The small housing development just off Main Street in Concord is almost complete. Many of the neat one-, two- and three-bedroom homes are already occupied, and the rest have just a few plumbing and electrical jobs that need wrapping.
From the outside, this 14-unit development looks relatively unremarkable — except for one key difference: there are no gas hookups, no oil or propane tanks. All the homes are completely fossil-fuel free.
In recent years, small developments such as Concord Millrun have cropped up in recognition that the climate crisis calls for radical changes in our use of fossil fuels. And now, a new climate bill signed last week by Governor Charlie Baker contains a provision that could change the landscape significantly: 10 communities in the state can participate in a pilot program that bans the use of fossil fuels in new buildings and major renovations. Where once they were the exception, in these 10 communities, fossil-fuel-free developments will become the rule.
And if the effort succeeds in those communities, advocates say, the rest of the state could eventually follow.
“Ultimately, we need to stop building with fossil fuels, and the easiest way to decarbonize our buildings is for them not to be carbon-full from the beginning,” said Amy Boyd, policy director of the clean energy advocacy group Acadia Center. “The more we keep building with fossil fuels, the harder it’s going to be.”
Cutting emissions from buildings, which account for nearly one third of emissions in Massachusetts, is key to addressing the climate crisis and reaching the state’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. To get there, the state’s climate roadmap calls for widespread electrification of homes, primarily through the use of heat pumps that use electricity to heat and cool homes.
While progress has been slow so far, updates to the energy efficiency program known as Mass Save aim to change that, with new incentives up to $10,000 for installing heat pumps as the sole source of heating and cooling.
With this latest step, Massachusetts travels farther down that road, allowing communities to stop the spread of fossil fuel dependency—permission that at least 9 other cities and towns have sought since Brookline first passed a ban at its Town Meeting in 2019, only to have it deemed unlawful by Attorney General Maura Healey.
The climate bill doesn’t dictate which 10 communities will participate in the study, though it requires that each community receive local approval, that it file what’s known as a “home rule petition” asking the Legislature for special permission, and that it meet an affordable housing requirement. It also exempts labs and hospitals from the ban.
The state is asking participating communities to gather data — a lot of it — on emissions, building costs, operating costs, the number of building permits issued, and other criteria. The idea is to answer the question: What happens when cities and towns ban fossil fuels, and what lessons can the state learn before it considers taking a bigger step?
“It will, ideally, show that a natural gas ban or a building electrification requirement is feasible, cost-effective, and not something to be afraid of, particularly in the Northeast region of the country,” said Amy Turner, a senior fellow with the Cities Climate Law Initiative at Columbia University’s Sabin Center. “By allowing a handful of municipalities to go ahead and do this, we hopefully will get some more data to support building electrification movement generally.”
Ten cities and towns have already secured local approval and have submitted home rule petitions: Cambridge, Newton, Brookline, Lexington, Arlington, Concord, Lincoln, Acton, Aquinnah, and West Tisbury. But it’s unclear if all of them will meet the affordable housing requirement, and other towns and cities can still apply. The Department of Energy Resources will decide which communities participate.
One potential contender: the city of Boston, where a spokesperson for Mayor Michelle Wu said they are “closely reviewing the rules for participating in the pilot program as part of our broader agenda.” If Boston were to pass a ban on fossil fuels in new buildings, it would be among the first major US cities to take the step, joining New York City, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
The fossil fuel ban was among the most controversial provisions in the new climate law. Just days before he signed it, the governor said at a press conference he was considering vetoing it because he worried the fossil fuel provision might make it harder to build affordable housing. Critics of the ban have noted that the communities angling to join the pilot are all relatively wealthy. Should Boston join, that would provide a strong test-case for implementing a fossil fuel ban in a more diverse city.
Though Baker ultimately decided the other attributes in the bill made it worthy of his signature, he is still concerned about the gas ban. “I’ve thought for a long time that the cost and supply of housing in Massachusetts is, in fact, one of our most existential threats,” Baker said in an interview with the Globe.
Dan Gainsboro, chief executive of NOW Communities, which is developing Concord Millrun, said Baker is not wrong to worry, that there is a considerable cost associated with constructing buildings that run without fossil fuels. “What you’re changing is the building envelope, and that’s a huge change,” he said.
But while such work has historically increased costs by roughly 10 to 20 percent, he said, it saves homeowners in the end by making the buildings much more energy efficient. “We figure this saves our homeowners tens of thousands of dollars over the course of a 30-year mortgage,” Gainsboro said.
The recent increases in Mass Save incentives have also helped close the gap, he said. That finding was underscored in a recent report commissioned by the state Department of Energy Resources, which found that, thanks in large part to the new rebates, it now usually costs less to build fully electric for new residential buildings.
According to the state agency, new large and small single-family homes and 6-unit multifamily buildings would all be less expensive when made all-electric, compared to gas. The only exception was a new townhouse, which would cost the builder more due to the specific insulation needs for the building type, but would still result in annual mortgage and energy savings of $316 for the buyer.
“This isn’t a study undertaken by a liberal think tank. It’s not a study undertaken by the legislature. This is Charlie Baker’s Department of Energy Resources, reassuring us that the all-electric house is more affordable,” said state Senator Michael Barrett, a Democrat from Lexington, who negotiated the bill along with state Representative Jeffrey Roy, a Franklin Democrat.
Now that the climate bill has passed, the Department of Energy Resources can issue regulations, due by July 1, 2023. Those regulations would likely hammer out some of the details of how the ban will be implemented, including how to define a “major renovation,” and how to best protect affordable housing.
Inspectors and planners for the cities and towns hoping to be a part of the pilot say the move to get off fossil fuels has been under way for some time, as developers have responded to a growing consensus that the transition would be happening soon.
“Concord has been really proactive in trying to meet our climate goals and . . . moving forward to being fossil fuel free, and that has already started to transition into private property projects,” said Elizabeth Hughes, the town planner in Concord.
From his all-electric home in Aquinnah, another community hoping to ban fossil fuels in new buildings, William Lake said town residents have wanted to ban gas for a while.
“One thing that we’re all concerned about is mitigating climate change, and the first step is to electrify everything we’re doing locally,” said Lake, the chair of Aquinnah’s climate and energy committee. “For us, that’s housing, heating and transportation.”
Dharna Noor of the Globe staff contributed reporting.
Sabrina Shankman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shankman.