Stock photograph of a row of Victorian houses in Cambridge, Boston, Massachussets, USA

Massachusetts Decision Highlights the Need for State Action on Building Electrification

This week, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office (AGO) disapproved the state’s first local ordinance that would have prohibited the installation of fossil fuel infrastructure in newly constructed buildings and in major renovations. The town of Brookline overwhelmingly passed this building electrification by-law in November of 2019, becoming the first municipality outside of California to do so and kickstarting a statewide movement of over a dozen Massachusetts towns and cities exploring similar legislation.

This decision has not diminished the urgency for climate action, or the need to decarbonize buildings to reach Massachusetts’ climate target of net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. Nor has it reduced the negative public health impacts of burning gas in buildings, which disproportionately burden the most vulnerable communities in the state.

The decision does expose how Massachusetts state policies in their current form stand in the way of swift climate action. These legacy codes and laws must be updated to allow municipalities like Brookline to take local democratic action, while state leaders simultaneously tackle issues such as public health, gas utility planning, and affordability through state policy and regulation.


State Leaders Must Remove Barriers to Municipal Climate Action

In a letter to the Brookline Town Clerk, the AGO emphasized its support for the policy, stating, “The attorney general agrees with the policy goals behind the town’s attempt to reduce the use of fossil fuels within the town.” They further added, “If we were permitted to base our determination on policy considerations, we would approve the by-law.”

Yet the AGO did not approve the by-law, illustrating the complex way Massachusetts state laws limit the ability of municipalities to achieve their own codified emissions reduction targets. While they cannot solve every part of the climate crisis, municipalities are nimble enough to respond quickly and craft their own policies to cut emissions. Local leaders in Brookline, for instance, view this by-law as a key stepping stone to achieving the town’s target of zero GHG emissions and no reliance on fossil fuels by 2050, in addition to supporting the state’s climate targets.

The letter goes on to describe three state laws that pre-empt the by-law: the building code, the gas code, and General Laws Chapter 164, through which the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) regulates the sale and distribution of gas in the Commonwealth. Each of these three legal frameworks will need to be addressed independently by the regulatory boards governing buildings, gas fitting, and utilities to reflect our current understanding of the climate crisis.

While the building code determines the basis for issuance or denial of building permits, the gas code focuses on gas fitting and permitting and was created at a time when gas infrastructure was thought to serve the population’s energy needs in perpetuity. General Laws Chapter 164 ensures uniform and efficient utility services to the public and was enacted to ensure that everyone receives vital energy services through a universal set of utilities.

But gas services are no longer necessary to serve residents and businesses with essential heating and cooking capabilities. In fact, to meet the challenge of the climate crisis and to adhere to the state’s emissions reduction mandates, there is no future for gas in buildings.

Today, clean, cost-effective, and efficient electric alternatives are able to meet the energy needs once provided only by the burning of fossil fuels. It has now become clear that state climate action requires stretching into the deepest recesses of state laws and addressing those that maintain the status quo energy system.

The regulatory boards that oversee the building code and gas code need to allow municipalities to only permit new construction projects without the climate impacts or health risks that installing gas entails. General laws and legacy policies that concern access to utility services—especially those of gas—must change to recognize access to energy services instead. If these regulatory boards are unwilling or unable to act, the legislature must update the boards’ mandates to ensure that their decisions are consistent with the state’s ambitious climate goals.


Addressing Equity Requires Additional State Action

While state legislators should make every effort to remove barriers to municipal-level action on building decarbonization, a host of equity impacts—including public health, utility transition planning, and affordability—will require not just local action, but also intervention at the state level.

Research shows that air pollution from burning gas in buildings has negative health impacts, including exacerbating existing respiratory issues and increasing risk of developing asthma symptoms. This status quo is not only a public health crisis, but a glaring equity issue as well. In the report COVID-19’s Unequal Effects in Massachusetts, the AGO emphasizes that communities of color tend to be exposed to the greatest levels of air pollution, underscoring a linkage between environmental and racial injustice when it comes to air pollution.

The report argues that to remedy historical environmental and health injustices, Massachusetts must reduce air pollution coming from heating homes and workplaces, in addition to that coming from vehicles and power plants. While local ordinances that prohibit natural gas hookups in new buildings begin to address this, not every municipality can or will pass an ordinance, necessitating a coordinated statewide approach to ensure the vulnerable communities are protected from high levels of air pollution.

Another challenge the state must address is the gas utility business model, which will affect both ratepayers and the transition of gas workers as Massachusetts winds down a legacy fossil fuel system to meet its 2050 building decarbonization targets. To that end, the AGO has called on the Massachusetts DPU to investigate the future of gas in the Commonwealth, ensuring ratepayer protection, equity, and fairness and looking closely at capital investments in the context of declining gas demand as buildings electrify.

This would make Massachusetts the third state, after California and New York, to launch a regulatory proceeding to proactively manage the transition away from gas—a key regulatory solution for building decarbonization. While the DPU has set a docket for the petition, it has yet to open the investigation as requested by the AGO.

Finally, to supplement electrification from building owners who can afford to do so first, state agencies like the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) must ensure vulnerable communities are able to electrify and are not left alone to carry the burden of remaining gas system costs. Incentives need to be allocated to low- and moderate-income communities and residents in affordable housing to provide access to efficient electric appliances for heating, hot water, and cooking.

Programs like the Whole-Home Air-Source Heat Pump Pilot, which currently runs through December of 2020, begin to address this with tiered rebates based on income. It is essential that the state continues to fund such incentives and expands them to match deployment targets needed to meet Massachusetts’ mandated decarbonization goals.


Urgency of the Climate Crisis Demands Fast State Action

Despite the attorney general’s ruling, Lisa Cunningham, town meeting member and co-sponsor of the Brookline by-law, said that she is as invigorated as ever to fight against the climate crisis. “We have less than ten years to reduce our carbon emissions by 50 percent in order to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change,” Cunningham said. She stated that Massachusetts must stop using fossil fuels, and that Brookline’s by-law proved that building electrification is a practical and affordable step to get there.

Brookline and a host of other municipalities working to decarbonize buildings continue to act as climate leaders in Massachusetts, passing local policies not only to protect their own residents but also to push the state to take action where it has lagged behind, in particular with statewide electrification policy.

“We are sending a strong message to state legislators and regulatory agencies,” said Cunningham. “Stop enabling special interests and get to work passing legislation that will actually prevent catastrophic climate failure.”

Burning fossil fuels in buildings accounts for nearly one-third of Massachusetts’ GHG emissions and the state ranks ninth in the nation in terms of most direct building emissions. To meet its climate targets, Massachusetts must tackle its buildings problem, and building electrification is the key pathway to do so.

To move quickly, cities and towns must be allowed to confront this challenge locally, and not be impeded by outdated laws that no longer reflect the current reality. The state must step back where it is hindering progress at the municipal level and step up where it has the power to take strong, decisive climate action—especially on issues that no single municipality can tackle on its own.