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As companies seek 'future of gas,' climate groups press on in call for 'future of clean heat'

environmental activists at clean heat rally (copy)

Climate groups have pressed on in their effort to shift local distribution companies' plans toward renewable energy. In March, those companies must submit their plans for assisting the state's climate goals.

PITTSFIELD — As utility companies ponder the “future of gas” in Massachusetts, climate groups have chimed in, asking those companies to move off of gas entirely.

In March, companies must submit plans for how they intend to help Massachusetts meet its 2050 climate goals.

Berkshire Gas, Eversource, National Grid, Liberty Utilities and Unitil make up the Future of Gas working group and are seeking input from customers, including through stakeholder meetings.

The Future of Clean Heat campaign, led by Cambridge-based nonprofit Mothers Out Front, asks those companies to leave fossil fuels out of their plans.

A petition signed by nearly 1,000 people also asks the executives of those companies to keep hydrogen and biofuels away from homes and buildings.

In November, a group of protesters from the Berkshire Environmental Action Team and the Berkshires node of 350 Massachusetts visited the Pittsfield headquarters of Berkshire Gas to voice their concerns. They delivered 151 postcards from Berkshire County and Pioneer Valley residents calling for “a future that is all-electric, safe and affordable for all.”

After protesters were asked to leave private property and were stopped by police officers responding to a call from Berkshire Gas, the company has not reached out to discuss its plan, said Rosemary Wessel, director of BEAT’s No Fracked Gas in Mass program.

Outreach by Berkshire Gas seeks to “solicit input from diverse stakeholders,” and the Future of Gas working group has engaged with Mothers Out Front and other statewide groups, a company spokesperson said Monday.

“We would encourage participation and involvement at all levels at https://thefutureofgas.com, as every energy user has a stake in the future of their energy options in Massachusetts and should have an equal voice at the table, as the process moves on,” the company said.

As Massachusetts moves toward a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, state Attorney General Maura Healey asked the Department of Public Utilities in a June 2020 filing to “take a close look at the future of the natural gas industry in Massachusetts.”

“As electrification and decarbonization of heating increases, the Commonwealth’s natural gas demand and usage from thermal heating requirements will decline substantially and could be near zero by 2050,” Healey said in a June 2020 filing. “As the Commonwealth reduces its fossil fuel consumption, the [DPU] should establish a consistent regulatory framework that protects customers and maintains reliability and safety during the transition.”

Wessel said the fear is that utilities will lean on fuels such as hydrogen and renewable natural gas rather than embrace electrification. Such a shift, she argues, is more of a marketing spin, or “greenwashing,” than a real solution.

Renewable natural gas refers to methane captured from organic waste at sites such as landfills.

While there is some debate over whether there are climate benefits, burning waste results in worse air pollution than burning natural gas, said William Moomaw, a climate scientist with the former Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“There’s nothing unique or magical about that,” Moomaw said. “It’s basically very similar to natural gas, and yet there’s a lot of air pollution from burning the waste, some of which is very toxic, and it is worse for local air quality.”

Most hydrogen production, Moomaw said, comes from taking methane out of natural gas, resulting in the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

While “green” hydrogen can be produced using wind or hydropower, a problem with hydrogen is that it can weaken the steel in natural gas pipes, increasing the risk of leakage, Moomaw said. Therefore, hydrogen requires further investments in pipeline infrastructure for safety.

Yet, Moomaw sees such investments as putting off a shift that he sees as inevitably necessary.

“What it does is, if we spend money on that, is we’re not spending it on solar, wind, geothermal, tidal energy, all these other things that really produce no emissions at all,” he said. “Why not?”

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle’s Statehouse news reporter.

He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.

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