Over the coming decades, the state’s largest utilities have plans to spend billions of dollars upgrading a vast network of aging pipes and mains that distribute natural gas, after billions they’ve already spent in recent years.
But much of those plans clash with a landmark bill that Governor Charlie Baker signed last month that requires the state to effectively eliminate its carbon emissions by 2050.
Some environmental advocates and lawmakers fear that continued investments in gas infrastructure could hinder the transition to renewable energy and leave ratepayers covering the costs of an obsolete energy system for decades. They support repairing leaky pipes and those that pose a danger to the public, but they’re pressing the utilities to spend far more on zero-emissions technologies.
“It’s just fiscally irresponsible, and it sets up a classic utility death spiral,” said Zeyneb Pervane Magavi, co-executive director of HEET, a Cambridge nonprofit that specializes in energy efficiency. “As people move off the gas system, you have fewer people paying for it, meaning they will be shouldering more of the costs. It’s a disaster.”
Officials at the largest gas companies have issued mixed messages, saying in public they fully support the state’s efforts to drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels. But in private meetings with industry colleagues they have suggested they would resist efforts to curtail the use of gas, which has been a cash cow for utilities.
It’s now up to state officials to decide how and when to compel utilities to phase out their reliance on gas, which they long touted as a “bridge fuel” to an emissions-free era, as it releases less carbon than oil and coal. Gas now heats more than half of all homes in Massachusetts.
“This is something we know we have to work on, going forward,” said Kathleen Theoharides, the state’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs.
Getting to net zero emissions will require some 3 million homes and 5 million vehicles to eliminate their use of fossil fuels. How that will be accomplished remains unclear, as does the costs for residents, who already pay electricity rates nearly double the national average.
“At this point, we don’t have a message,” Theoharides said.
But state officials will need one soon, as the climate law requires they cut emissions by as much as 50 percent below 1990 levels by the end of the decade. To reach that goal, the law also establishes a number of deadlines in the coming months. By this summer, for example, officials must set emissions-reduction targets for programs sponsored by Mass Save, the state’s home energy efficiency program.
By next summer, they will have to adopt specific emissions limits for 2025. And by the end of next year, they must issue a new building code that will encourage construction of homes that don’t rely on fossil fuels or emit carbon.
As a first step toward reducing emissions in homes and other buildings — perhaps the most daunting challenges of achieving the goals of the new law — Theoharides said she plans to convene a commission this spring to come up with a plan. She also noted that the administration last year ordered the Department of Public Utilities to investigate the role of natural gas distribution in achieving its climate goals, which they set out in a detailed roadmap to how the state could eliminate its carbon emissions.
“We have to understand how to do this in an orderly way,” she said.
Some state lawmakers and environmental advocates have questioned whether utilities are serious about their public commitments to reduce emissions, after officials at Eversource, the region’s largest energy provider, delivered a controversial presentation last month at an industry meeting.
The presentation suggested natural gas was in for the “fight of its life.” Slides urged that “everyone needs to contact legislators in favor of” the fossil fuel and warned “Anti-Gas Pressure Continues to Grow.” Another slide suggested the industry should “take advantage of power outage fear.”
The slide that most concerned them was one that said Eversource supported a “consortium to combat electrification,” suggesting the company and others in the industry sought to blunt the move toward renewable energy.
“This is a smoking gun for someone like me,” said state Senator Michael Barrett, a Lexington Democrat and one of the climate bill’s lead negotiators. “This is distressing, explosive stuff. I worry this represents the real sentiments of Eversource.”
Bill Akley, president of gas operations at Eversource, called the presentation “unfortunate.” In response, the company withdrew from the consortium, rescinded $10,000 it had pledged in support of the group, and admonished employees who were involved in preparing the presentation, he said.
“We need to disconnect from any connotation that this is what we’re about,” Akley said. “Folks may believe that’s where we’re at behind closed doors, but that’s not an accurate picture.”
Eversource understands the risks of climate change and is adapting to a world that no longer relies on fossil fuels, he said. As evidence, he cited the company’s investments in renewable energy.
“You can see it in every bit of our action,” Akley said. “If we’re not part of the solution, we’re not going to be here.”
Since 2015, the company has spent about $72 million a year to replace about 500 miles of older gas mains across the state. By 2035, it expects to repair or replace nearly all of its leak-prone pipes.
Akley said Eversource is seeking to “find a balance” between maintaining the gas distribution system and preparing for a future when it’s no longer needed.
“The answers are complicated,” he said, suggesting the system could be used to distribute hydrogen, biogas, and other forms of energy. “We’re exploring all decarbonization pathways.”
Officials at National Grid, which supplies gas to nearly 1 million customers in Massachusetts, released a plan last year to achieve “net zero” emissions from operations and sales by 2050. In addition to energy efficiency and reducing gas leaks, they also suggested the state look at other energy that could use their supply network.
“Though we do not have all the answers, we believe our electric and gas networks, which play a vital role in the lives of our customers, can be useful in achieving net zero emissions,” said Robert Kievra, a company spokesman.
The Baker administration has set a goal of retrofitting 1 million homes to use electricity for heating by 2030. Left unsaid is how to accomplish that, and what should come of utilities’ plans to upgrade their gas infrastructure. Those plans would cost ratepayers about $16 billion, according to an estimate by the Applied Economics Clinic, a nonprofit research group in Arlington.
Environmental advocates have said they worry utilities are trying to steer the state toward solutions that would allow them to continue to retain control of the market. They questioned, for example, utilities’ suggestions that they could repurpose their system to distribute hydrogen, which is highly combustible, expensive, and far more likely to leak.
They’re also pressing ISO New England, which operates the regional power grid, to change its rules to make it easier for renewable energy sources, especially offshore wind, to compete with gas, which has been a favored source of energy because of its relatively low cost and reliability.
Without changes to the rules, it’s unlikely the state will meet its emissions obligations under the new climate law, they said.
“If offshore wind is given a chance to compete, it will save ratepayers billions of dollars,” said Deborah Donovan, a senior policy advocate at the Acadia Center in Boston. “We need the ISO to help us achieve the state’s goals.”
After months of pressing Baker to sign the climate bill, Barrett said he’s now focusing on ensuring his administration implements it.
He has threatened legal action if the administration seeks to “evade legislative intent and substitute the weaker preferences of the executive branch.”
“It’s going to be a tough slog,” he said. “There’s no silver bullet here.”