This talk was written for Belmont’s June 1, 2022 Town Meeting.
I want to talk a little about state climate legislation. We have set ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction goals; meeting them will be a daunting challenge.
Over the past 14 years, we have cut emissions a little less than 25%. We have committed to cut emissions another 33% over the next 8 years. A faster, deeper cut. It won’t be easy, especially since we’ve already plucked the lowest hanging fruit.
Although there are competing schools of thought, the most broadly accepted strategy is to make the electric grid green and to electrify everything.
That means, we need to build out wind and solar and stop burning oil, gas, and coal for power.
We need to heat homes and buildings with electric heat pumps and stop burning oil, gas, and coal for heat.
We need to drive electric vehicles and stop burning oil and gas for mobility.
As I publicly embrace this strategy, I do hear from skeptics. And they make fair points: None of this will be easy to achieve at the necessary scale.
The first challenge we face is to find sites for enough wind and solar to meet our power needs, including our new needs to support electric heat pumps and vehicles.
Rooftop solar can meet only a fraction of our need. We may have to cover as much as 3% of our field and forest acreage with panels.
Siting wind facilities may not be easy either. After 20 years of talking about wind, we are only now starting to build wind farms in Massachusetts’ ocean waters. And by the way, there is little prospect of siting wind farms on land in Massachusetts.
The second challenge we face is transmitting power from those new green wind and solar sites to our energy users. Right now, we have enough transmission capacity to meet five or ten years of intended wind expansion, but by 2050, we may need rights of way for some significant new high voltage lines.
The third and deepest challenge we face in building out a grid powered by solar and wind is variability, especially larger seasonal weather changes. In the depth of winter, when everyone needs heat, the days are short, some of the solar panels are covered with snow — what do we do when there is stretch of cold, calm, cloudy days that shut down wind and solar generation? Batteries and hydro do not appear to offer anywhere near enough capacity to address this recurring scenario. Renewable hydrogen technology is still under development.
One technologically simple answer is to leave most of our fossil fuel generating capacity in place and use it as backup only when needed. An occasional backup burn may not defeat our emissions reduction goals. But preserving fossil backup does require stockpiling fuels and/or preserving operational gas pipelines. And we will have keep paying to maintain those plants as ready.
Another answer to all of the first three challenges is to build more nuclear capacity. Neither environmentalists nor investors like nuclear plants now, but there is a lot of investor interest in companies that are working on small, clean nuclear generators. The new smaller generators would be standardized. They would use tested designs and centralized manufacturing. Historically, nuclear plants have been huge, unique, and hard-to-manage as construction projects. The jury is still out on whether any of the new ‘modular’ nuclear ventures will pan out.
Taking a green electric grid as a given for the sake of argument, we still face the challenge of converting the heating systems in over two million housing units across the state. Switching to electric heat pumps usually requires some insulation upgrades and all-in, it’s hard to imagine spending much less than $25,000 per unit on average. It’s easy to imagine spending much more than that.
By the way, right now is a great time to install heat pumps. MassSave is offering a $10,000 per unit rebate and Belmont Light offers additional rebates and very high quality consulting support for people considering conversions . But these are still small programs. They are, of course, funded by all of us through small additions to our utility rates.
In the long run, as we ramp up to full scale with heat pumps, we will face financial and management challenges: If we have to fund all of those heat pump conversions without additional federal help, it will cost us five or ten times what the Big Dig cost us. And not every homeowner is going to be eager to put their mind around all the business and engineering technicalities of a heat pump conversion.
I’m less worried about the transition to electric vehicles. There is huge international momentum towards vehicle electrification and most people are familiar with the decisions involved in buying cars. There are also exciting possible scenarios involving shared autonomous electric vehicles – if these scenarios pan out, they will facilitate electrification in dense areas where many people cannot garage their vehicle.
It is important to frankly acknowledge the challenges we face and discuss them openly. I appreciate those who criticize our ambitious plans. It may be that our plans are unachievable without more federal help and that help may or may not be forthcoming.
Given the challenges and uncertainties, as we move forward, we should seek to make the highest value investments first. For example, perhaps we should be targeting the highest mileage and most essential drivers – like delivery vans, police cruisers, and garbage trucks – not just anyone who wants to own an electric vehicle. And we should think about how our investments relate to other goals like equity. For example, perhaps we should be targeting the poorly-insulated older housing in our lowest-income neighborhoods.
At the same time, we should be willing to invest in developing speculative new technology. Massachusetts became the bio tech center of the world in part as a result of state investment to support that nascent industry. We should consider making similar investments to help Massachusetts become the center of world-wide innovation in energy generation, energy storage and energy efficiency.
Worldwide, decarbonization is not happening as fast the scientists advise. We are certain to experience significant climate change and we should prepare for it. That is another conversation. But getting off of fossil fuel has to remain a central goal. Not just to limit climate damage. Our dependence on fossil fuel causes local air pollution and disease, exposes us to price shocks, draws us into conflicts where we don’t belong, and weakens us in conflicts where our legitimate stakes are high.
Right now, the House and the Senate are negotiating competing versions of what I hope will come out as another strong climate package. I am starting an email group for those who are interested in more frequent conversation about state legislation on climate. You can sign up for the climate legislative group here.