We started with energy efficiency
In 2008, a handful of local people, terrified by climate change, organized work parties on weekends to cut emissions and energy bills by making their homes more energy efficient. The Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET) was born. Inspired by this direct action, over 30 sister groups formed around greater Boston, resulting in lowered energy bills for homes, preschools, houses of worship, and community centers.
HEET’s drive to cut emissions quickly expanded as we learned. We got a blower door, asked Sagewell—a company that takes and analyzes thermal images of homes—to help us identify the buildings most in need, and we analyzed home energy data. Eager to share what we had learned, we wrote the Honest Book of Home Energy Savings, an e-book available on the iPad, Kindle, and as a PDF.
Through our work, the energy efficiency message spread. Thirty-five hundred people from diverse communities learned hands-on skills at 170 work parties, then took what they learned home to lower their own energy bills and emissions.
Then we led solar challenges
Even when a home or building is air-tight, it still needs energy. In 2013, supported by the City of Cambridge, HEET organized the Cambridge Solar Challenge, a program to help homes get photovoltaic panels installed. HEET negotiated a 20% discounted price for the solar installation, then sent a letter through the Mayor to every home with good solar exposure and followed up with a canvass.
While the average annual number of residential solar installations in Cambridge at that time was five, our Solar Challenge achieved more than 50. HEET ran the same program in Somerville resulting in 20 solar installations.
But what about gas?
Energy efficiency is great for lowering emissions and should always be our first choice. Recently, the solar market has taken off as governments and utilities invest, and is now the lowest cost method for generating electricity. But building emissions are still high. The culprit? Space and water heating with gas.
“Natural” gas is largely made up of methane, which is a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide—and faster acting! This high global warming potential of methane means that cutting methane is a highly effective way to reduce climate impacts.
Mapping the Leaks When a 2014 Massachusetts law required utilities to report gas leak locations to the Department of Public Utilities, HEET used the street addresses of leaks to map them in over 200 Massachusetts towns and cities. Making the invisible visible, these zoomable maps captured the attention of state and local officials, the media, and the public. Now communities look forward to seeing annual HEET updates, enabling communities to track leaks and take action to reduce methane emissions. These leak maps helped to launch a grassroots movement in Massachusetts led by Mothers Out Front and the Gas Leaks Allies.
Fixing the Worst Gas Leaks First Research at BU showed a policy path forward when they found that 7% of gas leaks emit half of all the gas pouring into the atmosphere from a leaky distribution system. HEET helped pass a second Massachusetts law requiring gas companies to address these “environmentally significant impact” leaks. Accelerated by a combination of data, communication, and people power, this first in the nation law was passed just six months after the research was published.
The law passed, but how would the utilities comply? Knowing there was no proven method of finding the high-volume leaks, HEET conducted a pilot study with the three largest utilities in Massachusetts—Columbia Gas, Eversource, and National Grid. The Large Volume Leak study confirmed that fixing the large leaks cuts methane emissions in half and established fast, reliable, and effective methods for identifying big leaks for repair. HEET worked with utilities and allies to design an ongoing Shared Action Plan that formalizes data exchange, repair verification, and reassessing methods of addressing large volume leaks.
The biggest Energy Shift yet
We’ve cut energy use, helped accelerate solar, shown the impacts of our gas system on the climate, and enacted a plan with gas utilities to cut emissions from the gas distribution system in half.
Yet how do we achieve our state’s zero emission goal by 2050 in a way that:
- Is safe
- Offers renewable, resilient, and reliable energy that is affordable for everyone
- Protects existing gas system workers jobs
- Create a path for gas utilities to evolve to renewable energy
- Moves at the speed and scale needed without overwhelming the electric grid
Our answer is networked geothermal boreholes, connected by a shared loop in the current gas right-of-way that provides thermal energy to customer buildings. Our design for GeoMicroDistricts is based on proven technology in use in both the United States and Europe. The difference in our design is the interconnection among GeoMicroDistricts. This allows for piecemeal replacement of the current gas system so that block-by-block, clean, renewable energy can work independently, then interconnect to the system on the next block as it is built. It also results in much greater energy efficiency through load sharing and cancelling, is expected to cut electric grid peaks, and provide cheap, long term energy storage.
Gas utilities are planning pilots of this technology, the legislature is considering releasing utilities from their gas-only business mandate, and stakeholders across the country are reading and sharing the Buro Happold feasibility study.
The story continues
Some day, when our emissions fall to zero and we live in a restored climate, HEET will work itself out of a job. Until then, we all plan on doing everything possible to change our current “business as usual” path forward to one that leads to a world powered by safe, equitable, clean, resilient and renewable energy systems.