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Here’s how to meet climate goals with the state’s existing infrastructure – The Boston Globe



“You gotta keep the lights on.”

That was the message President Biden’s Energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, delivered in April at The Boston Globe’s Sustainability Week annual conference. She was discussing the need to balance the demand for clean energy with the challenge of reliably and responsibly providing enough energy to support our communities, businesses, and economy.

On both fronts, the federal government is doing its part. With the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Biden committed the nation to investing a collective $1 trillion over the next decade, including hundreds of billions of dollars in our nation’s infrastructure to transition to a 100 percent clean energy future, a reliable infrastructure, and lower costs. Together, the laws include incentives for everything from investments to upgrade and modernize our energy infrastructure and research into alternative clean fuels like hydrogen and renewable natural gas, to renewable technologies like wind and solar and zero-emission vehicles and mass transportation.

Put simply, Biden recognizes we are in a transition — and that the need to push forward on clean energy can’t undermine the economy that will propel that progress.

Here in Massachusetts, however, the picture is more mixed. On one hand, we are poised to be a national leader in the clean energy transition. With 20 million square feet of lab space, more than 100 colleges and universities, dozens of clean energy businesses and startups, a well-trained and highly skilled workforce, and broad political support, the state is well-positioned to meet the moment.

Yet there are activists and even some policy makers advocating for the abandonment of the pipe infrastructure that today delivers natural gas — and, as important, could deliver biofuels like hydrogen and RNG in the not-too-distant future as the Biden administration envisions. Indeed, when asked about ending the use of fuels like natural gas and the infrastructure that supports it, Granholm was direct and to the point: “It’s just not realistic.”

It’s also not practical. Already Massachusetts has some of the highest electric rates in the United States. Rapidly transitioning to electricity sourced from wind and solar for 100 percent of our energy needs will only exacerbate rising energy costs in part due to increased energy infrastructure upgrades such as transmission. Further, permitting delays have already postponed numerous clean energy projects throughout New England — and can be expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

The good news is that Governor Maura Healey seems to agree. Before the New England Council, she recently spoke about the need for “bridge fossil fuels” in our energy mix and said: “Everything’s got to be on the table.”

What Healey, the Biden administration, and Granholm are suggesting is that the energy transition include multiple pathways to decarbonization, not simply electricity alone. Indeed, to avoid a massive increase in electricity rates while still ending our use of dirty fuels like oil, we will need additional and sustainable sources of energy like green hydrogen and RNG. With the Biden administration making federal funds available for this purpose, states like Massachusetts won’t be stuck relying on just a single pathway to net zero — but rather using the pipe infrastructure ratepayers have already invested billions into maintaining.

To be sure, being realistic and practical doesn’t mean taking our foot off the clean energy accelerator. As Granholm said, “While you keep the lights on, you still want to accelerate the building out of this clean energy future.”

When it comes to energy, it’s time Massachusetts gets on the same page. With soaring electric rates and an over-reliance on expensive, dirty, and imported sources of energy, the state must capitalize on every opportunity to advance our ambitious net-zero climate goals.

Harry Brett is an international representative with the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the US and Canada.

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