Clean Heat for Lexington

Clean Heat for Lexington public information forum with panelists:

-Craig Foley, Realtor LAER Realty Partners

-Jordan Goldman, Chief Engineer, Zero Energy Design

-Mark Doughty, President, ThoughtForms Corp.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021 7:00 PM

For details, and to register for this Zoom event, go to lexgwac.org

Other forums are in the planning stages. Stay tuned.

 

By Clean Heat for Lexington Alliance

What if you could help the planet avoid the worst effects of climate change simply by leading a healthier, more comfortable life? And what if you could even save money in the process? Well, you can. The key is electrification. In 2018, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change advised that avoiding the worst effects of climate change would require a sharp reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Lexington has already committed to address the climate challenge. In 2018, the Select Board approved a “Getting to Net Zero Plan” that laid out a roadmap to achieve net-zero emissions in 25 years.

Last spring, the Town hired its first Sustainability Director to guide implementation of that plan. And in November 2020, Town Meeting overwhelmingly approved a resolution proposed by Sunrise Lexington, a local youth climate change movement, to declare a Climate Emergency and set a goal of “ending townwide greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible and no later than 2035.” How do we meet zero-emission goals? Currently, about a third of Lexington’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from heating buildings with fossil fuels — natural gas, oil, and propane. Switching the energy source we use to heat our buildings from fossil fuels to clean electricity is a logical place to begin the transition to a carbon-free future.

Clean Heat for Lexington: Moving Buildings Away from Fossil Fuels and Toward Electrification

The Lexington Global Warming Action Coalition (GWAC), Mothers Out Front (MOF) Lexington, the Lexington Public Schools (LPS) Green Teams and the Town’s Sustainable Lexington Committee have formed the Clean Heat for Lexington alliance to raise awareness of the health, environmental, and economic benefits of transitioning to clean electric heat and to support measures that would formalize that transition. “Clean electric heat” refers to heat generated by air and ground source heat pumps, which actually supply both heat and air conditioning. Heat pumps work like refrigerators, by extracting heat from the air and transferring it — into the building to warm it during the winter and out of the building to cool it during the summer.

But Isn’t Electricity Partially Generated by Fossil Fuels? 

Electric buildings produce lower emissions than those directly fueled by gas and oil, and the way we generate electricity is rapidly becoming greener as utilities incorporate more wind and solar to power the grid. This is especially true in Lexington, where most residents have 100% renewable electricity through the Town’s Community Choice Program.

The Clean Heat Article for the 2021 Annual Town Meeting: A Practical and Cost-Effective First Step 

A logical first step to transition away from heating our buildings with fossil fuels is to avoid adding new fossil fuel infrastructure. Every building we build today with fossil fuel infrastructure makes it more difficult for Lexington to meet its emission goals and will require an expensive retrofit in the future. For this reason, the alliance supports the Clean Heat Warrant Article (Article 31) to enact a town bylaw to require that new construction and major (“gut”) renovations rely on clean electricity rather than new fossil fuel lines. “It would work against the town’s sustainability goals to allow the addition of new gas piping that would likely be in place far beyond Lexington’s net-zero goal of 2035,” notes Cindy Arens of the Sustainable Lexington Committee.

The proposed bylaw would help accomplish this goal, but there is an obstacle: Lexington, as a town, lacks the authority to pass such a bylaw under current Massachusetts law. This came to light last year when the Town of Brookline tried to enact a similar bylaw. The Brookline town meeting passed almost unanimously a warrant article that would have required electrification in all new construction and gut rehabs, but Attorney General Maura Healey’s office struck it down as being in conflict with existing state building and gas codes, despite her support for the policy goal behind it. “If we were permitted to base our determination on policy considerations, we would approve the bylaw,” Healey wrote. In order for Lexington to have authority over how its buildings are powered, the Town must get a Home Rule Petition approved by the state legislature.

Accordingly, the alliance will ask Town Meeting at its March 2021 session to approve two things: (1)  a Home Rule Petition to the state legislature that would permit the Town to pass a bylaw that would limit fossil fuel infrastructure in new buildings and significant renovations of existing buildings, and (2) a bylaw that would accomplish this.

The Clean Heat for Lexington alliance actually had its start a year ago,  well before the Attorney General’s decision, when climate groups in Lexington began discussing the possibility of introducing a bylaw similar to Brookline’s at Lexington’s 2020 special Town Meeting. Since that time, members of these groups, along with Lexington’s new Sustainability Director, Stella Carr, have been attending workshops by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI, a nonprofit organization) with representatives of town governments and climate organizations from fifteen other Massachusetts municipalities, to learn how best to replicate Brookline’s success in winning public support for its clean heat bylaw. After the Attorney General rejected Brookline’s bylaw, the focus of the RMI training shifted to the process of authorizing home rule petitions that would allow towns to establish building guidelines that match their climate goals. In 2020, both Brookline’s and Arlington‘s town meetings overwhelmingly passed articles for a Home Rule Petition and bylaw that are virtually identical to Lexington’s upcoming Clean Heat article.

Which Buildings and Renovations Would be Affected by this Bylaw?

The proposed bylaw would apply only to new construction and to major (gut) renovations of existing homes and businesses. It is also important to understand what the proposed bylaw would not do:

  • It would not affect any existing building undergoing minor or moderate renovations, such as a new kitchen or an addition.
  • It would not prevent a homeowner from replacing an existing oil burner with a new oil burner or with natural gas, if gas piping is already in place (although this would be a great time to switch to clean electric heat, which would likely be less expensive).
  • It would exempt all cooking appliances, backup generators, outdoor cooking and heating, large central hot water heaters, life sciences laboratories and some medical offices, as well as repairs to correct unsafe conditions in existing gas lines.

In addition to these specific exemptions, the bylaw would allow for waivers to be provided in circumstances in which non-fossil fuel infrastructure is currently not feasible. More information about the bylaw and clean electric heat can be found on the alliance’s website, www.cleanheatlexington.org. There are approximately 100 newly constructed buildings and gut renovations in Lexington each year. “Given this small number, the proposed bylaw might appear to be a very small first step,” says Mary Hutton of MOF Lexington. “But as the British politician, Denis Healey, once famously advised, ‘If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging.’ We are in a hole. If we want to get to net zero in fourteen years, we need to stop digging now.”

“What the clean heat warrant article helps us do now,” says Sustainable Lexington Committee member and climate scientist, Dr. Archana Dayalu, “is to put best practice building standards in place so that we’re not locking in climate-changing greenhouse gas for another several decades. Let’s stop this unsustainable and costly trajectory before it stops us.” Beginning in January and continuing through March, the alliance will conduct individual meetings and public forums at which Lexington’s homeowners, business owners, builders, developers, realtors, architects, and Town Meeting members can learn about the process and benefits of heating with electricity, and get answers to any questions or concerns they may have. Be on the watch for announcements of upcoming forums — starting soon.

Why Heat Pumps Are Very Cool Heat pumps are a “two-fer:” one installation provides both heat and air conditioning. “It is absolutely feasible and economical to heat our homes, offices, and schools with electric heat pumps in New England’s climate,” says Select Board member Mark Sandeen. “Air source electric heat pumps are an affordable and effective clean heating and cooling alternative.

The cost of operating electric heat pumps is currently comparable to heating with natural gas and about half the cost of heating with propane. Because heat pumps provide both heating and cooling, heat pump installation costs for new construction can also be significantly lower than the cost of installing separate heating and cooling systems.”  An added benefit is a lower electric rate for homes heated principally by electricity.

For some buildings, ground source heat pumps may be an alternative. While the proposed bylaw applies only to new construction, retrofitting an existing building from fossil fuel to electric heating has also become an increasingly attractive, healthy, and economical option. Following its campaign for a home rule petition and the passage of the bylaw, the Lexington alliance will be rolling out a program to provide guidance to interested homeowners on whether and how they can supplement — or, ideally, entirely replace — their fossil fuel heating system with an electric heat pump. “Choosing electricity as a fuel source will result in a comfortable, healthy indoor environment all year long while reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” says Select Board member Joe Pato. “It’s a win for everyone, and a win for our planet.”

Gas is Not the Clean Alternative We Thought it Was

For years, gas heat has been advertised to be clean, healthy, safe, and cheap. In reality, while it may be cheap, it is not clean, healthy or safe. Natural gas can be as bad for the environment as coal because it does more than emit CO2 during the combustion process. Unburnt natural gas is composed primarily of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas. Methane leaks plague every point of the natural gas chain, from production through consumption in our buildings. Studies show that, over time, the climate damage of natural gas is on a par with the CO2 emissions from burning coal. Combustion from natural gas home appliances has been shown to severely affect air quality, emitting such pollutants as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter that lead to cardiovascular and respiratory disease. Unburnt natural gas releases toxic air pollutants, most notably benzene, a known carcinogen.

Gas leaks can lead to explosions. In 2018, excessive pressure in natural gas lines owned by Columbia Gas resulted in explosions and fires that destroyed as many as 40 homes in Andover, North Andover, and Lawrence. In the wake of that tragedy, a team of experts concluded that Massachusetts is “rolling the dice” with gas safety. Lexington had its own experience of a gas explosion in 2005, when a home on Hancock Avenue exploded into a ball of fire because of a gas leak.

As of 2019, there were more than 15,000 reported active gas leaks in Massachusetts, including 144 in Lexington. Gas leaks are generally repaired only if they pose explosive hazards, but as noted above, a gas leak does not have to be explosive to present unseen climate and air quality hazards. Check this map to see if there is a gas leak near you https://heetma.org/gas-leaks/gas-leak-maps/). Leaking gas also destroys trees. A 2020 study of the impacts of gas leaks on trees in Chelsea, MA found that dead or dying trees were 30 times more likely to have been exposed to methane leaking from gas pipelines, which displaced the oxygen in the soil, effectively suffocating plant life at the roots. Gas repairs are expensive to ratepayers. Gas companies pass the expense of repairing gas leaks onto consumers, costing Massachusetts ratepayers $11-60 million a year.

Further Clean Heat Initiatives The alliance’s Clean Heat for Lexington Home Rule and bylaw initiative is one component of a multi-part campaign to facilitate and support the Lexington community’s transition to a healthy, carbon-neutral future. Other components of the campaign include:

  • LexEnergize, a new interactive online guide to the many everyday actions residents can take to reduce their carbon footprint. The website will launch soon and include tips on improving your home’s energy efficiency, reducing household waste, turning your yard into an ecological oasis, and more;
  • A future outreach program to educate current homeowners about, and assist them in, retrofitting their homes for electric heat; and
  • Support for a bylaw that would provide zoning incentives for sustainable commercial building in Hartwell Innovation Park, and other related regulatory changes. (Article 16, passed at the 2020 Fall Special Town Meeting, laid the foundation for this by including language that all buildings over six stories in the Hartwell Avenue commercial development district will be required to have all-electric HVAC.)

“History demonstrates that the societies that succeed are the ones that use crises as opportunities to adapt and transition proactively rather than reactively,“ says Dr. Dayalu. “In the face of climate change, it’s up to progressive cities and towns like Lexington to lead the transition to a future free from fossil fuels, starting with fundamental steps like passing the Clean Heat warrant article. Lexington was home to the American Revolution. Now we can be home to America’s next great revolution in climate and energy!”  

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