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‘There’s a dam breaking:’ Cities and towns start to kick fossil fuels with new building code

Electrification of heating is happening all around the country.Elias Williams/NYT

Brookline and Watertown last week became the first communities in the state to adopt a new building code discouraging the use of fossil fuels in new buildings, and 22 more cities and towns have signaled they intend to take similar action, in what climate advocates say is the first large-scale test of Massachusetts’ willingness to wean itself from gas and oil.

The new code, finalized by the state Department of Energy Resources last month, adds new requirements to the current building codes in communities that choose to adopt it. It stops short of being an outright ban of fossil fuel heat, but by requiring stringent energy efficiency measures and add-ons like solar panels in buildings that plan to install gas line connections, it is likely to sharply curtail it.

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While the new code addresses only new construction, it is seen as a major foray into the contentious question of whether residents will accept a shift away from fossil fuels. And as communities across the state debate opting in, advocates say that city council and town meetings will become the front lines in the effort to address one of the state’s biggest sources of climate-warming emissions: heating homes.

“This effort to get a municipality to opt in is going to invigorate grass-roots politics in 2023 like you’ve never seen before,” said Senator Michael Barrett, coauthor of the 2021 climate bill that required the creation of the new, optional building code.

In addition to the requirement for solar panels, the code requires developers building with gas or oil to shell out for additional electrical wiring, so the building can go fully electric in the future and parking lots are ready for EV chargers.

The 24 communities planning to take the step represent a fifth of the state’s population, according to Lisa Cunningham, cofounder of ZeroCarbonMA, a nonprofit developing local climate policy and working with communities to exert influence at the state level. In addition to Watertown and Brookline, the list includes Cambridge, Wellesley, Arlington, Acton, Belmont, Concord, and Lincoln, she said.

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The new building code is the state’s second stab at cutting fossil fuels from new buildings. A pilot program approved by the Legislature last year allowed 10 cities or towns to participate in a program that goes even further, allowing them to ban fossil fuels entirely from new construction and major renovations.

In order to take part in the pilot, municipalities have to meet certain requirements, including having at least 10 percent affordable housing. The final group will likely include Cambridge, Brookline, Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, Acton, and Aquinnah. It is unclear whether Newton and Arlington will meet the requirements. Boston, Somerville, Northampton, and Salem have also said they would like to take part. The decision will ultimately be made by the Department of Energy Resources. Barrett said he expects at least some of the municipalities in the pilot to be phasing in their bans before the end of the year.

The effort to ban fossil fuels from buildings has faced corners of fierce resistance. Though a number of developers have embraced the move to make climate-friendly buildings and are already doing so, some trade groups and labor unions have resisted any kind of ban or altered building code that would limit fossil fuels in new buildings.

Anastasia Nicolaou, vice president of policy and public affairs at NAIOP Massachusetts, a commercial real estate trade group, said their members “are concerned with the consistency issues that may arise due to neighboring municipalities operating under differing codes; and a lack of general consistency across the Commonwealth as we try to tackle statewide climate strategies.”

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“There are going to be some conflicts, and I think we have a long road ahead of us,” said Logan Malik, interim executive director of the Massachusetts Climate Action Network. Some of the thorny concerns, he said, will be worries that the new code could hamper development or push affordable housing costs up.

“I don’t think that’s going to be the case, but it’s going to be a conversation and it’s going to involve a lot of engagement, education and discussion,” Malik said.

Meanwhile, advocates said the state’s ability to slash building emissions deeply enough to meet climate targets depends on the mass adoption of the new code, and some worry that too many of the more than 300 municipalities that have yet to make a decision could opt out. Legislation mandating statewide restrictions on fossil fuels may be necessary to meet the emissions targets, they said.

Even some of the most staunch supporters of the electrification movement have some concerns about the new code. Kyle Murray, the Massachusetts program director for the clean energy advocacy group Acadia Center, said that some additional measures may be needed to ensure low income residents are not negatively impacted, though he noted that on the whole, things are moving in the right direction.

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“Cities and towns are leading the way, and I think we’re going to see a sort of point where — I don’t want to use disaster metaphors — but there’s a dam breaking,” Murray said. “We’re going to see these cities and towns do it and then we’re going to see so many more cities and towns say, ‘Oh, yeah, we can do this too.’ ”

The new code arose from a provision in the 2021 state climate bill that required the Department of Energy Resources to write a special “net-zero” version of the state’s building code. The authors of the bill had intended the new code to provide a way for communities to ban fossil fuels entirely, but ultimately, the code fell short by continuing to allow a pathway to using fossil fuels.

When the state finalized the new building code last month, it recommended that municipalities provide for at least six months of advance notice to developers before implementing it, and that the codes start on either July 1, 2023, or Jan. 1, 2024. Both Watertown and Brookline aim to start using the new code on July 1.

In Watertown, Steven Magoon, director of community development and planning, saidthe decision to adopt the new code is the city’s way of ensuring new development is done in a climate-resilient way.

“There’s already been a shift,” said Magoon. “But if we’re going to meet our climate and energy goals, it needs to be more dramatic.”

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Sabrina Shankman can be reached at sabrina.shankman@globe.com. Follow her @shankman.