The state needs to step up its efforts to help homeowners get off fossil fuels — and fast, according to legislators who helped write Massachusetts’ ambitious climate law.
The lawmakers said they have watched in dismay as the state has fallen woefully behind on a mandate in the climate bill to switch 100,000 homes a year off fossil fuels this decade, noting that a big hurdle appears to be the state’s own energy efficiency program.
That program — Mass Save — is run by utility companies with limited oversight by the state, a setup the lawmakers said must change.
“You can’t have utilities in charge of an all-out push to electrify,” said Senator Mike Barrett, a Lexington Democrat who was the lead author of the state’s 2050 climate plan. “Mass Save is probably not going to be the quarterback to bring us to the emissions reductions Super Bowl as it’s currently constituted.”
Buildings in Massachusetts account for nearly one third of the state’s emissions, and a key part of the climate plan is to switch them from fossil fuels to electricity, while also acquiring enough clean energy to power the electrical grid. The state’s own plan calls for 1 million homes to be converted by a critical and fast-approaching deadline of 2030. However, the Globe reported last month that a review of data showed Mass Save and other programs are converting homes at a rate of just hundreds a year. In some cases, homeowners said Mass Save appeared to be discouraging them from switching to all electric systems.
Barrett and fellow legislators who played key roles in crafting the state’s climate rules are now proposing bills to wrest control of Mass Save from the utilities and give it to either state agencies or other organizations that have a clear mandate to embrace clean energy and achieve the state’s climate goals.
As those bills wend their way through the legislative process, Mass Save itself is in the midst of revising the incentives it offers homeowners. As of now, those revisions will result in the end of subsidies for some fossil fuel systems, but would still offer subsidies for natural gas. Lawmakers said they will be looking to see Mass Save adopt much more robust incentives to switch off fossil fuel.
“If they’re not there — if they don’t put forth the appropriate plan to get us to where we need to be — I think we should just head in a completely different direction,” said Senator Marc Pacheco, Democrat of Taunton, who wrote the state’s 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, in addition to being a cosponsor of the 2050 climate legislation. “The utilities are a big piece of this and I think they’ve been dragging their feet a lot on this issue.”
In a joint statement, the Mass Save administrators pointed to the program’s success in implementing energy efficiency savings in the past, and said they embrace the opportunity to expand their mandate to focus more explicitly on greenhouse gas reductions.
The administrators also warned that changing course at this critical time could backfire. “A change in the current well-functioning, carefully regulated approach could impact the Commonwealth’s ability to achieve our environmental goals and slow the transition to a clean energy future,” they said.
The Mass Save program, which is funded by a surcharge on ratepayers’ utility bills, offers rebates for purchasing energy efficient equipment. The program’s goal has historically been about energy efficiency, often though by upgrading from an old fossil fuel system to a newer one.
But in the era of climate change-fueled catastrophes, many say that no longer makes much sense. “If we’re really serious, why don’t we take away the funding for gas and oil?” said Representative Joan Meschino, Democrat of Hull and a key contributor to the state’s 2050 climate plan. “If we’re serious about pushing people towards electricity or other things, why have rebates at all for gas and oil?”
A bill she has sponsored along with Senator Jason Lewis would use several levers to wean more buildings off fossil fuels, including a requirement that Mass Save do a better job of setting targets to serve populations that have largely been left behind by the program’s offerings, such as moderate-income households, renters, English-isolated individuals, small businesses, and environmental justice communities. It would also require that the state council that oversees Mass Save and the Department of Public Utilities only approve a plan from Mass Save if it aligns with the state’s climate goals.
“I think it’s important to make some changes and investments in that program because I really do think it’s a good way of reaching people,” she said. “But they need to adapt and they need to step up their pace.”
Other lawmakers also feel that Mass Save remains the best vehicle for leading the push to get off fossil fuels, given that the 2050 climate law sets out tangible benchmarks and requirements that must be achieved.
“These are not just aspirational goals that we set in this legislations — these are laws,” said Representative Jeffrey Roy, Democrat of Norfolk and House chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy.
“With these strictures in place, I’m confident that Mass Save will be the agency that can handle the job,” he said.
Barrett, meanwhile, is proposing that Mass Save have new leadership installed in the form of a chief executive and board of directors, which would include representatives from various agencies and interests, including three members from environmental justice communities.
“The utilities should not have majority control of an organization that, of necessity, has to aim at radically reducing the business of gas utilities while dramatically increasing the business of electric utilities,” said Barrett.
Barrett said he’s not ascribing ill motives to the companies, but noted that “they’re hopelessly compromised internally, and we need to create leadership with unclouded vision here.”
“There’s no question that the natural gas industry is constantly angling to see if they can lower the intensity of our resolve,” he said. “This is not the fossil fuel industry with a conscience. This is the American natural gas industry, and they’re much more self-interested in survival.”
Pacheco is offering yet another bill, which would see the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) leading the push for electrification using state and federal funds, with the explicit goal of achieving 100,000 home electrifications each year for the next decade.
For Pacheco, who has been on the front lines of climate action in the Legislature for decades, the slow pace feels personal.
“We’re in an emergency situation here and it seems like everybody is acting like we’ve got plenty of time,” he said. “There’s been not a lot of urgency on behalf of the executive branch leadership,” with the exception of Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides, who Pacheco said he feels is doing her best despite slowdowns from other parts of the administration.
“The executive branch has the requirements in place. Now it’s a matter of going forward and sometimes making uncomfortable choices that need to be made to get these things done,” said Pacheco. “We have to meet these requirements or we’re not going to be anywhere close to net zero in 2050.”