Climate Conversation

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.

In 2008 we passed the “Green Communities Act” and the “Global Warming Solutions Act.”  And we’ve built on that foundation with additional legislation in every session since. 

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.

The legislature, the Baker administration, industry professionals, and many policy advocates have given serious thought as to how to achieve deep decarbonization in Massachusetts

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.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

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10 Comments

    1. Agreed. We should look for open space that can accommodate solar panels (and maybe even wind turbines). For example, the water resources area in Belmont, inside the fence and walking path, is wide open and seems to be unused. Lots of sun, all day. There must be other similar places that can be used.

  1. I think this is a good statement of where we are and the challenges before us and I am delighted you have chosen to make this statement to the Town Meeting. However I would prefer a more nuanced statement on solar siting that does not seem to suggest that we should be cutting forests for solar. Cutting down forests for solar installations is a terrible idea – from an ecological (think water cycle and preserving the natural world) and a climate change perspective. Forests, grasslands and wetlands are the only effective carbon drawdown mechanisms we have. Solar siting should be regulated so that wastelands, bigger rooftops, etc are used first and developers are not permitted to cut forests wherever they think they can make money as they are now doing.

    1. Agreed that we should do roof tops, etc., first. The sad thing is that if we are going to rely on solar, we need much more of it than will fit on roof tops and other unobjectionable places. That’s part of the dilemma we need to struggle with.

  2. Great talk, Will. We should be ramping up fast on small-scale thorium salt reactors, and getting people used to the idea that tomorrow’s nuclear has little in common with Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Nuclear can be a reliable, decentralized, low-waste option that can even power decarbonization or carbon sequestration.

    1. Well said. We have to find new reliable technology. Solar and wind are neither sustainable or reliable. Are there any startups exploring other new technologies too? I would love to learn more about it.

  3. great article Will. tough challenges indeed. We have to overcome lots of obstacles, such as those that make siting of renewables difficult.

  4. Two pieces I didn’t see mentioned here:
    1. flattening peak demand in the early evening (using pricing or technology). The variation of demand through the day right now is larger than the current variation in renewable supply. Looking forward to seeing what variation looks like through the day on iso ne’s graphs once we have significant amounts of wind and solar, but managing large swings in what we need vs. capacity is nothing new I guess is what my point is.
    2. Imports. Not sure how the regulation works regarding electricity imports (other than this famous case of the transmission line through Maine being voted against and that curious connection to the company who runs Seabrook — something about their grid connection and having to shut down temporarily?) but we should be able to smooth out the renewable supply curves quite a bit by spreading what we pull from a large number of wind and solar sources over a large geographic area and by pulling more hydro from Quebec. It would be nice if in the next 10 years, as the wind resources come in to fill many of the winter peaks, if we could get to where gas peaking is all that’s needed (and less of it), with no more burning things like kerosene, no. 6 fuel oil, diesel, etc. to fill in the gaps: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Springfield_Generating_Station

    Getting another couple gigawatts of hydro from Quebec or New York would not be insignificant at all IMO (I’m originally Canadian, but honest, I have no conflict of interest there it just makes sense). If I remember rightly we’re never more than a couple (maybe 3) GW into burning crud like oil, diesel, kerosene and the little coal we have left even on the coldest days. Heck, the proposed new Peabody peaker is only 55 MW. There’s transmission and congestion issues I suppose, but 2 GW more of hydro online eliminating the need for things like that and getting rid of the existing Everett units, the West Springfield ones and as many of the rest of them as possible would be a wonderful thing even if we somehow lucked out and climate sensitivity ends up on the low end of the estimates. Would be nice if ISO NE’s very narrow way of looking at things had to look not just at climate but also at health. Who appoints their board and director anyway?

    Nuclear (other than keeping what we have now running — hmm we seem to be short a unit right now, to the tune of over one GW — spring refuel? — so nukes have their own kind of variability but on different time scales) sounds like a distraction to me on any policy relevant time frame, just like National Grid’s efforts to keep their business as unchanged as possible by promoting the heck out of these so called green fuels that would use their pipelines (and meters most importantly). Thankfully our likely next governor isn’t fooled by this sort of thing. I can’t wait to vote for her.

  5. Brilliant, measured presentation on climate change at Belmont Town Meeting tonight, Will. I can only hope some of our other elected leaders have the same deep understanding of the tasks before us.

  6. I LOVE this idea: “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.”
    Now is the time as we attract such waves of brilliant talent to the state.

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