Massachusetts is lagging behind on the big changes it needs to make quickly in order to meet its ambitious climate goals, including a wholesale switch to electricity for heating buildings and for vehicles.
In a swing through Boston on Friday, US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm sent the message that — despite logjams in Congress — help is on the way.
At a time when the state should be electrifying 100,000 households a year, Massachusetts electrified just 461 homes in 2020, according to a Globe analysis. Despite state support for electrification, many residents have struggled to find contractors who understand that heat pumps can fully heat a home, even in a Massachusetts winter.
That disconnect is a place where the federal government can help, Granholm said.
“We are really expanding the way we look at ... residential buildings,” she said. The Biden Administration’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure package will include money for home improvements — whether it’s insulation or roofing — that prepare a building for electrification, as well as funds for education about what heat pumps can do.
“If you’ve got leadership that says this is going to happen, then the building installers … will have to adapt and learn this trade,” Granholm said. “Clearly there is a gap, and we want to fill that gap through training.”
In an interview, before appearances with Mayor Michelle Wu, state officials, and both US Senators, Granholm talked about the variety of obstacles Massachusetts is facing as it tackles the climate crisis — from the recent dissolution of regional climate plans like the Transportation and Climate Initiative, to how to make sure this next chapter of energy development is an equitable one.
She also said the federal government will be looking to Boston, with its recent election of Wu and her Green New Deal priorities, as a test case for how those policies can work on a larger scale.
“We’d love to hold up Boston as the poster child city for how to get to 100 percent clean energy,” Granholm said. She said Wu’s early steps, like divesting city funds from fossil fuels and piloting a free bus program, signal how strong climate leadership can address the myriad changes required by the climate crisis. This type of multi-faceted “silver buckshot” approach is what’s needed, Granholm said.
Granholm was in Boston on Friday as part of a series of events in New England meant to highlight the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal that was signed in November. In a stop at the Mass Clean Energy Center Wind Technology Testing Center, Granholm and state and local leaders spoke seated next to massive wind turbine blades, including a 107-meter-long blade that is the longest in the world.
Massachusetts is slated to receive more than $9 billion in federal funds from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. The bulk will go to repairing highways and bridges, but some portion will be directed to tackling climate change, including $2.5 billion to improve public transit, $63 million for electric vehicle charging stations.
At the event at MassCEC, Erin Malone, a senior associate at Synapse Energy, described the trouble she encountered finding a contractor to electrify their three-unit building in Cambridge.
“Only one was willing to take on our project, and honestly I don’t know that they optimized it that well,” she said. While she’s happy with the outcome — she’s heard no complaints about the heat from her tenants, and said her 1½-year-old toddler happily plays wearing just a diaper — the challenges she ran into laid bare how much education is needed among contractors.
Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides said they’re aware of the problem, and hope that, in concert with the federal funds, additional state funding can also help. The state’s climate legislation, passed earlier this year, includes $13 million to train clean energy workers from environmental justice communities. In October, the Baker administration filed legislation that would commit another $750 million to innovation, research and development, and job training in the clean energy sector.
“A key part we have to focus on is getting folks trained to install heat pumps, and taking folks over from other industries, from fossil-based industries, to transition into this workforce,” said Theoharides.
The federal infrastructure funds will also be used to address historical inequities dealt to frontline communities, via the Justice40 initiative. That initiative, which Biden introduced in an executive order his first week in office, commits 40 percent of the infrastructure funds to communities that have born the brunt of climate change and pollution from the fossil fuel industry.
It’s an important step toward righting the historic wrongs in environmental justice communities, said María Belén Power, the associate executive director of Chelsea GreenRoots — but only if the remaining 60 percent of funds don’t cause harm to those same neighborhoods.
She pointed to an electrical substation that has been approved for East Boston, and which Boston voters overwhelmingly voted against on a recent ballot question.
“As we electrify the grid, we can’t continue to put the burden on environmental justice communities,” she said. “Where is the electricity going to come from? Where are the substations going to be sited? Right now, they’re being sited next to playgrounds in Black and brown communities.”
Granholm addressed these “climate justice” issues on her second stop, joining Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, Representative Lori Trahan, and Wu on a hard-hat tour of the new Boston Arts Academy building, currently under construction in the Fenway. The building, scheduled to be completed in the spring, will be LEED Gold certified, and will reduce the school’s energy expenses by 52 percent, or $150,000 a year.
After politicians visited the school’s sun-drenched dance studio, outfitted with triple-pane glass, and the heat pump farm on the building’s roof, Granholm hailed Wu’s vision for how the Green New Deal could be implemented in Boston, and create a more equitable city.
“This should be a model for other buildings, not just here, but across the country,” she told Wu, commending her goal to make the city carbon neutral by 2040 — a decade earlier than the state and the Biden administration’s plans. “Boston can be a leader for the country.”
Wu said she was honored to host a delegation that supported her vision for a carbon-free Boston.
“This is really about reaching for that brightest version of our future, which is right within grasp,” Wu said. “It’s absolutely humbling to be in a space where you can feel the possibilities that are being built, floor by floor, triple-pane window by triple-pane window.”
At the last stop of the day, Granholm visited the home of a woman in Malden who was able to weatherize her home thanks to the federal Weatherization Assistance Program, which is getting a new infusion of funds from the infrastructure bill.
Clean energy experts say weatherizing is crucial before converting to electric heat, especially in states like Massachusetts, with its cold climate and stock of old, drafty homes. But without significant government help, weatherization can be unaffordable for many homeowners.
“What we are experiencing in Washington is a seismic change in who gets the priority,” Assistant House Speaker Katherine Clark said in an interview. “It is very much going from special interest and the very wealthiest, to families at home in our communities.”