says Local 12’s Fandel. “That inconvenient truth seems to get lost in translation. The disconnect is frustrating.”

ISO New England, the independent, not-for-profit corporation responsible for keeping electricity flowing across the region reports that in 2022 gas accounted for 52% of the electricity generated in Massachusetts and its neighboring states. Combined with nuclear, the two sources were responsible for nearly 80% of the grid’s total output. Oil and coal were also part of the mix. Wind and solar generated just 7% of the region’s electricity needs.

“Electricity is great. But it’s not 100% clean energy,” notes DeAngelo. “We simply don’t have enough wind and solar to support the state’s electrical demands.”

By banning fossil fuels in construction, that would increase demand for electricity and likely increase the need to fire up the state’s peaker power plants, most of which are old and inefficient and burn oil. They generate high rates of greenhouse gases and pollutant emissions for every unit of electricity generated.

So, what’s the solution? DeAngelo thinks we need to be open minded and take a more pragmatic approach. Hydroelectric power could play a greater role, for example. We should also explore alternatives such as green hydrogen, which is 100% zero-carbon emitting.

“We don’t think it’s prudent to abandon the pipe infrastructure,” DeAngelo adds. “It can be an important piece of the puzzle in our transition to clean energy.”