A bill recently filed in the Massachusetts Legislature by state Representative Kay Khan of Newton would take a big step toward winding down the state’s dependence on natural gas and other fossil fuels. The bill requires that new construction and all major building renovations, defined as affecting more than 50 percent of the building floor area, in the state use electricity instead of fossil fuels for heating, cooling, hot water, cooking, and clothes drying. Why is that so important? To begin with, we need to use more electricity, not less.
Slightly more than half of New England’s electricity is generated by fossil fuels, and the rest comes from clean energy sources, like nuclear, hydro, wind, and solar. Even now, with the current electric grid mix, using an electrically powered air-source heat pump to provide heating (and cooling) results in less than half the climate-causing greenhouse gas emissions of an efficient boiler powered by natural gas. In 2050, thanks to the expected increase of solar- and wind-generated power, electric heating is projected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 98 percent compared with gas heating.
In many Massachusetts municipalities, buildings account for almost half of greenhouse gas emissions, even without taking into consideration the leaky pipes that deliver natural gas — the fossil fuel most commonly used to heat buildings — to our homes. These pipes leak methane, the main component of natural gas and a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
All of us pay for that leaking gas in more ways than one. Gas utility customers, not the utility companies, pay in their gas bills for the gas that gets fed into the distribution pipes but that leaks en route to its destination. Additionally, gas utilities are now spending Big Dig levels of money ($20 billion) to replace the leaking pipes. Customers are also paying for that.
Concerned about the costs and consequences of natural gas use, several towns have filed home rule petitions asking for authority to require that all new buildings operate on electricity rather than fossil fuels. Remarkably, state law currently forbids cities and towns from imposing this requirement. Bills other than Khan’s are pending in the Legislature that would allow cities and towns to require new construction be powered by electricity. But these bills would allow cities and towns to require new construction to be powered by electricity only if they choose to adopt the authority.
The state Department of Energy Resources recently proposed a building code for municipalities to adopt. Hopes were high that the code, even though optional, would allow cities and towns to require electrification. It does not.
The state does not typically leave the choice of whether to enact important health and safety measures to a city or town (think smoke detectors or lead paint removal). But under all of the bills other than Khan’s, each municipality would have to “opt in,” that is, to choose to go electric.
Common objections to requiring electrification rely on myths. It’s a myth that all-electric new construction is unaffordable. Numerous experts, including architects, testified recently to the Legislature that the increase in construction costs associated with a new electric building is less than 1 percent compared with a building constructed with conventional fossil fuel technology. In the same hearings, housing professionals described successful all-electric affordable housing projects built on tight budgets.
It’s a myth, too, that electric air-source heat pumps don’t work in New England’s cold weather. That may have been so with earlier, now outdated technology; but not now. In northern New England homes, despite night-time winter temperatures that routinely fall below zero, modern heat pumps work reliably.
It makes no sense to continue to allow the construction of new buildings that use the very fossil-fuel-fired equipment that we must quickly eliminate to address climate change. As of December 2021, New York City banned the use of fossil fuels in new buildings. Massachusetts should do the same.
Ann Berwick is codirector of sustainability for the city of Newton and former chair of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities.