Some Climate-Change-Minded People In Somerville Pushing For Repairing — Not Replacing — Natural Gas Pipes

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Some Somerville residents and city officials want utility companies to stop replacing natural gas pipes and repair them instead, in hopes of eventually getting rid of them altogether.

The Somerville Public Utilities and Public Works Committee, a subcommittee of the Somerville City Council, heard a presentation this week from an anti-climate-change activist, who argued for encouraging what he called “non-gas-pipeline alternatives” (at 11:30 of the video of the meeting).

Edward Woll, a member of two environmental groups (Mothers Out Front and Gas Transition Allies), said he is concerned that the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities will approve a program of replacing natural gas pipes.

“And of course, once you invest in a pipe replacement, that’s an investment for 30 or more years,” Woll said (at 8:54 of the video) during the meeting Monday, March 18.

Instead, he said, he wants to see an approach that “repairs the leaks until you can go ahead and replace the combustible gas — whether it’s RNG, hydrogen, methane — with a non-combustible thermal energy source.”

RNG stands for “renewable natural gas,” which comes primarily from landfills and livestock.

Woll said he’d like to see Somerville enact “a geothermal micro-district.”

“Geothermal” refers to extracting heat from the earth.

Opponents of natural gas say using it for heat contributes to climate change by releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Supporters of natural gas note that it’s often (and currently) cheaper than oil, and that it’s much cheaper than alternative sources of heat. Some also doubt claims that natural gas emissions are seriously harmful.

The Washington Post’s climate advice columnist, Michael Coren, reported in November 2023 that installing a geothermal heating system is about double the cost of installing a natural gas furnace. Supporters of geothermal heat say it’s more efficient than natural gas and that operating costs are low enough that they may be less costly than natural gas over time.

During the meeting Monday, Brian Postlewaite, the city’s director of engineering, told the Somerville Public Utilities and Public Works Committee that while he agrees “both personally and professionally” with Woll’s approach to decrease carbon emissions, the city of Somerville can’t bring that about on its own.

“Frankly, and to a certain degree by law, we can’t favor one type of utility infrastructure over another type of utility infrastructure. Whether it’s electrical, whether it’s gas, whether what type of gas it is, whether it’s thermal energy, whether it’s steam, hot water, et cetera,” Postlewaite said (at 15:36 of the video), adding that the state Department of Public Utilities is “the responsibly party” that can affect how utilities act.

In December 2023, the state Department of Public Utilities issued an order (Order 20-80) seeking to nudge utilities into replacing natural gas by threatening them with being unable in the future to recover costs through the rates they charge customers if they don’t make a serious effort to replace natural gas pipes.

“Going forward,” the state agency’s order states, natural gas companies “will bear the burden of demonstrating that” non-natural-gas-pipeline alternatives “were adequately considered and found to be non-viable or cost prohibitive to receive full cost recovery.”

A bill in the state legislature would create a “thermal transition trust fund” to promote replacing natural gas pipes with “air-source heat pumps, ground source heat pumps, networked geothermal, or other non-combusting thermal energy technology.”

(It’s Massachusetts Senate Bill 2105 (“An Act Relative To The Future of Clean Heat in the Commonwealth”).)

On Monday night, Woll said he’d like to see an upgrade in electrification of buildings that will support “air source heat pumps,” as what he called “a totally separate independent parallel path.”

“To enable that to be done gets us part of the way, ‘cause you reduce the demand for heat through gas and combustible fuels, and you replace it with air source heat pumps, which are totally adequate for this climate to carry you through all the way through the winter,” Woll said (at 33:37 of the video).


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