Massachusetts Decides To Move Away From Natural Gas (Methane) For Residential Use

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Massachusetts has become the first US state to begin phasing out natural gas as a residential heating source. The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities on December 6, 2023 rejected arguments from utilities and the gas industry that proposed the use of “renewable natural gas” and hydrogen as lower carbon alternatives to methane gas — popularly known as natural gas. Instead, the department ruled that the state should encourage a transition to using electricity for heating and other functions currently made possible by burning gas. The decision is part of the state’s plan to lower carbon emissions within its borders and to be net zero by 2050.

According to Inside Climate News, Massachusetts is the first state to take such a clear step to phase out natural gas, but it likely won’t be the last. At least 11 other states, including California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington — as well as Washington, DC — have ongoing regulatory cases that are exploring the future of natural gas.

Saying No To Natural Gas

Environmental and clean energy advocates view the ruling as a victory and see it as the beginning of a broader shift away from gas. For gas utilities and their industry groups, the decision is a major defeat. “As far as I know this is the first time a utility has been required to decarbonize,” said Matt Rusteika, director of market transformation for the Building Decarbonization Coalition, a group that includes clean energy companies and unions, among others. “So it’s a big deal. To take a step so clear and so deliberate is truly a first.”

On its website, the BDC says, “Americans need safer, healthier, more affordable energy. The Building Decarbonization Coalition (BDC) is harnessing the power of coalition to forge paths for effective upgrades that power homes and buildings with clean electricity. We align people, corporations, and politicians at every level to join in building decarbonization and build a sustainable future.”

One thing all sides agreed about is that a shift away from natural gas will have costs that could disproportionately affect low income consumers who are unable to pay to convert their homes to electric heat or other alternatives. The ruling acknowledges the potential harm and has said the department will begin a separate proceeding to monitor and reduce the energy cost burden.

Natural gas is the heating fuel for 1.4 million, or 51 percent, of Massachusetts households, according to the Census Bureau, so a transition away from it is a significant change. The other leading fuel sources are kerosene or fuel oil (24 percent) and electricity (18 percent). The state now says that it will encourage a shift to electricity, while also implementing energy conservation measures. The alternatives could include electrification, geothermal heat, and programs that reduce energy use.

Under the ruling, gas utilities will need to submit climate compliance plans every five years starting in 2025, outlining how they intend to make a transition to clean energy. Gas utilities are now required to consider non-gas alternatives to gas expansion projects. Companies will no longer be able to make consumers pay for programs that promote the use of natural gas.

Caitlin Peale Sloan, Massachusetts vice president at the Conservation Law Foundation, said the department’s actions show an embrace of the reality of what’s needed and a rejection of options put forth by the gas industry that were not practical. She credits Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey, whose appointees to the Department of Public Utilities steered the process. Healey’s willingness to embrace electrification is in contrast to her predecessor, Charlie Baker, a Republican, who was much more cautious about making changes that would affect home heating. “It really is a matter of the times changing, the climate science becoming clearer and now a governor appointing commissioners with a reality-based lens,” Sloan said.

A Plea For Alternatives To Natural Gas

Companies involved in the natural gas economy had urged the department to allow for the use of alternatives such as hydrogen and renewable natural gas, a form of methane made from feedstocks that include waste from landfills and livestock manure. “Our industry stands ready to deploy renewable gas technologies which will reduce methane emissions, displace fossil fuel supply, improve organic waste management, produce useful soil amendments, and ultimately sequester carbon in Massachusetts,” said an Oct. 14 filing from the Renewable Natural Gas Coalition, a California-based trade group.

A spokesman for the coalition said the ruling “ignores emissions data and climate strategies upholding RNG’s importance as a gas decarbonization tool.” He added that a diverse portfolio of resources will be needed and “the future is not electric versus renewable gas.”

Eversource, whose subsidiaries provide electricity and gas in Massachusetts, proposed a plan with a series of initiatives to reduce emissions from gas. They were all based on continuing to use the existing gas distribution system, with various projects to explore alternatives that would include hydrogen, renewable natural gas, geothermal energy, and the deployment of hybrid systems that could run on electricity and natural gas.

If natural gas escapes at every opportunity, just imagine what hydrogen would do! Is Eversource serious about putting volatile hydrogen into existing gas distribution systems? Chaos would ensue.

Critics of Eversource’s plan argued that renewable natural gas and hydrogen may be important resources for reducing emissions in heavy industry and other parts of the economy, but are not well-suited to replacing gas for home heating. “Reliance on these alternative gasses is illogical and counterproductive, and the analysis supporting them in this docket is inconsistent with reality,” said Ezra Hausman, who runs an energy policy consultancy in the Boston area, in testimony submitted in October. He said gas companies are engaging in “magical thinking” when they say that renewable natural gas and hydrogen can replace natural gas.

The department rejected most of the utilities’ suggestions, with some of the only agreement coming on the idea that the companies should explore greater use of geothermal energy. An Eversource spokesman sad in a statement to Inside Climate News, “We are working every day to help the commonwealth achieve its nation-leading decarbonization goals and we remain fully engaged with other utilities and stakeholders to define a practical path forward to reach them. We are currently reviewing the order and are thankful to the Department of Public Utilities for bringing together all stakeholders in an open and transparent process.”

The National Consumer Law Center participated in the case, and its attorney, Jenifer Bosco, said she is pleased that the department is taking the cost concerns seriously. “Low income consumers already experience high energy burdens, paying a higher percentage of their household income for home energy costs than their neighbors pay,” she said in an email. “Without a focus on affordability, low-income consumers could be left stranded on an increasingly unaffordable gas system, bearing more than their share of the cost to keep the system operating.” The NCLC is critical of utility proposals for hydrogen because of the potential for high costs that consumers would be forced to pay.

For clean energy advocates, one of the most exciting aspects of the Massachusetts ruling is the possibility that regulators in other states may follow suit. Illinois was the most recent state to initiate a probe into the future of gas, which the Illinois Commerce Commission did alongside a ruling in November that rejected a rate increase for the gas utility Ameren.

Matt Rusteika of the Building Decarbonization Coalition said he hopes other states take a close look at how Massachusetts reviewed the evidence and came to its conclusions. “This order sets a strong precedent that (regulators are) going to stop skirting the science and start asking the hard questions,” he said. He emphasized that the Massachusetts ruling was just one step and that implementing it will be a long and complex process.

The Takeaway

Industry advocates like to describe such campaigns in terms of “freedom,” as if it is perfectly OK to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater because the First Amendment guarantees the right of free speech. Consumers should be free to choose to heat their homes with natural gas even if it has a negative impact on their neighbors just as they should be free to drive a four ton behemoth that gets 10 mpg because…..this is America, right? By such simplistic thinking, we should be able to cover our homes with asbestos shingles and use refrigerants in our cars and freezers that destroy the Earth’s ozone layer.

Technologies evolve and the needs of society change over time. Natural gas leaks are common and a danger to the community. Study after study has shown that cooking with natural gas entails multiple health risks. The Massachusetts DPU is right to protect the citizens of the Commonwealth from such proven dangers, particularly now when heat pumps are two to three times more energy efficient and capable of heating homes when outside temperatures plummet to below zero.

Make no mistake. The companies who make their living selling and distributing natural gas are going to fight back hard against this decision and it will be years before the DPU decision is fully implemented. But the science is clear. As we say at CleanTechnica every day, we have to stop extracting and burning fossil fuels. Today is the perfect day to begin putting those words into action in Massachusetts and every other state in the nation.

Featured photo by todd kent on Unsplash

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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