As the wealthy go electric, who will pay for aging gas infrastructure?

Electrification is ramping up. Advocates say we need plans to shield lower-income people from the costs of maintaining a deteriorating fossil-gas system.

A woman in a red shirt with a ponytail peels a banana next to a gas stove
(Angela Rowlings/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)
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This story was first published by the Energy News Network.

As some cities and towns across the U.S. prepare to ban new residential fossil fuel systems, advocates say now is the time to create a long-term strategy to make sure lower-income residents aren’t left to pay for a sprawling and aging natural gas system they can’t afford to opt out of. 

Absent a policy intervention, our most vulnerable consumers could be left holding the bag,” said Michael Colvin, director of regulatory and legislative affairs with the Environmental Defense Fund. 

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In August, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed a sweeping new climate bill that includes authorization for up to 10 towns and cities to ban the use of fossil fuels in new construction or in substantial remodeling projects, as long as at least 10% of the housing units in the municipality qualify as affordable. New homes would not be allowed to install oil or propane tanks or use natural gas for heating or cooking. 

The provision allowing the bans is the result of a long campaign dating back to at least 2019, when the town of Brookline instituted such a prohibition only to have its regulation struck down by the state attorney general’s office. Following that defeat, Brookline and several other towns and cities petitioned the state legislature for the right to make their own rules on this question. The new climate law is lawmakers’ response, allowing a limited number of towns to serve as de facto pilot programs for these bans. 

In addition to Brookline, the municipalities of Acton, Aquinnah, Arlington, Cambridge, Concord, Lexington, Lincoln, Newton and West Tisbury have all signaled their intention to participate, though it is unclear whether West Tisbury will be able to meet the affordable housing requirement. Together, these communities make up slightly less than 6% of the state’s population. 

There are already signs, however, that the idea of fossil fuel bans may be picking up momentum across Massachusetts. Activists are already starting to push for a statewide authorization in the next legislative session. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has said she’d like the city to join the list of 10. There are questions about whether that would be possible under this legislation, but her announcement suggests the strategy may be gaining supporters. 

Sharing the benefits and burdens

Despite the small scale of the initial authorization, the provision is something to celebrate, activists said.

Anything we can do today to help us get off of fossil fuels is only going to be a benefit,” said Ben Hellerstein, state director of Environment Massachusetts.

Supporters of the bans point out that limiting the use of fossil fuels will help the state meet its target of going carbon-neutral by 2050 and improve indoor air quality by removing natural gas from homes. They also expect the early bans will demonstrate that all-electric homes are cost-effective, especially in the long term, helping to make the logistical and financial case for expanding such measures.

We know that this is doable,” Hellerstein said. I don’t think there is necessarily a reason to expect that these requirements will make building new housing more expensive.”

Though these bans are likely to slow the growth of fossil fuel demand by a small amount, it’s also likely that more affluent residents will be the first to benefit. The 10 municipalities set to adopt the bans first all have median household incomes well above the state average. And higher-income residents are also more likely to be able to afford the new homes or major remodels that regulations apply to. 

Early on, that disparity is less concerning, said Dale Bryk, director of state and regional policies at the Harvard Law School Environmental and Energy Law Program. 

In some ways, it’s not bad to have wealthier towns work out the kinks and figure out how to do this,” she said. 

The authorization of fossil fuel bans, however, signals a pivotal shift in the way utilities and policymakers need to look at the natural gas system, Colvin said. Until now, the assumption was always that the infrastructure would continue to expand to meet the energy needs of a growing population: It was never in the cards that we weren’t going to add capacity, that we weren’t going to build a new pipeline,” he said. 

Now signs suggest the reach of natural gas could actually be headed in the other direction. And if the bans become more widespread, they could create significant inequities if there are no policy interventions, Bryk said. 

As households step away from the natural gas system, there will be fewer customers left to pay for the infrastructure. And that infrastructure is aging and leak-prone, and expected to require repairs costing as much as $16.6 billion in Massachusetts alone in coming years, according to a report from nonprofit consulting group the Applied Economics Clinic.

Statewide policies are necessary to make sure that the financial burden isn’t put disproportionately on lower-income residents and people of color, advocates say. And policymakers and legislators need to start crafting these strategies immediately, they added.

It’s not too soon,” Bryk said. If we don’t start planning now, if we’re not thinking long-term as we start these steps, then we aren’t going to do it in the smartest way…[or] the cheapest way.”

Creating an equitable transition

Bryk argues for policies that put affordable housing at the front of the line for electrification efforts. 

Colvin noted the possibility of a geographical approach that would electrify entire neighborhoods at once. In many cases, this approach could pay for itself, as the cost of repairing and upgrading the natural gas lines could be much higher than the price of retrofitting the homes with heat pumps and electric stoves. This strategy would allow entire segments of the natural gas infrastructure to be taken out of commission at a time, reducing overall maintenance costs. 

It is also essential to broaden the scope beyond a strict focus on energy policy, said Larry Chretien, executive director of the Green Energy Consumers Alliance. A plan that ensures equity in electrification will have to also include proactive plans for addressing the shortage of affordable housing in the state, he said. A possible model for such an approach, he said, is the HERO Act, a proposal to double the deeds excise fee paid on real estate transactions to fund investments in both affordable housing and clean energy, energy efficiency and climate adaptation.

The housing crisis exists right alongside the climate crisis, and we have to address them both,” Chretien said. We need to find the ways and means to make more affordable housing and make it more energy-efficient.”

While the appropriate policy interventions still need to be hashed out, Colvin takes comfort in knowing that the technical capacity already exists to make the transition to electrification.

The good news is that, from a technology perspective, we know how to do this,” Colvin said. This is a matter of implementation; this is a matter of getting the details right.”

Sarah Shemkus is a longtime journalist based in Gloucester, Massachusetts who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet.