Clean Heat, Clean Air | Educational Building Block #7
Welcome to the Massachusetts Clean Heat, Clean Air campaign educational building block series! This series was created by Mothers Out Front members to share key concepts and terms from our campaign for healthy homes & communities. These building blocks are intended to be short, easy learning opportunities for busy advocates.
What’s the “Triage and Transition” approach to gas leaks?
Gas leaks are dangerous. If you read Building Block #3, “What’s the problem with natural gas?”, you’re well aware that gas leaks contribute to climate change, cause explosions, pollute communities, harm our health and kill trees. Our state has some of the oldest gas infrastructure in the country – Massachusetts’ gas pipes can date back to the Civil War. Unsurprisingly, these gas pipes leak. A lot.
How did the pipes get so leaky in the first place? Until recently, gas utilities weren’t required to fix leaks unless they were about to explode. In 2019, Mothers Out Front and our allies helped pass a regulation to require utilities to fix the largest volume leaks within two years of reporting.
Now, Mothers Out Front members and allies across Massachusetts are using our voices again. We’re demanding that the utilities “Triage and Transition.” They must fix the largest volume and most dangerous leaks and at the same time transition off of fossil fuels with real climate solutions.
Image Source: Mothers Out Front Massachusetts
In this building block, we’ll describe how Mothers Out Front is recommending how to ‘triage’ and how to ‘transition.’
Triage: Which leaks to fix and how?
We’re asking the utilities to fix the largest volume leaks, known as “Grade 3 SEI” leaks. How are these leaks identified?
A Grade 3 SEI (Significant Environmental Impact) leak is a gas leak with a footprint larger than 2,000 square feet. These leaks make up ~7% of the leaks in Massachusetts – but release half of our leaked gas.
National Grid now reports SEI leak locations, just as our allies at HEET have been doing (see a HEET map of Brookline’s gas leaks below).
Map of Brookline’s gas leaks with SEI leaks tagged. Brookline has 25 SEI leaks as of October 2021.
Image Source: HEET
Rate payers pay for fixing all gas leaks. Most leaks are part of the normal operating budget of the gas utilities. However, Grade 3 SEI leaks are part of the Massachusetts Gas System Enhancement Program — more often called by the acronym GSEP. Started in 2014 as a comprehensive statewide plan, GSEP was originally intended to increase the safety and reliability of the gas distribution system; the program was developed to incentivize the gas utility companies to speed up the replacement of our leaky pipe infrastructure over a 20-year timeline.
At the time, collectively we did not know what it would cost, how effective it would be, nor did we know all that we know about gas today.
The trouble with GSEP today is that the program gives utilities more money to dig up and replace pipes than it does for making repairs to existing pipes. Through GSEP, the gas companies can make higher profits from installing new pipes. The result is that gas utilities are spending over $500 million a year on BRAND NEW fossil fuel distribution pipes and only about $40 million to fix gas leaks, which on average can be fixed for $4,000/leak.
An October 2021 study, “GSEP at the Six-Year Mark”, found that : “To date, the Commonwealth has not created incentives to strategically and successfully repair leaks and monitor those repairs. The use of state-of-the-art monitoring and repair technologies by [utilities] is hindered by the fact that the regulatory cost recovery system rewards pipe replacement, not repair, even though the life of a pipe can be significantly extended using advanced repair technologies that are more cost-effective than traditional excavation and replacement.”
All of the projected gas infrastructure enhancement work is likely to cost the Commonwealth over $20 billion dollars. That is like paying for the Big Dig project all over again. This huge cost is not acceptable — and will have to be paid by our children and grandchildren for decades after we move off of gas. In addition, households unable to afford shifting to renewables will end up paying for the increased gas prices that will be required to pay for the new pipe.
Transition: How can we better use these billions of dollars to ensure a just, livable climate?
Instead of sinking our state funds into fossil fuel investments, we want our utilities to TRANSITION off of fossil fuels with real climate solutions that offer a massive scaling up of electrification, geothermal, and heat pumps.
The utilities are currently putting together a plan for moving away from fossil fuels, as required by the state of Massachusetts.
But we need to make sure that the utilities replace fossil fuels with actual climate solutions instead of some of the deceptively “green-washed” solutions they have proposed so far. Look at this video made by The Dirty Truth about “Natural” Gas Group showing a parody of greenwashing in action and this video showing a parody of the real future that utilities are planning.
|[click to view parody video]||[click to view parody video]|
Massachusetts Mothers Out Front has asked the gas utilities to align their plans with our Future of Clean Heat Platform. The Platform can be read on the website for our Future of Clean Heat Campaign, which is building grass-roots support for clean heat solutions that are all-electric, safe, and affordable for all.
Possibly the greatest concern is that the continued installation of new underground piping appears to be paving the way for piped hydrogen — another explosive and climate-damaging gas that is not an appropriate utility gas to be piped into our homes. By promoting piped hydrogen, biofuels and synthetic fuels as clean energy alternatives (which they are not!), the utilities are marketing themselves as climate-friendly.
We want to #RedirectGSEP funding to a Clean Heat future. What does this look like?
As detailed in Building Block #6, “What is an all-electric building?”, technologies exist today to heat our homes without gas or other carbon-based fossil fuels. Ground source heat pumps can be installed to serve multiple buildings in a neighborhood off of a single piping system — we call this geothermal districts or microgrids. Air source heat pumps can be installed as individual systems, but on a larger scale with incentives offered by utilities through state programs.
WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY. WE CAN SHIFT MONEY INTO SOLUTIONS NOW.“
Gas Leaks Allies*
On the image above, you can see what this could look like. This is not untested new technology! Air source heat pumps and networked ground-source systems are already in use all over the world, and this offers a clear path forward for our gas utilities to transition to providing renewable thermal energy.
The billions of dollars from GSEP must be reinvested. At the same time, state laws must be changed in order to invest in renewable sources of heating, like networked geothermal micro districts. Massachusetts Mothers Out Front has identified The Future of Heat bill to be a top priority to get passed in the state legislature. The Future of Heat Act will move proven technology beyond the demonstration stage to provide a plan to balance financial and gas system safety risks. It will redirect investment to modern infrastructure that can provide safe, reliable, clean and affordable heat long into the future, sustainably and equitably. Read more about The Future of Heat Bill here.
- Dr. Seavey’s full in-depth report on GSEP, executive summary, and key findings
- Recommended policy changes in response to the GSEP reportBenefits of building electrification from RMI
- An outline of the Gas Leaks Allies’ Triage and Transition strategy
- More information about hydrogen, including a six-page hydrogen fact sheet from the Gas Leaks Allies*, that outlines why we need to keep hydrogen out of our pipes and homes.
*Gas Leaks Allies. A collaborative group of more than 30 organizations and researchers, Gas Leaks Allies focuses on reducing methane emissions while advancing a rapid, equitable transition to carbon-free energy sources. See gasleaksallies.org for a list of participating organizations and individuals.