A resident researches energy efficient heat pumps.
A resident researches energy efficient heat pumps. Credit: Marcela Gara / Creative Commons

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Massachusetts climate advocates say a clean heat standard proposed by state officials could fail to create meaningful progress toward decarbonization if it overvalues alternative fuels and doesn’t prioritize equity.

“The devil is in the details,” said Amy Boyd, vice president of climate and clean energy policy at the nonprofit Acadia Center, one of several environmental groups closely following the developing state policy. 

In January 2022, then-Gov. Charlie Baker convened a Clean Heat Commission to develop strategies for decarbonizing the state’s building sector, which accounts for about 40% of its total emissions. Among its final recommendations released in November was the adoption of a clean heat performance standard.

The policy would create a system similar to a renewable portfolio standard but for heat instead of electricity. Heating fuel suppliers would be required to contribute to clean heat projects, likely by buying credits generated from activities such as heat pump installations and weatherization improvements. Over time, the amount of clean heat credits required would increase.

Other strategies recommended by the commission include reforms to state energy efficiency programs, establishing a climate bank to finance heat pump installations and weatherization projects, and scaling up workforce training to ensure there are enough contractors to perform the work

As Massachusetts pursues its target of going carbon-neutral by 2050, buildings will be a major challenge. As of 2020, more than 80% of the state’s homes were heated primarily by fossil fuels. Switching to electric space and water heating would allow them to be warmed by electricity that includes an ever-increasing proportion of wind, solar, hydro and other renewable power.

Waiting for the details

While environmental advocates have praised most of the plans laid out in the Clean Heat Commission report, they are approaching the clean heat standard with more of a cautious optimism. Most believe the standard is inevitable, but are paying close attention to the details.

“The Clean Heat Standard is unavoidable in some form,” said Larry Chretien, executive director of the Green Energy Consumers Alliance. “We want to make sure that we put disadvantaged folks at the front of the line, and we want to make sure it is legit clean heat.”

In December, the state released its Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2050, which confirms the current administration’s vision for developing a clean heat standard, setting a target date of implementation by early 2024. Governor-elect Maura Healey is widely viewed as a clean energy champion, but it still remains to be seen how she will develop and build on her predecessor’s work. 

Advocates agree that, as the program develops, it will be essential to pay attention to what, precisely, counts as clean heat. Electric heat pumps will be central to any strategy, but it is almost certain that alternative fuels will also be proposed as qualifying for clean heat credits. 

Major gas utility National Grid, for example, has declared its intention to replace the fossil natural gas it currently delivers with renewable natural gas and green hydrogen by 2050. Renewable natural gas is derived from natural sources, such as composted animal manure or food waste, and the production process may recapture some greenhouse gases before they are released into the atmosphere. 

However, its full lifecycle carbon emissions are highly variable and may or may not be lower than those of conventional natural gas. Further, renewable natural gas is chemically identical to fossil natural gas, so it still releases carbon dioxide when burned, leaks from pipes into the atmosphere, and carries health risks when used indoors. 

Also, a recent study commissioned by California regulators found that hydrogen concentrations above 5% in the natural gas system can damage pipes and require appliances to be modified.

National Grid has confirmed its view that renewable natural gas and green hydrogen should be part of a clean heat standard, arguing that electricity alone will not be enough to decarbonize heating systems in a region that experiences as much cold weather as New England.

“As suggested in the recent Clean Heat Commission report, low-carbon fuels provide an opportunity to reduce emissions, which supports our shared decarbonization, climate action and environmental justice goals,” the utility said in a statement.

However, any clean heat credit that is given to these fuels should depend on a rigorous analysis of lifecycle emissions, said Caitlin Peale Sloan, vice president for Massachusetts at the Conservation Law Foundation. Giving too much weight to alternative fuels could slow down the needed transition to electrification, she said. 

“The way they count emissions from alternative fuels — that’s going to be the ballgame in many respects,” she said. “The longer you push off the switch to electrification, the more expensive it’s going to be and the harder it’s going to be.”

Advocates also argue that running new fuels through old pipes is mostly a way for utilities to keep their distribution business afloat as the region transitions away from fossil fuels and will only slow the pace of needed carbon reductions. 

“That’s going to continue to be a difficult dialogue, because of the gas companies facing the threat of stranded assets,” said Matt Rusteika, director of market transformation at the Building Decarbonization Coalition. 

Questions of equity

Another major concern is equity. Lower-income residents are more likely to live in some of the state’s oldest and draftiest buildings, while, at the same time, having less money and power to weatherize their homes and upgrade their heating systems.

“Centering equity and engagement — it doesn’t get into a whole lot of detail as to how to do that, but keeping that as a tentpole of all of our decisions going forward is crucial,” said Boyd, of the Acadia Center.

A clean heat standard can generate more revenue to tackle this problem, advocates said, but the state will need to shift some policies and priorities to use the money to the best advantage. Boyd pointed to existing rules in state efficiency programs that won’t provide services to homes that have mold or outdated knob-and-tube wiring systems. The system offers some money to help with these fixes, but the reality is that few property owners go through the full process of making the repairs and pursuing weatherization and electrification. 

“So now not only is the tenant stuck with mold that the landlord won’t fix, they don’t get weatherization and still have to breathe in gas fumes,” Boyd said. 

To create an equitable system, it would be important to channel money from a clean heat standard into programs to upgrade and repair these homes, she said. 

A study by the Regulatory Assistance Project, prepared as part of the development of the 2022 Massachusetts Clean Energy and Climate Plan, suggests other ways a clean heat standard could promote environmental justice. The standard could include a carve-out requiring that an increasing percentage of clean heat credits come from projects serving low- and moderate-income homes, for example. Or the parties required to meet the clean heat standard could receive bonus credits for reaching a certain threshold of credits from projects supporting disadvantaged residents. 

Though the proposed details are yet to be rolled out, it will be vital for any clean heat standard to be coupled with complementary programs and incentives to make a decisive move away from fossil fuels, advocates agreed. 

“The clean heat standard alone is not a silver bullet,” Boyd said. “It still needs to be combined with a clear plan for pruning the gas system.”

Sarah Shemkus

Sarah is a longtime journalist who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet. She has covered the workings of small-town government in New Hampshire, the doings of alleged swindlers and con men, and the minutiae of local food systems. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Boston Globe, TheAtlantic.com, Slate, and other publications. Based in Gloucester, Sarah covers New England.