A Boston-area push to restrict natural gas use in new construction is evolving into a statewide campaign for building electrification mandates.
A dozen towns and cities across Massachusetts have partnered with the Rocky Mountain Institute, or RMI, to advocate for the right to require all-electric construction in their communities. The communities ultimately aim to change Massachusetts law, allowing local governments to pursue climate goals through building electrification.
The campaign follows Attorney General Maura Healey's July 2020 decision to strike down the East Coast's first building gas ban in Brookline, Mass. Based on a pioneering Berkeley, Calif., ordinance, the Brookline bylaw blocked building permits for construction or major renovations that included gas piping for space and water heating.
Healey's ruling was a blow to lawmakers and activists advancing similar legislation in nearby Arlington, Cambridge and Newton. The ruling established that state utility law preempts town bylaws and exposed city ordinances to legal peril.
Following Healey's decision, building electrification backers regrouped and workshopped alternative pathways to achieve building electrification. The effort coincided with the formation of the RMI's Massachusetts Building Electrification Accelerator, a partnership among the RMI, Bay State climate activists and local officials.
Twelve cities have publicly joined the accelerator: Amherst, Arlington, Ashland, Belmont, Brookline, Cambridge, Concord, Ipswich, Lexington, Melrose, Salem and Worcester. Several other municipalities have engaged with the project but have not yet publicly announced their affiliation.
"I feel good that there's more and more communities talking about it. That's a positive, and I think the only way the [state] legislature is going to feel prompted to act is if a number of communities go forward," Arlington Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine said.
Goal is state-level change
Accelerator participants stressed that their goal is not to receive permission on a community-by-community basis. Instead, they aim to demonstrate widespread support for electrification mandates through several shared strategies, making it untenable for the state Legislature to oppose them.
"It's a slog," said Boston-area architect Kathleen Scanlon, who co-petitioned for the Brookline bylaw and volunteers with climate group Mothers Out Front. "It's a long, long process. But until they see that there's a desire, they're never going to get rid of these legacy laws."
Participants also intend to draw attention to the lack of policy options available to local governments seeking to help the state achieve its goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. "We have municipalities that have no way to meet their climate goals. The state's not meeting their climate goals, and towns and cities have no legal mechanism by which to meet our climate goals," said Lisa Cunningham, another area architect who has worked with Scanlon on the Brookline campaign.
The refreshed push by the 12 communities comes as the executive and legislative branches in Massachusetts have lately expressed support for restricting fossil fuel use in homes and businesses.
Gov. Charles Baker's administration released a climate road map Dec. 30, 2020, that identified electrification of heating as the optimal path to decarbonizing the commonwealth's building stock. And despite her ruling against the Brookline ban, Healey has said she supports a fossil fuel phase-out, and she petitioned the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities to investigate the gas industry's future in the state. The department opened a proceeding in October 2020.
The Massachusetts House and Senate passed climate road map legislation Jan. 4, which included a mandate for the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources to create an optional net-zero energy code that communities could adopt. The code would include a definition of net-zero buildings and could provide a pathway for local governments to require all-electric construction, depending on its design.
Rep. Tommy Vitolo, D-Brookline, an energy consultant who drafted the provision with Rep. Kay Khan, D-Newton, backs a code that supports electrification.
"Every building that we build in 2021 with gas or oil or propane heating — we're going to have to retrofit that building in the 2030s or maybe early 2040s and replace all of that infrastructure with electric later," Vitolo said. "Because we have to hit our targets, and our targets simply don't allow for burning fossil fuels to heat buildings."
Communities aim to accelerate building electrification
Elected officials and other representatives from the 12 RMI partner communities as well as Acton, Framingham, Newton, Somerville and Wellesley urged Baker to sign the legislation in a Jan. 11 letter.
Each accelerator community's team includes at least one local official, though climate activists are playing a key role, according to Claire McKenna, an RMI building electrification associate who coordinates the accelerator program. The RMI has sought to build a diverse coalition by expanding participation beyond the movement's origins in the Boston area, McKenna said.
"We have done quite a bit of work to reach out to the North Shore, to Western Mass to make sure that we're getting a mix of participants," McKenna said. "It's really important that we have rural and urban; high-income, low-income and medium-income; a mix of ethnicities and races."
Some of the communities are considering offering zoning incentives such as expedited permitting or looser restrictions on building sizes and setbacks to developers who build all-electric, according to Scanlon and Cunningham. They cautioned that securing zoning incentives can be arduous and can prompt community pushback. The strategy is also more effective in cities, where larger buildings most likely to benefit from incentives tend to be built, they said.
A second strategy is to pass a local resolution in support of building electrification. Brookline's 240-member legislative body, called Town Meeting, passed a resolution Dec. 3, 2020, asking state lawmakers, utility regulators and building officials "to commit to swift, just building decarbonization in the commonwealth by acting at the state-level and allowing rapid municipal action."
The final strategy is to seek authority to implement fossil fuel restrictions in new buildings through a home rule petition. The process involves presenting special legislation to state lawmakers. Brookline and Arlington Town Meeting members have passed warrant articles that essentially seek state permission to implement the bylaw that Healey struck down.