The state of Massachusetts appears to be breaking up with natural gas.
State officials on Wednesday laid out a new regulatory strategy to move utilities away from natural gas as part of a broader effort to effectively zero out emissions from fossil fuels by 2050. Though in general terms instead of specific instructions, the order from the Department of Public Utilities offers this vision for the state in the mid 21st century: minimal gas pipelines; buildings powered by solar and wind, and warmed by heat pumps; and people cooking on electric stoves.
The edict marks an abrupt about-face from the DPU’s more industry-friendly approach under the previous governor, Charlie Baker, and the new message is clear: the transition away from pipeline-delivered gas is happening — whether the utilities like it or not.
“It is fair to say that a different lens will be applied to gas infrastructure investments going forward,” DPU commissioners wrote in the order.
The transition won’t happen overnight, and no building owners will find themselves suddenly forced to change the way they heat their homes. But ultimately the DPU wants to curb any increases in natural gas consumption and make sure decisions by gas utilities are made with the state’s climate targets in mind.
Spokespeople for the state’s largest gas utilities — Eversource and National Grid — said they were still reviewing the order and will have more to say soon.
The DPU examined, and ultimately rejected, proposals from the utilities to meet the state’s climate objectives by replacing natural gas with so-called renewable natural gas, typically methane captured from organic materials, like landfills or livestock operations. The DPU found that option costly, in short supply, and not a clear climate fix, though it said it may be the best option for certain industries where it’s hardest to find an alternative to natural gas.
Climate and clean energy advocates cheered the news. “This is potentially the most transformational climate decision in Massachusetts history,” said Kyle Murray, Massachusetts program director at the clean energy advocacy group the Acadia Center.
Marilyn Ray Smith, of the Gas Transition Allies coalition of organizations, researchers and advocates, called it “a major step toward retiring the Commonwealth’s aging gas system.”
The stakes had been high. Advocates feared that if the DPU adopted plans presented by the utilities, Massachusetts would be committing to using its notoriously leaky pipelines — and further expanding the system — to deliver gas to homes into the future, putting climate goals out of reach.
With the order on Wednesday, advocates said they felt science had prevailed, viewing the decision as a rebuke of those utility plans.
“This is a great vindication of the work that we’ve done,” said Caitlin Peale Sloan, the Conservation Law Foundation’s vice president for Massachusetts.
The new report also calls for shifts in economics. Right now, gas companies profit by bringing in new customers, which puts the business imperative of the utilities at odds with the state’s climate target. The DPU wants to change that.
The stakes for the utilities are enormous. More than half the homes in the state use natural gas for heating, and there are some 1.8 million gas customers all together, according to federal data. National Grid, for example, reported that in 2022, it had almost $1.9 billion in sales to all natural gas customers in Massachusetts, and $1.4 billion in operations and maintenance expenses.
National Grid had also proposed keeping the pipeline system viable, though cleaner, by blending renewable natural gas with green hydrogen, a clean fuel source produced when hydrogen atoms are split from water molecules using renewable electricity such as wind or solar. But high costs, limited supply, and concerns about the volatility of green hydrogen remain an issue, so that idea was rejected.
And, beginning in 2025, gas utilities will also now have to file Climate Compliance Plans every five years, starting in 2025, that include performance metrics that ensure they are helping hit climate targets.
“As Massachusetts moves towards net zero emissions by 2050, the DPU must develop a regulatory structure for the gas sector befitting that requirement,” said DPU chair James Van Nostrand, one of two commissioners on the three-person board appointed by Governor Maura Healey earlier this year.
Looking ahead, the DPU is also calling for energy needs to be managed by greater efficiency measures, for example, sealing up leaky buildings and relying on natural lighting to negate the need to use so much energy. The state’s first networked geothermal project, being developed by Eversource and HEET, will deliver heat from geothermal heat pumps through pipes to 140 customers in Framingham in the coming months. Another project is being developed by National Grid in Lowell, and the DPU envisions more such projects in the future.
Wednesday’s order may have felt like an especially big win for climate advocates, considering how far things have moved, and how quickly. After the proceeding began three years ago, the DPU asked the gas companies to lead the first phase of the process, giving them the ability to write the first draft of a plan for reaching net-zero emissions in 2050. What’s more, advocates said they were shut out of the deliberations after the DPU under Baker took steps to limit their involvement.
Then in 2022, the playing field shifted. Healey was elected governor, and the DPU was filled with her appointees who could rewrite the rules of the game. A bill signed into law earlier in 2022 included language that ensured the ultimate decision would be wrested from the Baker DPU, and handled instead by Healey’s administration.
“Carrying this over to the new governor’s regime was putting it on uncharted ground,” said state Senator Michael Barrett, a coauthor of the 2022 climate bill. “If you’re a gas utility, I think they had every reason to be concerned and this report would bear that out.”