Energy Central Professional


National Grid fossil fuel-free plan: A good fit for Worcester?

Henry Schwan, Telegram & Gazette  


    WORCESTERMassachusetts has a goal to become a net-zero state by 2050.

    That means the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that enters the atmosphere — a major contributor to climate change — is offset by an equal amount of CO2 pulled from the air.

    National Grid, Worcester's electricity supplier, said it believes it has a roadmap to help the state reach its net-zero goal.

    More: Leading by example — MassDOT has high hopes for new 'net-zero' Central Mass. flagship building

    The company's so-called "clean energy vision" for fossil fuel-free heating of homes and businesses has some Worcester energy experts questioning aspects of the plan and whether it's a good fit for the city.

    Plan basics

    National Grid — which, according to the company, serves more than 20 million people in Massachusetts and New York — claims the strategy completely eliminates fossil fuels from the utility's gas and electric delivery systems by 2050. An emphasis is converting current heating systems that run on fossil fuels to renewable sources.

    More: Big changes could be in store for nearly 5,000 3-deckers in Worcester

    Some environmentalists and activists said they believe full electrification from renewable sources, like wind and solar, is the way to go. But National Grid said such a strategy requires expensive upgrades to its existing energy delivery infrastructure — costs that will be passed on to customers.

    Instead, National Grid's plan utilizes the company's existing gas and electric delivery systems to bring customers' fossil-free heat from a "hybrid" approach.

    The approach includes: beefed-up insulation and weatherization of buildings and fossil-free gas from two sources: renewable natural gas (RNG) and green hydrogen. Plus, a hybrid pairing of electric heat pumps that run on electricity from renewable sources with customers' existing gas appliances; and geothermal networks that allow customers to share heating and cooling.

    Overall, the plan gives customers greater efficiency, reliability, choice and is less expensive, said National Grid.

    Customer savings could average $1,000 annually compared to a full-electric system, said Judith Judson, National Grid's head of U.S. strategy, during a recent Zoom session with reporters.

    'Little overstated'

    John Odell, Worcester's chief sustainability officer, does not fully support the plan.

    "I think the vision is a little overstated," Odell said.

    National Grid's focus, Odell said, is an effort to achieve a return on its investment in its current natural gas delivery systems, which he called "stranded assets."

    Those assets are not designed to transport hydrogen, Odell said, explaining that hydrogen is a smaller element than a natural gas molecule, creating the potential for more leaks from pipes.

    Additionally, producing hydrogen is significantly more expensive than gas, according to Odell.

    He also called RNG and green hydrogen a "niche industry," potentially beneficial for regions of the country with a significant industrial presence that doesn't apply to Worcester and Massachusetts.

    Odell believes full electrification of buildings and vehicles is the way to go.

    "The electrification process is less expensive, will have a better climate change impact and fewer emissions through electrification," Odell said. "The alternatives from the utilities and others are going to be very expensive for ratepayers to stay on the system.

    "For residential customers and most commercial customers this is not going to be a good choice, both environmentally and financially."

    What is RNG and green hydrogen?

    RNG is methane gas released naturally from food waste, landfills, farms and waste water facilities. Methane is a primary contributor to climate change.

    National Grid's plan is to capture the methane before it can harm the atmosphere and use it as a renewable energy source, hence a "double benefit." RNG can be transported through existing gas networks, National Grid said, so customers won't have to buy new appliances.

    Meanwhile, green hydrogen is made by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using renewable electricity from sources like wind, water and solar. The process is called electrolysis.

    National Grid points out that green hydrogen can be stored for later use when wind and solar makes more electricity than the grid needs.

    As for whether there can be enough supply of RNG and green hydrogen to meet customer demand, Judson said natural gas to Massachusetts currently comes from the Gulf Coast, Pennsylvania and Canada, supplying about 15% of the Baystate's natural gas needs.

    She expressed confidence that National Grid can meet this region's RNG demand by supplying an equal percentage.

    As for green hydrogen, Judson said she sees opportunities for local production from solar and offshore wind projects.

    While it's currently more expensive to produce RNG and green hydrogen compared to other energy sources, said Steve Woerner, president of National Grid New England during the recent Zoom session, he said his company's analysis shows costs will drop as supplies increase.

    Impressive, but concerns

    "Impressive" is how Christopher Williams, director of environmental sciences at Clark University, described National Grid's plan to help bring Massachusetts to a net-zero, fossil-free future in the heating sector.

    Williams is particularly a supporter of air-source heat pumps powered by renewable energy, one aspect of the plan.

    However, Williams has a list of concerns about the plan's reliance on RNG and green hydrogen.

    One is Massachusetts doesn't have enough sources of organic waste to produce enough methane to meet customer demand for heat. RNG will only satisfy 10% of yearly heating needs in the Massachusetts residential sector, according to Williams's calculations.

    The 10% is based on the amount of methane emitted from the state's organic waste sector, and the residential sector only represents 60% of the building sector in the state, Williams said. The remaining 40% is commercial, and if that sectors heating needs are taken into account, Williams noted the 10% figure would be smaller.

    Another issue for Williams is whether organic waste sources in other states will want to supply Massachusetts with RNG.

    "I wonder about that," said Williams, who worries that crops grown to capture RNG could upset food production and release greenhouse gases, offsetting environmental benefits from RNG.

    There's also the issue of CO2, a harmful greenhouse gas, released during RNG production from the burning of methane gas. However, it's better for the environment to burn RNG than the alternative, which is the direct leak from organic sources of a potent greenhouse gas, Williams said.

    "It's better to harness the energy and use it for something," he said.

    Like Odell, Williams is concerned about the potential for RNG leaks from pipes during delivery, much like current leaks of natural gas. One-third of total methane emissions in the U.S. come from storage and distribution of the gas, Williams said.

    Additionally, Williams said he feels it's inefficient to use electricity from clean sources to produce green hydrogen that is then piped in to supply heat, compared to directly using electricity with high-efficiency air-source heat pumps.

    'Long bet'

    A "long bet" is how Williams described a "Hydrogen Shot," an effort by the U.S. Department of Energy that National Grid is banking on to cut the cost of green hydrogen by 80% over the next 10 years to bring it in line with today's cost of natural gas.

    To achieve the 80% cuts, the DOE is looking to establish "hydrogen hubs" in parts of the U.S. to produce and store green hydrogen. Massachusetts is partnering with New York, Connecticut and New Jersey to put a hub in the region, according to National Grid.

    "It would be great if (Hydrogen Shot) pans out. It's a fairly big uncertainty at the moment," Williams said.

    Is National Grid plan good for Worcester?

    That's the million-dollar question.

    As Williams sees it, the long-term strategy put forward by National Grid shifts away from fossil fuels to heating and cooling methods, like energy efficient air-source heat pumps and mini-splits. Those are better for the environment, Williams said, and "great for Worcester, and eventually the pocketbook for Worcester residents."

    The jury is still out on whether the plan will help Massachusetts achieve net-zero by 2050.

    "The plan has merit and is worth discussing," said Williams, who ultimately believes the best strategy is a combination of heat pumps with a clean energy grid.

    Next steps

    National Grid's is engaged in a series of community meetings and discussions with regulators, including the state Department of Public Utilities, on the merits of its plan.

    Educating the public about the plan and giving customers options is how Woerner described National Grid's focus.

    Ultimately, the company can only make suggestions on cost-effective options, because it's up to customers to make the final call on what they want.

    "We are confident in the goals made and the cost effectiveness of the plan, if we're effective in communication of this fossil-free vision," Woerner said.

    Contact Henry Schwan at Follow him on Twitter @henrytelegram


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