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The Green Way for The Bay State to Keep Warm – And it’s Right Under Our Feet

Massachusetts’ New Commission on Clean Heat Doesn’t Need to Look Far for a Carbon-Cutting Solution

by Bill DiCroce, President and CEO of Vicinity Energy

On the occasion of Climate Week, the Baker Administration made a landmark, first-in-the-nation move to establish a Commission on Clean Heat. Furthering Massachusetts’ national leadership position in pursuit of zero carbon emissions, the Commission’s aim is to greatly reduce emissions from heating fuels. This is a critical task, as nearly 70% of the Commonwealth’s greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings.

While Massachusetts has some of the most ambitious carbon-slashing plans in the U.S., a specific action plan for how to execute these plans remains a hotly debated topic. Electrification, which eliminates onsite fuel combustion in buildings, is the main goal of the new Commission. But there is a large gap between the hundreds of buildings currently converted to electric heat each year, and the stated goal of hundreds of thousands converted each year. It’s no small task for the new Commission on Clean Heat to advise the state on how to reach its ambitious, important carbon reduction plans without burdening residents or building owners with costly retrofits to their properties.

However, there is an accessible pathway to electrification that currently exists under Bostonians’ feet: district energy. District energy is a form of energy delivery in which steam is generated at a central facility and then distributed through a network of underground pipes to buildings, rather than those buildings using onsite boilers, individually combusting, to produce heat. Much of Boston and Cambridge’s most densely populated urban areas are already served by district energy steam. In fact, Vicinity Energy, Boston’s district energy provider, has existing infrastructure that serves 65 million square feet of buildings. Vicinity is currently pursuing its own aggressive electrification plan at its centralized facility in Kendall Square, which could instantly convert all connected buildings to low-emission heating solutions without any new equipment or infrastructure. This is an easy, fast, and cost-effective alternative to retrofitting hundreds of buildings with electric heat pumps.

“It is important for the Commission to consider all options when making their recommendations to Governor Baker next November,” said Bob Rio, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs at Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state‘s largest business group. “Retrofitting thousands of buildings individually could take decades, and would be a costly burden for business and industrial customers. District energy can be an important tool to help us achieve our goals and it should be a big topic of discussion for the Commission.”

Vicinity has long been working with city and state legislators and stakeholders to educate and build awareness of this critical resource to rapid greening of the region’s heating operations; the benefits are substantial. Hundreds of property owners would not have to invest in re-equipping their facilities, and decades of construction could be avoided.

In the wake of Climate Week, there’s no better time to work together to move closer to the Commonwealth’s important climate goals. Luckily, with existing infrastructure, the way to achieve these goals might already lie right under our feet.