THE MASSACHUSETTS Department of Public Utilities on Thursday ordered the state’s natural gas utilities to jointly hire consultants and come up with a way to dramatically phase down or eliminate their businesses over the next 30 years.
The order is a response to Gov. Charlie Baker’s call for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It asks for strategies to achieve that goal “while simultaneously safeguarding ratepayer interests; ensuring safe, reliable, and cost-effective natural gas service; and potentially recasting the role of LDCs [local distribution companies] in the Commonwealth.”
On a parallel track, the Baker administration in December is expected to release broad roadmaps for achieving greenhouse gas emission targets by 2030 and 2050. The DPU order piggybacks off that effort and asks the utilities to dig deeper into their industry and provide status updates on their progress on March 1 and again on September 1.
National Grid, which has 925,000 natural gas customers in Massachusetts between its Boston Gas and Colonial Gas subsidiaries, issued a statement said the company is seeking to reach net zero emissions by 2050. ” We know this cannot be achieved by maintaining the status quo,” the company said. “Though we do not have all the answers, we believe our electric and gas networks, which play a vital role in the lives of our customers, can be useful in achieving net zero emissions. We are eager to collaborate on solutions and look forward to expanding on our many decarbonization initiatives in pursuit of a cleaner and fairer energy system that leaves no customer or community behind.”
The whole effort to decarbonize the state’s economy hinges on using electricity to replace fossil fuels while simultaneously reducing the use of natural gas to produce electricity. On Thursday afternoon, 68 percent of the region’s electricity was coming from plants powered by natural gas, 17 percent from nuclear power, 8 percent from hydro, and 7 percent from renewables.
According to state figures, 51 percent of Massachusetts households heat their homes with natural gas, 27 percent with oil, 15 percent with electricity, 3 percent with bottled gas, and lesser amounts with woods, coal, and solar.
The DPU order acknowledged the whole effort to decarbonize could have a big impact on electric distribution companies. “The department will address this effect when appropriate and will solicit input from electric distribution companies at that time.” the order said.
Attorney General Maura Healey, who called on the DPU to launch a reevaluation of the future of natural gas utilities in early June, issued a statement saying she was grateful the agency took the next step.
“This investigation is nation-leading and it will allow Massachusetts to plan ahead and make the policy and structural changes in the natural gas industry we need to ensure a clean energy future that is safe, reliable, and fair for all of our customers,” she said.
But Craig Altemose, executive director of the Better Future Project, said the pace of action is too slow, noting that Healey asked for the investigation nearly five fmonths ago and results will probably not be available for another year.
“It sounds like the Baker administration yet again is dragging its feet and not treating climate change with the urgency it requires,” Altemose said. “We need to overhaul our energy system rapidly.”