Back in the late 1990s, the state cooked up a smart plan to help boost energy efficiency in Massachusetts. The utilities — who knew their ratepayers and their needs best — would run a program to get droves of residents to upgrade their inefficient oil and gas boilers to state-of-the-art versions, switch to LED light bulbs, and make other household changes.
It worked. The Mass Save program became a leader nationally and emerged as one of the state’s best tools for slashing carbon pollution.
Through offering incentives to get off oil, it also dramatically expanded the use of gas. But as climate priorities shifted in recent years to moving away from fossil fuels wherever possible, questions have mounted about the gas companies’ control of the program. Now, lawmakers and climate advocates say, those questions are coming to a head after revelations last month that a Mass Save rebate offer for climate-friendly construction in Wellesley came with a demand that gas lines be installed.
“Wellesley’s experience has reignited an important conversation about whether the current structure of Mass Save is compatible with our climate goals,” said state Senator Cindy Creem, chair of the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change.
National Grid, which made the $1.5 million offer to Wellesley under the auspices of Mass Save, dropped the requirement for new gas lines after receiving inquiries from the Globe. But legislators said the initial offer shines a light on the inherent conflict of asking gas companies to help switch off gas. With critical deadlines to slash emissions in the state looming, legislators are considering how to change the program so it could better align with the state’s climate targets.
“It’s a major flaw in our state planning and our state laws,” said state Senator Jamie Eldridge, a Democrat representing Middlesex and Worcester. “The utilities should not be in charge of energy planning in Massachusetts.”
A spokesperson for Mass Save acknowledged the calls for a new structure but said the results speak for themselves. “Massachusetts consistently ranks at or near No. 1 for energy efficiency nationwide as we advance and meet some of the most ambitious decarbonization goals in the country,” the spokesperson wrote in an e-mail.
Senator Michael Barrett, one of the lead authors of Massachusetts’ 2021 and 2022 climate laws, is among a handful of legislators who has proposed alternatives to the current Mass Save structure. A bill he introduced last session proposes that Mass Save have new leadership installed in the form of a chief executive and board of directors, which would include representatives from various agencies and interests, including the utilities as well as three members from environmental justice communities.
When the Legislature begins a new session next year, Barrett said, he expects the bill to be taken up again, possibly with modified language. “We’ve got to have more accountability,” he said. “And I want natural gas off the starting team. I want public interest representatives, government officials, and electric power leaders on the field, representing Massachusetts interests.”
Barrett said that he’ll be looking to other states’ efficiency programs, including Maine’s, which is operated by a quasi-governmental body and overseen by a board made up of several interests — but not the utilities.
The Mass Save program plays a central role in the state’s climate effort. Buildings account for more than half of the energy consumed annually in Massachusetts, according to the state, and the efficiency measures promoted by the program are the best tool available for incentivizing climate-friendly building upgrades. The program had a major overhaul earlier this year, thanks to requirements instituted by the 2021 climate law. Those changes included rebates that, for the first time, would help natural gas customers switch to electric heat pumps.
But still, the pace is far behind the 100,000 homes a year that the state’s own climate plan says should be switching each year from fossil fuels to electricity for heating and cooling. The conversion to electric heat pumps — along with the greening of the electrical grid — is a core component of how the state aims to slash emissions by 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and get to net-zero emissions by 2050.
In the first half of this year, with the new rebates in place, Mass Save reported fully displacing 848 oil, gas or propane systems, compared with just 461 in all of 2020. Another 2,795 households replaced their electric resistance systems with heat pumps, and 2,888 households had a partial displacement, where heat pumps were added to fossil fuel systems.
While the speed of heat pump installation has clearly picked up, advocates say it’s far from what is needed.
“I think we’ve reached peak Mass Save,” said Larry Chretien, director of the advocacy nonprofit Green Energy Consumers Alliance. “Now we’re having to come to grips with making deep reductions in greenhouse gases that I think are incompatible with the business model of gas utilities.”
Another climate advocate, Caitlin Peale Sloan, vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation in Massachusetts, said, “If we stay with the program we have, I think it’s very unlikely that Mass Save will hold up its end of its share of emissions cuts, and that would be disastrous.”
The problem, she said, is not necessarily the utilities, which have an obligation to their shareholders, in addition to the requirements of the Mass Save program. “They do what they are legally allowed to do,” Sloan said.
Sabrina Shankman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shankman.