In a move hailed by some climate advocates and experts as a potential leap forward in Massachusetts’ handling of the climate crisis, state officials said Monday they have created a governing body that would use emissions caps and financial incentives to drive mass conversions to renewable electric heat.
The Commission on Clean Heat, created by Governor Charlie Baker in an executive order, will set targets for buildings across the state, including homes, and be a “critical tool in the effort to reduce emissions from heating fuels,” the state said.
The commission is the first of its kind in the nation, according to national clean energy advocacy groups, and could help fill a void in Massachusetts, which has some of the country’s most ambitious plans to slash carbon but has lacked specific pathways to execute them, particularly when it comes to heating buildings. The Globe reported last month that the state was converting homes to electric heat at a rate of just hundreds a year — a tiny fraction of the 100,000 a year called for in its climate plan.
Climate advocates and others generally greeted news of the commission as a positive and much-needed move. But they also noted that many of the specifics that will determine its effectiveness are yet to be ironed out.
In announcing the commission, Baker gave a few hints about the direction those specifics might take.
“By soliciting the expertise of leaders with a variety of perspectives, including the affordable housing community, we can ensure that the strategies and policies we pursue to reduce emissions from heating fuels will be innovative, affordable, and equitable,” Baker said in a statement.
Nearly a third of Massachusetts’ greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings, and figuring out how to eliminate those emissions without placing an undue burden on home- and business-owners, while addressing the state’s increasing reliance on natural gas as a heating fuel, represents a thorny challenge.
“We’re on track for natural gas emissions to represent 65 percent or so of all residential emissions by 2030, so I think it’s really important for the gas companies to be part of the solution,” said Matt Rusteika, who leads the buildings initiative at Acadia Center, a clean energy advocacy organization.
Caroline Pretyman, a spokesperson for Eversource, said the company is looking forward to working with the other stakeholders on this process. “As New England’s largest energy provider and a catalyst for clean energy, we’re committed to bringing more clean, affordable energy to our customers and to helping achieve the commonwealth’s leading environmental goals,” she said.
Earlier this year, the Baker administration signed legislation that calls for a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 1990s’ levels by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050. Climate action in the state is also guided by the Massachusetts Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2030, which called for the formation of the commission, which will be chaired by Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides.
“One of the things that the commission will do — and again, this is a first-in-nation step — would be working with us to establish a cap on emissions from heating fuels as we have in the power sector, and as we’re looking at in the transportation sector, and then advise the governor and myself on developing the policies and strategies we need to put into place to implement that cap,” said Theoharides.
As of now, one of the biggest tools that Massachusetts has to help incentivize homeowners to convert off of fossil fuels is Mass Save — a state energy efficiency program that is run by the utilities. The Commission on Clean Heat could represent another, more powerful mechanism, advocates said.
“The commission provides the opportunity for crucial stakeholder engagement to design a responsible approach to decarbonization that accounts for challenges not easily overcome through existing programs like Mass Save,” said Eugenia Gibbons, Massachusetts director for climate policy at Health Care Without Harm. “This effort complements and goes deeper than work currently underway and the resulting recommendations could guide state climate strategy for years to come.”
Alongside Theoharides, the commission will comprise up to 22 additional members from a diverse set of backgrounds — affordable housing, energy efficient building design, heating fuel distribution, real estate, and more. The members will be recommended by the secretary and appointed by the governor. They will have until Nov. 30, 2022, to come up with a set of policy recommendations that will reduce the use of heating fuels and cut building sector emissions.
Across the country, a few states are addressing the challenge of decarbonizing buildings in different ways. New York state, for instance, is working on a Carbon Neutral Buildings Roadmap that will be finalized by the end of the year and will set short- and long-term goals to reduce emissions in the building sector. In Maine, the state is guided by a goal of installing 100,000 heat pumps — which rely on electricity to heat and cool homes — by 2025.
“The advantage of an approach like that, and it’s something I hope to see in the Massachusetts process, is a real commitment to electrification as the only solution that’s going to really permanently displace emissions from buildings,” said Rusteika.
When it comes to the work of the commission, Rusteika said, “the devil is in the details.”
Advocates said they hope to see this work dove-tailing with other efforts, including negotiations that are underway with Mass Save to ratchet up its incentives to switch to electric heat.
In Boston, Councilor Matt O’Malley has proposed legislation that would force the city’s biggest emitters to reach carbon neutrality over the next three decades. The intent of that bill, which could be voted on as soon as this week, is echoed in legislation at the state level — called “A Better Buildings Act” — which also requires emissions reductions in large buildings.
Experts in the clean energy advocacy field said that these simultaneous efforts are necessary because — as a summer of climate-fueled catastrophes and a recent UN report on the climate crisis made abundantly clear — there is no time to waste.
That pressure is being felt acutely in the state’s office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, which is working on multiple fronts, from attempts to increase use of electric vehicles, to procuring more wind, hydro and solar power, to adapting to the changes that are already underway due to the warming climate.
“We will need to continue to ramp up our efforts to deploy heat pumps and to weatherize homes, and really do the work of making our building stock as energy efficient as possible and then deploying these new technologies,” said Theoharides.