Massachusetts needs to get to net-zero emissions by 2050. That’s just 27 years to undergo a radical transformation of life as we know it: How we get around, how we heat our homes, and what makes our electricity. Even our lawnmowers have to change.
In a report released Wednesday, called the Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2050, the state takes its latest crack at examining what that will mean for Massachusetts, digging into the numbers of what transportation, housing, clean energy, and our natural resources will look like in that transformed world, and charting the path of how to get there.
The plan “highlights the Commonwealth plans for a 2050 future in which the heat in our homes, the power in our vehicles, and the state’s electrical grid can all operate with a minimum reliance on fossil fuels,” said Bethany Card, the state’s secretary for energy and environmental affairs, in a press briefing. “This plan is rooted in the understanding that climate change poses a unique and potentially irreversible threat to the well being of our society and the planet.”
Caitlin Peale Sloan, vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation in Massachusetts, said the report clearly centered equity and appeared to take into account earlier comments from advocates. “I think this sets up well for the transition into the Healey administration,” she said.
Along with the plan, the state also announced the release of a new dashboard that will track the state’s progress on slashing emissions, looking at transportation, buildings, electricity, and more.
The goal here is not to eliminate every single source of greenhouse gas emissions, but to slash at least 85 percent of them, and then support natural resources or technologies that can absorb what remains. Here are the key benchmarks for how the plan says the Commonwealth will do that.
The plan calls for reducing emissions in the transportation sector to 86 percent below the 1990 level. And it says the state will do that by reducing reliance on personal vehicles, increasing access to and use of public transportation, and encouraging new housing near transit stations.
By the numbers, that means 5 million (or 97 percent of all) light-duty vehicles on the road will be electric, and 93 percent of all medium- and heavy-duty vehicles will be electric, or will be running on fuels that are considered “non-emitting.”
For context: In 2021, there were just 26,101 fully electric light-duty vehicles registered in Massachusetts, according to the state dashboard. Experts are hoping that a beefed-up incentive from the state, new incentives from the federal government, a flood of new EV models, and billions of federal dollars for the expansion of EV charging infrastructure will help get this on track.
Of all the various sectors, the state’s plan is calling for the heating and cooling of buildings to cut emissions by the largest degree. The plan calls for a 95 percent reduction below the 1990 level for residential buildings. The document envisions that drastic decrease would come from converting 80 percent of homes (more than 2.8 million) to electric heat pumps for heating and cooling. That includes buildings that will keep another fuel source on site as a backup. It’s also calling for 87 percent of commercial space to be heated by electricity or so-called “alternative fuels.” In some places, home heating will come from district geothermal, which uses linked heat pumps and underground pipes to harness the steady underground temperatures.
More context: In 2020 and 2021, a total of 33,210 heat pumps were installed in the state using incentives, according to the dashboard.
At the same time that the plan calls for more heat pumps, it also notes the need for advances in energy efficiency, and the establishment of a “green bank” to help provide financing to enable residents to make the switch to electric heating and cooling.
Electric Power Supply
All these EVs and heat pumps are going to require a lot more electricity — a 2.5-fold increase compared to 2020, according to the plan. And to meet the state’s climate target, that electricity will have to be generated almost entirely by clean, renewable resources such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric power.
According to the plan, by 2050, the state will likely need approximately 27 GW of solar and 24 GW of wind resources — vastly more than what it has today. In 2020, according to the dashboard, the state had 3.7 GW of wind capacity and 3.3 GW of solar.
Offshore wind in Massachusetts just hit a setback, with Avangrid’s announcement that it wanted to scrap its Commonwealth Wind proposal so it could renegotiate. Delays on plans to build a transmission line through Maine to bring Canadian hydroelectric to Massachusetts have been another major blow. Even so, major offshore projects are set to come online in the next few years, kickstarting what experts expect to be a major new industry in the area. And the Maine transmission line could still come through, pending a court decision next year.
Conservation and Jobs
In order to soak up any remaining emissions, the state plans to conserve a lot more land — particularly forests and wetlands that are efficient absorbers of carbon dioxide. The plan calls for 40 percent of lands and waters in Massachusetts to be permanently conserved, and for the planting of 64,400 acres of new riparian and urban tree cover.
With all of this new clean energy, the plan also projects the creation of 65,000 additional full-time jobs, as well as up to $4.7 billion in health benefits.
The plan sets some important benchmarks — specific goals in different sectors that allow for more plans, and more goals, to reach them. But it’s not the final word. (In fact, even this plan is an update to an earlier one, from 2020, that was based on less ambitious goals.)
One example of how quickly things move: The plan released today does not account for any delays associated with Avangrid pulling out of Commonwealth Wind, according to state Senator Michael Barrett, a Democrat of Lexington.
“Going forward, I expect they’re going to have to make adjustments every several months because the world is changing rapidly and in unexpected ways,” said Barrett, one of the lead authors of the Massachusetts 2021 and 2022 climate laws. “Whether or not you put a revision down on paper and publish it every several months, your real strategy has to be congruent with the real world. So what’s required here is nimbleness and strategic agility even as you keep your eye on the long-term goal.”