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What's the future of gas in Mass.? Utilities and critics have different visions

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The Dorchester Gas tank in 2021. (Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)
The Dorchester Gas tank in 2021. (Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)

New reports from the state's five investor-owned gas utilities offer roadmaps to the companies' future — and, in many ways, our own.

The plans call for a radical transformation of the Massachusetts energy and heating sector, betting heavily on the successful development of new, clean energy technologies.

Environmental groups were not permitted to participate in the drafting of the future of gas reports and warn that if the utility roadmaps fail, or alternative plans aren't successful, the state will not meet its ambitious, existential climate emission goals.

Natural gas, composed mostly of methane, is a powerful greenhouse gas and the the largest single contributor to climate changing emissions in the commonwealth.

The utilities distribute natural gas to millions of homes and businesses in through tens of thousands of miles of pipelines criss-crossing the state.

Massachusetts law mandates that the state reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 from 1990 levels, 75% by 2040 and reach net zero by 2050.

In 2020, Attorney General Maura Healey asked the Department of Public Utilities to investigate how the local distribution companies planned to meet the state's goals while ensuring continued safe and reliable gas service (even as demand declines), and ensure consumers do not pay unnecessary costs.

Technically known as Department of Pubic Utility Docket 20-80, the utility reports are based on analysis conducted by two independent research consulting firms selected by the local gas distribution companies. The researcher came up with nine pathways the utilities could take to meet Massachusetts' ambitious emission limits.

The five utility reports are virtually identical. All call for increased energy efficiency measures; expanded use of heat pumps powered electricity generated by renewable solar and wind; and where necessary, using hybrid gas-electric heating systems comprised of electric heat pumps and back-up gas burners.

Judith Judson, head of U.S strategy with National Grid, called the plan "an integrated clean gas and electric system," that would eliminate fossil fuel gas from both the gas delivery and electric systems, saying it's"the most practical and affordable path for our customers."

But critics say the utility roadmaps are based on unproven technologies and warn the companies will spend billions of dollars installing new pipelines that will be obsolete by mid-century, leaving consumers to pay for the stranded assets long after they're needed.

The utilities are paid to distribute gas through their local networks and simply pass the cost to ratepayers. Building, maintaining and servicing pipelines is how the companies make money. Currently, the state requires they replace and repair an estimated $20 billion dollars of pipeline over the next few years. They net an annual rate of return of over 10%.

"By leveraging the existing investments that we've made to day we can make costs more affordable for customers," Judson said.

The utilities hope to stay in the pipeline distribution business by substituting biogas, also known as renewable natural gas, for natural gas currently obtained from drilling and fracking fossil formations in the earth. Biogas is derived from capturing methane released from decomposing organic matter in landfills, farms and waste water treatment plants. Both biogas and natural gas are equally damaging to the climate if emitted into the atmosphere.

Sam Wade, director of public policy with the Renewable Natural Gas Coalition, estimates biogas can replace 20% of fossil gas.

California recently required the state to obtain 12% of its natural gas from biogas but Matt Vespa, a Senior Attorney with EarthJustice in California thinks that is overly optimistic.

"I think they're pushing what is feasible with that amount," Vespa said. "There are limited sources of biogas ... so this is a niche solution that should be reserved for the most difficult applications that you can't electrify."

Currently, Massachusetts gets less than 1% of its gas from biomass decomposition, but according to Wade, "it's a well understood technology that can be quickly deployed at scale."

The utilities also see hydrogen as part of their clean energy pathways. Hydrogen is flammable like natural gas but separating hydrogen from oxygen molecules in water requires more energy and is more costly than the energy hydrogen produces.

Last year, The U.S Department of Energy launched The Hydrogen Earthshot, an initiative to reduce the cost of making hydrogen by 80% within the decade. To make 'green hydrogen,' the process will require huge amounts of renewable solar and wind energy.

National Grid and Eversource are also hoping to use a new technology known as networked geothermal energy. Eversource will drill an experimental pilot project in Framingham this summer. National Grid plans to start two projects next year but has not announced the locations.

Network geothermal uses the earth as a battery, tapping the constant 55 degrees Fahrenheit temperature just a few feet below the surface and circulating it to homes and businesses in the area through a network of pipes. The thermal energy would be heated or cooled using electric pumps.

The networked geothermal technology is promoted by Cambridge based HEET, which describes itself as a non-profit climate incubator. Co-executive director Zeyneb Magavi said gas utilities can evolve into "geo-utilities," delivering a consistent temperature to customers instead of natural gas, and utilize the expertise of their work crews to drill holes and network the necessary pipes.

Without an ambitious project like that, Massachusetts is nowhere near achieving its goal, Magavi warned.

"If we can't start doing this at a utility scale, street by street, everybody having access at a cost they can afford, I don't thing we're going to get there," she said.

HEET has worked with Massachusetts Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem of Newton, who is proposing legislation that would permit gas companies to use pipes to carry thermal energy and leverage the state's bond rating to help gas utilities borrow money to rapidly expand network geothermal programs.

"We’re not going to reach zero emissions by filling out the gas system with biogas and hydrogen," Creem said. "We really need to re-imagine the approach to heating buildings in Massachusetts."

The gas utilities plans, available on the DPU's website, will now go through a public comment period. No matter which plans are adopted, the future of the state's energy system will be dramatically different than the one today.

"In order to achieve these goals we know that customer choice is critical," said Eversource spokesperson William Hinkle. "We have to find solutions customers willingly adopt."

This segment aired on March 29, 2022.

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Bruce Gellerman Twitter Senior Reporter
Bruce Gellerman was a journalist and senior correspondent, frequently covering science, business, technology and the environment.

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