“We are nine years from 2030, and we have barely begun to scratch the surface in terms of what we’re doing and where we need to be going,” said Eugenia Gibbons, Massachusetts climate policy director for Healthcare Without Harm. “We need to be doing more, faster. The world is burning — I don’t know how else to say it.”
Nearly one third of Massachusetts’ emissions come from its more than 2 million buildings. The state says eliminating those emissions by shifting to electrical sources — and replacing fossil fuel energy generation with renewable sources, such as wind, hydro-power, and solar — is critical to achieving net zero emissions in time to do the most good. Between 2021 and 2030, the state estimates, about 1 million residential heating systems will come to the end of their service lives — each a fossil fuel system that could be replaced by one using electricity.
Heat pumps, which use electricity to heat and cool buildings, are the best tools for electrifying homes, according to the state’s Clean Energy and Climate for 2030 plan. Yet clean energy experts and advocates say there are several roadblocks to widespread adoption, including high costs, lack of confidence by consumers, and ignorance of the technology among many heating contractors.
One of the biggest may be the state’s own energy efficiency program, Mass Save. The program, which is funded by a surcharge on utility bills and run by utility companies including gas providers, offers rebates to homeowners for purchasing certain energy efficient equipment. While Mass Save purports to support the state’s climate goals, advocates say it fails to support full home electrification, and in some cases, appears to even actively discourage it.
As the recent UN climate report made abundantly clear, the time for action is running out. The planet has already warmed by roughly 1.1 degrees Celsius since the 19th century, and as this summer of extreme weather catastrophes has shown, even this amount of warming comes with dire consequences. No matter how quickly we ramp up climate measures, the planet is going to get even warmer, the UN panel said; how much warmer will be determined by the steps taken now to stop greenhouse gas emissions — specifically, by quitting fossil fuels.
Unlike many other states and even countries, Massachusetts has a law on the books requiring the state to get to net-zero emissions by 2050. But setting a goal and achieving it are two different things, and failure to ramp up now could lead to a chaotic rush down the road — or make the goal impossible to reach.
“We’re off by orders of magnitude from where we’re going to need to get to,” said Cameron Peterson, director of clean energy for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.
‘The world is burning—I don’t know how else to say it.’
Eugenia Gibbons, the Massachusetts climate policy director for Healthcare Without Harm
At Mass Save, the reluctance is hiding in plain sight. Some homeowners said contractors affiliated with Mass Save dissuaded them from removing their fossil fuel systems and going all-electric.
Moreover, the list of heat pumps that qualify for Mass Save rebates includes equipment that is not specifically designed for cold climates. And even the 2021 form that homeowners must fill out for a rebate on heat pumps includes this note: “The Sponsors of Mass Save do not recommend fully displacing existing central heating system with heat pump equipment.”
Of the 461 full-electric conversions in 2020, fewer than half were facilitated by Mass Save. The rest came from programs sponsored by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and the Department of Energy Resources. Both departments have offered programs that help homeowners purchase heat pumps. Though there may have been some additional electric conversions that year, experts in the field said that number is likely to be small.
Critics who have been watching the slow progress in Massachusetts are coming to the conclusion that, in its current form, the Mass Save program, which for 20 years has been effective at increasing energy efficiency, may no longer be the best vehicle now that the program’s directive is shifting to helping fight the climate crisis.
“It’s difficult to build new imperatives onto old programs,” said Matt Rusteika, who leads the buildings initiative at Acadia Center, a clean energy advocacy organization.
While the utilities behind Mass Save say they support the state’s decarbonization plan, Chris Porter, the director of customer energy management for National Grid in New England, stressed that the current 2030 plan is still in draft form, and that in National Grid’s opinion, the best path forward may not be complete electrification.
“Our perspective is that there are multiple potential pathways to achieving the goal, which is decarbonization, and achieving the targets laid out in the climate act,” said Porter. “There is still work to be done in order to determine what the optimal, lowest-cost path to achieving that outcome is.”