Cambridge, Mass., is one of 10 cities approved to pilot restrictions on fossil fuel use in new buildings.
This article is the second of a two-part series on East Coast building gas bans and all-electric codes that advanced in 2023. The first part covering Vermont, Maryland and Washington, DC, can be found here.
The US Northeast provided fertile ground for building electrification advocates in 2023 as policymakers throughout the region explored pathways to restricting natural gas use in new construction.
Headlining the activity, New York lawmakers passed legislation in May that puts the state on pace to implement the nation's first statewide gas ban in new buildings. State lawmakers in Connecticut and Rhode Island put forward similar legislation, while Massachusetts officials finalized regulations that will allow a handful of communities to pilot gas bans.
New Jersey's building decarbonization strategy also came into focus in February, when Gov. Phil Murphy set a goal of installing zero-emission heating and cooling systems in 10% of the state's building stock. Murphy also directed state regulators to open a review into the future of gas utilities in the state. Since then, gas utilities have warned that policymakers are too narrowly focused on building electrification.
Yet, Northeast gas ban backers had little time to celebrate before facing a major challenge. In October, business and labor groups sued to overturn the New York law, enlisting the legal team that successfully challenged a pioneering gas ban in Berkeley, Calif., and put West Coast building electrification mandates in peril.
As of Sept. 1, nine out of 10 priority communities submitted complete applications to participate in a pilot program that will allow towns and cities to restrict gas use in new construction, according to the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, the agency overseeing the program. The agency gave priority to the 10 communities because they were the first to seek state approval.
West Tisbury, located on Martha's Vineyard, withdrew from consideration because it could not meet the program's affordable housing criteria. The town's withdrawal created an opportunity for communities on the waiting list, including Boston, Northampton, Salem and Somerville.
Most of the participants are concentrated in eastern Massachusetts, where Eversource Energy and National Grid USA distribute gas.
Even as the program progresses, advocates and state Democrats sought to push the envelope. In July, the Massachusetts legislature held hearings on bills that would open the pilot program to any community, give towns and cities permanent authority to restrict fossil fuel use in new buildings and require all-electric construction throughout the Commonwealth.
Sen. Mike Barrett, chair of the state legislature's Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, stressed that lawmakers negotiated the 10-city pilot project as part of a political compromise in 2022.
"I want you to know that 10 isn't arbitrary and it wasn't the number favored by original proponents," Barrett told Somerville's mayor during the hearing. "It was what we could get, and that's going to complicate the calculus going forward. But your advocacy for an increase in the number will have an impact in those conversations among legislators."
In July, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu signed an executive order prohibiting the use of fossil fuels in new city-owned buildings and major renovations of municipal buildings.
Elsewhere in New England, the governors of Connecticut and Rhode Island pledged in September to explore several policies to decarbonize buildings, though legislation to restrict gas use in new construction stalled in both states in 2023.
In Rhode Island, House Bill 5600 received a hearing in the House Committee on Municipal Government and Housing in March. The bill directed local governments to deny a building permit to any commercial or residential building that is not all-electric. The committee recommended holding the legislation for further study.
Environmental advocates urged lawmakers to pass the bill, while mortgage bankers, real estate agents and homebuilders asked the committee to wait for more data from state entities.
The Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission opened a proceeding in June 2022 to explore the future of the gas distribution system following passage of the 2021 Act on Climate (Docket No. 22-01-NG). Meanwhile, the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council is developing a strategy to meet the law's goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
In a December 2022 report, the council said the state should prioritize transitioning 15% of Rhode Island's buildings from fossil fuel heating to electric systems by 2030. It additionally recommended developing a renewable thermal standard, supporting heat pump incentives and reducing investments in the gas grid in favor of alternative methods of providing thermal energy.
Separate House committees also recommended further study for bills that would establish energy performance standards for existing buildings and create a funding program to help gas utilities transition to providing non-emitting thermal energy for residential customers.
PPL Corp. subsidiary The Narragansett Electric Co., which does business as Rhode Island Energy, is the state's only gas distribution company.
In Connecticut, Senate Bill 305, introduced in January, did not receive a committee hearing during the 2023 session. The bill would move the market toward electric heat pumps by prohibiting fossil fuel heating and less-efficient electric resistance heating in new and renovated residential buildings.
One of the bill's sponsors, Rep. Aundré Bumgardner, is considering reintroducing S.B. 305 or similar legislation in the 2024 session, Bumgardner told S&P Global Commodity Insights.
"I am particularly interested in leveraging Inflation Reduction Act dollars to deploy residential heat pumps," Bumgardner said. "I believe that this funding can be used to make heat pumps more affordable and accessible for Connecticut homeowners."
A bill to supplement federal tax credits for heat pumps with a state incentive, House Bill 6504, did not advance in the 2023 session.
Eversource Energy distributes gas in Connecticut through Yankee Gas Services Co., while Avangrid Inc. operates Connecticut Natural Gas Corp. and The Southern Connecticut Gas Co.
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