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Massachusetts bills aim to promote efficient appliances, net-zero housing

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PHOTO BY Chensiyuan / Wikimedia Commons

The Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston.

The pending legislation includes proposals to encourage heat pumps and to bring energy efficiency to low-income residents. 

The Massachusetts state Legislature has advanced a flurry of bills that would boost energy efficiency in the state, helping it reach ambitious emissions reduction goals and solidifying its position as a national leader in energy efficiency. 

“My committee has given positive reports to these four bills that begin the very, very tough job of actually getting future emissions down,” said Sen. Michael Barrett, chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, which advanced the bills. “It is critically important that we insist on real mitigation.” 

Earlier this month, the committee sent the four bills to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, the next step toward passage. The legislation includes proposals that would create a program to convert low-income housing into energy neutral buildings, enact energy performance standards for large buildings and a range of appliances, and encourage the adoption of heat pumps for heating and cooling. 

Barrett’s committee reported favorably on the bills relatively early in the legislative session, which some see as a positive sign. 

“I would say I am optimistic,” said Ben Hellerstein, state director for advocacy group Environment Massachusetts. “There’s more than a year left in session, there’s lots of time to move them forward.”

Massachusetts had been named the most energy-efficient state in the country by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy for eight consecutive years. Yet there is still appetite for further action. The state has set an aggressive goal of reducing emissions 80% by 2050. Emissions from residential, commercial, and industrial buildings, which account for about 35% of the state’s total, are some of the toughest to reduce and therefore must be targeted with clear, concrete action, Barrett said. 

And the overall desire to address climate issues seems to have strengthened across New England, said Samantha Caputo, senior policy and research associate at the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships, which promotes energy efficiency, but does not advocate for specific legislation. Maine and Vermont have each signed into law several new measures to promote efficiency and renewable energy in the past year, she said. 

Policymakers have been galvanized, she said, by last fall’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a series of papers promoting urgent action that were produced by advocates last year. 

“Now we’re actually seeing states take that and drive it forward within their legislation,“ Caputo said. “More people are getting inspired and realizing we have to do this now.”

One bill proposes to measure and eventually reduce energy use by large buildings. Filed by two freshman legislators, Sen. Rebecca Rausch and Rep. Maria Robinson, the bill (S.2011) would require owners of buildings larger than 15,000 square feet to start tracking and reporting their energy consumption by 2021. Five years out, these buildings would also have to meet performance standards determined by the state energy department. The energy department would also be tasked with developing incentives and financial assistance programs to help owners achieve these goals. 

Similar programs seem to be enjoying some success in individual cities, including Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Boston, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, Rausch said. This bill would make Massachusetts the first state to implement the program on a statewide basis. 

“Massachusetts has been a leader in a whole lot of ways and we should continue to step up and lead,” Rausch said. “This is not a comprehensive solution, but it is a very important step in the right direction.”

Another bill, known as the Energy SAVE Act (H. 2832), would apply performance standards to 17 categories of residential and commercial appliances, from home air conditioners to restaurant fryers. Only equipment that meets these limits could be sold in the state. The bill has support from a range of organizations, including environmental advocates, utilities, and business groups, said Marianne DiMascio, state policy manager for the Appliance Standards Awareness Project. 

“It’s a very quick and easy way to get efficiency without a lot of cost,” she said.

These standards could prevent nearly 160,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the air each year, the equivalent of removing nearly 35,000 cars from the road, according to Environment Massachusetts. Energy customers could be saving more than $300 million annually by 2035, according to information from Rep. Josh Cutler, one of the bill’s sponsors. 

If passed, this bill could also help spark nationwide change, DiMascio said. When a certain number of states, usually between six and eight, implement more stringent standards than federal law calls for, one of two things often happens: Either federal law adopts the more rigorous rules or manufacturers simply start making all their products meet the tighter limits, DiMascio said. A handful of other states have implemented many of the standards Massachusetts is pursuing, so this bill could move the federal government or the appliance-makers closer to action. 

A bill sponsored by Barrett would set targets for the adoption of heat pump and other clean technology for heating and cooling buildings and water. The technology is available and effective, he said, but needs some help taking off in the marketplace. 

“If heat pumps are just stagnant, not really moving forward, we’ve got to do something about it,” he said. 

Another bill aims to bring the benefits of energy efficiency to low-income residents. The legislation (S.1942) calls for a yearlong study of existing incentives and programs that help low-income households achieve net-zero energy use, defined as generating as much energy as they consume over a given time period. Following the study, the state would be required to conduct at least two pilot programs aimed at retrofitting low-income housing to a net-zero standard. 

Supporters note than low-income households not only have fewer resources to do such work themselves, but they are also the ones likely to experience the most severe impacts of climate change and have the hardest time recovering. 

It is still early in the legislative process for all of these bills, but supporters are clear on the necessity of pushing these measures. 

“For all the progress we’ve made in Massachusetts so far there’s so much more we can and should be doing,” Hellerstein said. 

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