Baker administration’s next climate task: curbing heat emissions from buildings

The Baker administration has pursued ambitious efforts to tap into greener power from offshore wind and solar sources, and took an unsuccessful run at launching a multistate effort to curb car and truck pollution.

Now, it’s time for Governor Charlie Baker’s energy and environmental aides to scrutinize another major source of greenhouse gas emissions: building heat.

Baker’s newly appointed Commission on Clean Heat starts meeting on Wednesday — virtually, at least for now — with a goal of making policy recommendations by the end of November, just a month before Baker is set to leave office. Baker ordered the commission’s creation in September, with energy Secretary Katie Theoharides expected to chair it, but his administration has been quiet about it ever since. State officials won’t even say who’s on the panel until the first meeting takes place, other than to note that a diverse array of sectors and constituencies will be represented.

But the main goal is no secret: figuring out how best to shift consumers and businesses toward electric heat and away from fossil fuels such as natural gas and oil.

“The elephant in the room is this question about gas,” said Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. “Massachusetts has a reckoning with the role of natural gas in our future, in our buildings.”

Although less than 15 percent of New England’s electricity comes from renewable sources, that number is due to rise significantly within a few years as large-scale, offshore wind farms are built. Only about one out of six of the state’s homes are heated with electricity, but policy makers want to see that number increase with the use of electric-powered heat pumps. The ultimate goal is for Massachusetts to be net-zero for greenhouse gasses by 2050 — with emissions sharply reduced and whatever remains getting offset in some way.

With building heat accounting for about one-third of the state’s carbon emissions, the net-zero goal is almost impossible to reach without reducing the use of natural gas in heating systems.

Some cities and towns have already begun discussing efforts to essentially ban natural gas hookups in new building construction. Brookline, for example, has submitted a bylaw with that goal for legal approval with the state attorney general’s office, after an earlier version was rejected; a spokesman for the office said a decision is expected by a March 1 deadline.

“A lot of communities are watching to see how that plays out,” said Tamara Small, chief executive of commercial real estate trade group NAIOP Massachusetts.

Separately, a climate bill signed into law by Baker last March also gives cities and towns an option to require new buildings to adopt net-zero energy codes, although state officials still need to write the rules for how to do this.

But town-by-town approaches probably won’t be enough. The Baker administration wants this new commission to consider statewide solutions — with an eye toward reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 1990 levels by the end of this decade.

“Clearly, they have some very ambitious goals, and in order to get there, you’re going to have to talk about how you heat buildings without the use of fossil fuels,” said Small, one of the commission members. “If you’re talking about every building being electric, does the grid have the capacity? We have heard pretty clearly that is not the case.”

Another burning issue: how to cover the cost of expensive retrofits. It’s one thing to mandate that developers go electric if they want new building permits. It’s another to tell individual homeowners and businesses that they need to switch out their existing heating systems.

“There are significant challenges but it’s better to know what they are than to put out policies without knowing how we’re going to get there,” Small said. “Hopefully, working through this, we’ll find out solutions as well.”

Cammy Peterson has helped numerous municipalities with these issues as clean energy director at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. For her part, she’s eager to push the discussion forward on the state level.

“At MAPC, we have worked for years with cities and towns on their plans and projects to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions in buildings, and have heard their frustration that the state’s policies, by and large, do not provide them with sufficient support or funding to achieve their climate goals,” Peterson said in an e-mail. “Time is short to set the aggressive heating . . . policies that will avoid locking in a large percentage of Massachusetts building emissions — and their associated public health, resilience, and equity impacts — for decades.”

Jon Chesto can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.

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