Massachusetts Utilities Hope Hydrogen and Biomethane Can Keep the State Cooking, and Heating, With Gas

There is great uncertainty in Massachusetts’ path to decarbonization, and two conflicting visions are emerging for the future of the state’s gas system. Central to the conflict are questions over the role of alternative gases in the transition to clean energy, as well as the future of the gas industry as a whole. And as invisible as the gas is itself, some of the industry’s influence on the energy transition has been hidden from view, as underscored by emails released this week by a watchdog group.

While the state’s gas utility companies argue that fuels like hydrogen and biomethane are the state’s best bet to rapidly decarbonize its heating and other gas-dependent sectors, climate advocates contend these companies are pushing false solutions to protect their profits, and that the gas system should instead ultimately be decommissioned.

“If we accept the industry’s case that we should use these technologies, that basically prolongs our dependance on natural gas,” said Dr. Phil Landrigan, the director of the Global Observatory on Planetary Health at Boston College. “It locks us into gas precisely at a time when we should be ending our addiction to fossil fuels and moving to renewables.”

As gas utilities and advocates debate the future of the gas system, state regulators have deferred to the utilities to construct the initial plans for decarbonization. In a variety of avenues throughout the state, utilities have used their influence to promote their preferred decarbonization options, often out of the public eye. Environmentalists argue this is putting the state’s climate goals in jeopardy. 

“Is a gas utility going to plan against its best interests for the sake of the Commonwealth’s decarbonization goals, or for the sake of ratepayers in the Commonwealth?” asked Kyle Murray, a senior policy advocate at the Acadia Center, a nonprofit that focuses on climate and energy policy. “I’m not sure that’s even fair to them, as they have shareholders that they need to deliver a profit to. So there’s a fundamental problem with who draws up the plans.”

Green Fuel or Greenwashing?

Hydrogen gas, already used in some industrial processes, emits water vapor when combusted, and has garnered significant attention for its potential to help eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from hard-to-decarbonize sectors like steel production and shipping. The gas industry has also shown a keen interest in using hydrogen for residential and commercial heating.

While utilities tout the gas for its climate benefits, nearly all hydrogen fuel is currently made by burning fossil fuels. Green hydrogen, the only type produced by renewables, makes up less than 1 percent of hydrogen produced today. Green hydrogen is made from splitting water molecules and requires massive amounts of clean energy. Recent studies have cast doubt on its potential for home heating—a recent review article published in Joule found it unsuitable for this purpose. 

Another recent study, published in Nature Energy, found that green hydrogen is projected to comprise less than one percent of global energy by 2035, even assuming exponential growth.

Dr. Gregory Nemet, one of the study’s co-authors, wrote in an email that for green hydrogen to have a measurable climate impact, “it will need to grow like the very fastest technology development cases of the past, such as shipbuilding in World War II and development of the Covid-19 vaccines in 2020.”

Contradicting utility proposals, Nemet doubts that green hydrogen will be a major factor in the future heating sector, noting that “it would be competing directly with electric heating … that will likely have consistently lower installation costs and operating costs.”

Biomethane–often called renewable natural gas–also faces major obstacles to wide scale adoption. Biomethane is gas captured from organic waste facilities such as landfills, wastewater treatment centers and agricultural operations. This captured gas is then processed to have a chemical composition similar to natural gas. The major constraint, however, is that there is a limited amount of decomposing organic waste from which to capture the gas. For instance, if all of California’s available waste emissions were captured, this would only cover about 3 percent of the state’s natural gas demand. 

Limits to production and a growing demand across multiple sectors could keep biomethane prices significantly higher than natural gas. This would put an additional strain on consumers, and risk creating a perverse incentive for waste managers to actually increase their methane emissions in order to meet a ravenous market for the fuel. 

While biomethane is generally accepted to have a smaller warming impact than natural gas, its combustion still produces CO2, and leaks in transportation systems for the gas diminish its climate benefits. Furthermore, combusting biomethane in homes could perpetuate some of the negative health effects of natural gas.

Combustion of hydrogen also poses health and safety risks, and can produce even greater amounts of polluting byproducts than natural gas when burned. Additionally, hydrogen gas can cause transporting infrastructure, such as pipes, to embrittle and become more leak prone, and may pose an even greater risk of in-home explosions than natural gas. Due to infrastructure constraints, utilities don’t anticipate blending in more than 20 percent of hydrogen into the gas supply for heating without major upgrades to the system. A 20 percent blend of green hydrogen with natural gas would only result in about a 7 percent reduction in emissions because of hydrogen’s lower energy density.

“One of the things that really alarmed us when we were first doing this research is that hydrogen, when it’s combusted, has about six times the NOx emissions as methane,” said Abbe Ramanan, a project director at the nonprofit Clean Energy Group.

NOx is the name used broadly for different types of nitrogen oxides, greenhouse gases produced in the combustion of many types of fuel. NOx gases warm the atmosphere at a level comparable to methane and are major contributors to both asthma and acid rain.

In the coastal town of Peabody, Massachusetts, residents have been fighting the construction of a natural gas “peaker” plant, intended to provide electricity when spikes in demand overtax other electricity generation facilities, which may eventually replace one 0f two existing plants at the site. In the one public meeting held about the new plant, representatives of the municipal utility called converting the plant to 100 percent green hydrogen post-construction their “ultimate goal.”

Increased NOx emissions in the area would put an additional burden on a community that is already facing the consequences of heavy air pollution. A recent analysis commissioned by the Massachusetts Climate Action Network found residents near existing plants in Peabody already face elevated risks of stroke, cancer and other diseases. 

“The reason peaker plants are so detrimental to the surrounding communities is because of those NOx emissions,” Ramanan said.

Controversy Over the Future of Gas

Recent proceedings at the state’s Department of Public Utilities (DPU) looking into decarbonizing the gas system have relied on the gas utilities to draft their own initial plans, despite objections from climate advocates, while minimizing the role of environmental groups.

Massachusetts gas utilities—including energy giants National Grid, Eversource and a subsidiary of Iberdrola—base their plans on a study conducted by consultants hired by the industry. The plans place a strong emphasis on a “hybrid electrification” strategy, in which the gas distribution network would be largely maintained to back up electric heat pumps. 

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“We plan to eliminate fossil fuels from our existing gas network no later than 2050 by delivering renewable natural gas and green hydrogen to our customers,”  wrote Christine Milligan, a spokesperson for National Grid, in an email. “Continued use of the gas network using fossil free fuels will help reduce electric system infrastructure investments—and helps support an affordable pathway to net zero.”

According to Milligan, energy efficiency measures are also key components of the companies’ plans, alongside networked geothermal and targeted electrification options where it deems the technologies are feasible. Networked geothermal is essentially a system of connected ground-source heat pumps that use electricity to heat and cool homes, while targeted electrification refers to fully electrifying heating in certain areas in order to decommission select parts of the gas system.

Altogether, maintaining the state’s gas system will not be cheap. According to one analysis, a state pipeline replacement program will cost customers about $20 billion.

Furthermore, climate and environmental justice advocates argue the report commissioned by the utilities presents a distorted view of decarbonization; underestimating gas leak rates, neglecting out-of-state emissions of gases that are used in the state, assuming a net-zero impact of all alternative fuels and declining to quantify the health impacts of air pollution. They also argue the report should have considered job creation and economic impacts past 2050.

The industry consultants’ modeling relies on the Massachusetts Greenhouse Gas Inventory for many of these inputs, but recent research shows that the state’s inventory itself significantly undercounts emissions.

“Imagine doctors not using the cutting edge data to make decisions for their patients,” said Andee Kranser of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility. “They’re using these outdated inputs for their models to say that this would work.”

Leveraging Power

As pressure for climate action has increased over the past decade, Massachusetts utility companies have used their immense power in the state to influence clean energy and decarbonization policy. 

In the state’s most recent legislative session, utilities companies used their expensive lobbying operations to oppose certain clean energy policies, including bills promoting rooftop solar and a transition off of greenhouse gas-emitting fuels. Some Massachusetts utility companies essentially skirt the state’s lobbying disclosure requirements by registering nearly all of their lobbying work as “neutral,” instead of disclosing support or opposition for specific policies.

One failed bill utility lobbyists supported—introduced by state Rep. Tom Golden Jr., former co-chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, the legislative committee tasked with overseeing the industry—would have incentivized hydrogen and biomethane in the heating sector, and created a state fund to spur investment in the technologies.

Recently uncovered emails published by the Boston Globe indicate that this bill was based on recommendations from a University of Massachusetts Lowell study that was developed in close coordination with and largely funded by natural gas and pipeline utilities in a not completely disclosed relationship. Some researchers have criticized the study for ignoring research that found risks in moving hydrogen through gas pipelines, and the amount of energy required to make enough of the gas to heat homes. Golden, along with both the current state house and senate chairs of the same committee—state Sen. Michael Barrett and state Rep. Jeffrey Roy—all participated in a UMass Lowell panel on the paper and its findings.

This bill reflects the gas industry’s general strategy on biomethane. In a policy panel focused on combating gas bans earlier this year, Sheri Givens, National Grid vice president of U.S. policy & regulatory strategy, laid out the tactic, noting that renewable natural gas, or RNG, is about four times more expensive than natural gas, but that aggressive incentives, such as a standard requiring increased amounts of biofuels in the gas system, could help boost the resource.

 “If we can start valuing RNG for heating, and bringing those incentives to help bring the cost down for the developers, that’s how we’re gonna get more RNG into our system,” she said.

Meanwhile, natural gas from non-renewable sources continues to make up essentially all of the state’s gas supply, and gas connections in Massachusetts are increasing, a trend which the industry expects to continue in the near future. The state’s gas utilities make their money not on the gas they distribute, but on the costs associated with distribution, so a reduction in gas volume that keeps the distribution network in place wouldn’t necessarily hurt their bottom line.

As natural gas prices skyrocket across New England, global emissions are also on the rise—projected to increase 10 percent globally by 2030, even if countries meet their climate commitments—with devastating consequences.

“This more than anything speaks to the need of the clean energy transition being taken out of the hands of the utility companies,” said Logan Malik, director of the Massachusetts Climate Action Network. “They’re profit-driven and this cuts into their profit as a gas company. But the climate crisis is here, and we need to take swift action to transition, and gas companies are not going to lead us to the solutions that we need as a commonwealth and as a country.”

At the moment, approval of the utilities’ plans is now up to the DPU. But with a new Democratic administration taking office this winter and two of the DPU’s three commissioners reaching the end of their terms, the future of gas in Massachusetts remains uncertain.

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