A state-supervised program is proposing sweeping changes meant to dramatically speed the pace of converting a million Massachusetts homes to electric heat by the end of the decade, a critical climate deadline.
The nearly $4 billion plan, which covers 2022 to 2024, dramatically expands an initial proposal in April and includes $800 million for the electrification of homes. In one major departure from the earlier plan, the new version offers incentives for buildings using natural gas to purchase heat pumps. Those buildings were previously ineligible.
The Mass Save program, run by utilities including gas companies, offers rebates and other incentives to encourage homeowners to make their homes more efficient and switch to heating systems that emit less carbon. It is credited with helping the state meet early climate goals but has more recently come under fire for largely failing in the next step of rapidly moving homes off fossil fuel altogether.
The Globe has reported that state data showed the program was converting only a few hundred homes a year to electricity, far short of the state recommendation of 100,000 a year.
At a hearing of the state Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change Monday, legislators and clean energy advocates agreed the new plan represents a significant step in the right direction, but they also questioned whether it goes far enough and urged the utilities that administer Mass Save to do more.
“Given the urgency of the climate crisis, we need Mass Save to be more tightly aligned with the Massachusetts emissions reduction obligation,” said Senator Cynthia Creem, who chairs the committee. “There is considerable room for improvement on that front.”
Since the initial plan was filed in April, the utilities that operate Mass Save have been negotiating with the board that oversees the program, the Energy Efficiency Advisory Council, to strengthen the plan. The final version was submitted to the Department of Public Utilities last week with the approval of the council, and will be ruled on by the agency by February.
“We believe that the plan puts the commonwealth on a pathway to achieving mandated reductions by 2030 and then ultimately net-zero by 2050,” said Christopher Porter, director of customer energy management for National Grid in New England.
In addition to the new incentives for gas customers to electrify, the proposal offers incentives for new construction that is all-electric and for moderate income customers, renters, and landlords, and it increases the number of homes and businesses eligible for weatherization. The plan would invest over $49 million to help develop a workforce to electrify buildings and would target funds to better serve environmental justice and language-isolated communities that had been less likely to benefit from the Mass Save program.
Despite those changes, advocates at the hearing expressed concern that continued incentives for existing gas customers to upgrade to more efficient gas equipment will only extend the state’s reliance on fossil fuels, at a time when the state’s climate plans call for rapid electrification.
According to the state’s Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2030, Massachusetts must electrify one million homes by then in order to achieve its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent below 1990 levels. But as the Globe reported in August, last year saw just 461 homes completely electrify, according to data from Mass Save and the state.
“We need to see some real clear evidence of achievement here in terms of getting it done,” said Senator Marc Pacheco at the hearing. “At the end of the day, if we don’t have it done, we’re going to have a huge problem because we can’t go back and reclaim that time.”
The proposed plan does not achieve the state’s goal of an average 100,000 electrifications a year, but Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources Commissioner Patrick Woodcock said at the hearing that, based on the state’s analysis of the Mass Save proposal, the work done in this three-year period would put the state on track to electrify a million homes by 2030.
“We need to have the heat pump workforce developed in the next three years; we need to have customers start to say this is a product that is not just good for the environment, that this is improved comfort and strong economics,” he said. Establishing that now will lead to an S-curve of heat pump adoption, in which the vast majority get installed in years closer to the end of the decade, he said.
The proposed plan will leave a lot of work to be done later in the decade to hit the commonwealth’s goals. According to the proposal, it would result in a total of 43,370 electric home conversions — 17,677 of which would be complete replacement of fossil fuel systems with heat pumps and 36,590 “partial displacements” in which some fossil fuels are still used.
Mass Save is funded via a surcharge on utility customers’ bills. In recent years, the Energy Efficiency Advisory Council has tried to prioritize three big changes to Mass Save — increased electrification, equity, and workforce development — but had little success until recently, according to Amy Boyd, a member of the council and the director of policy for Acadia Center, a clean energy advocacy organization.
That changed when the state passed its 2021 climate bill, which required the Mass Save plan to incorporate a greenhouse gas emissions savings target, changed the mandate of the Department of Public Utilities to include climate and equity, and invested in workforce development.
“I will admit that the council faces challenges when trying to make policy part of the equation, particularly without legislation to back us up,” Boyd said at the hearing.
In July, as required by the climate law, the Energy and Environment Administration established a specific target for greenhouse gas emissions reductions to be achieved via the Mass Save three-year plan. That target — 845,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide — is equal to the emissions of 183,771 passenger cars driven in a year, or burning more than 900 million pounds of coal, according the EPA’s greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator.
Many of the advocates pointed to an inherent contradiction in the Mass Save program, namely, that utilities with major natural gas operations are asked to facilitate the switch off fossil fuels. “It’s just not realistic to believe that we will be able to move as quickly and as urgently as possible, when we’re asking an entity to work against their own best interest,” said Eugenia Gibbons, Massachusetts climate policy director for Healthcare Without Harm.
Gibbons and others in the hearing urged that as the Legislature continues its oversight of the Mass Save program, it considers whether a third party might be more appropriate to run this critical part of the climate agenda.
There’s an “inherent conflict that exists within Mass Save, in terms of getting these goals — actually they’re not longer goals, they’re requirements — implemented in Massachusetts,” said Pacheco. “I’m very concerned about that.”