Category Archives: Natural Gas Infrastructure

To Acton Selectmen, Dec 2016: Part 1, climate change

Thanks for having us back to help start your conversation about natural gas use in Acton. There are a lot of health and safety reasons for reducing the use of natural gas, but tonight we want to focus on another reason: Climate Change.

A quick refresher: the temperature of Earth’s atmosphere is the result of many forces, including the effects shown in this diagram. When the energy coming into our atmosphere matches the energy going out, Earth’s energy is in balance. What comes in is largely visible light. What radiates away from Earth is mostly heat in the form of infrared waves. When we add additional infrared-blocking gases — greenhouse gases — to the atmosphere, more energy gets trapped, and things heat up. This is why methane, the main ingredient of natural gas, is such a problem.

Here’s an infrared photo of the gas leak at Porter Ranch in California last year. The black cloud is methane, which is opaque, and thus, blocks infrared heat waves from escaping our atmosphere. That’s why it’s such a problematic global warming gas. The International Panel on Climate Change rates methane as having more than 80 times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

Methane leaks into the air during every stage of natural gas processing, from the original drilling to its delivery under the streets of Acton. How much methane leaks? We don’t know. This diagram shows recent EPA estimates, along with the mostly higher estimates of other independent studies. At many of these estimated leak levels, natural gas used for home heating has an even larger global warming impact than coal or oil.

Climate change is a complex process, with many contributing and interacting factors. This chart shows only a few of these factors, but it’s already too complex to go into all the details tonight. I just want to highlight two of the many types of causal loops.


In blue, we’re highlighting one “negative” or “control” feedback loop. The loop shows the way that increasing CO2 increases the growth of some forests, which causes more CO2 to be absorbed from the atmosphere, which then causes lowered CO2. This acts to keep climate change under control.


In red, we’re highlighting one “positive” or “reinforcing” loop. This loop shows increasing temperatures causing more sea ice to melt, which increases the extent of open water, which reduces the reflection of energy back into space, which causes the water and air to heat up even more. This acts to reinforce climate change.


It’s been very difficult for scientists to predict when the positive feedback loops will start to dominate over the negative feedback loops. When that happens, there can be a rapid increase in global warming. We may have entered such a period recently.

One of the positive feedbacks seems recently to have entered a scary new phase, in which both Arctic and Antarctic ice extent are shrinking at the same time. That’s especially strange for the Arctic; with winter coming on in the northern hemisphere, normally the extent of sea ice would be growing quickly rather than shrinking.

Here’s more evidence of a possible shift to a period of rapid change. After a slower rate of rise in average temperatures over the last few decades, each of the last 12 months has seen higher average global temperatures than ever before in the era of modern record-keeping. The red line on top shows those temps. Record-breaking high temperatures are now happening more than 20 times as often as record-breaking low temperatures. And the harmful effects are real.

High temps in Pakistan in 2015 caused more than 1,200 deaths. This photo shows a worker creating new mass graves in anticipation of the next round of heat waves. We’ve hit the era of anticipatory mass graves.

We need to do what we can to stop the use of fossil fuels, the main source of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. How much do we need to do, and by when?

Because of the difficulties in predicting the details of how climate will actually change, different kinds of targets have been set out in scientific papers and in our laws and treaties. Achieving any of these targets would involve large-scale changes starting now. We don’t know precisely how much we need to do, but we know that the scale of the effort will need to be very large, so we all need to do what we can as soon as we can.


So, what can we do here in Acton?

Here’s the rough carbon footprint for Acton, circa 2010, taken from the Acton 2020 Plan. What we can do locally is to shrink each of these slices as quickly as possible. To do that we must head toward a fossil fuel–free, clean energy economy. Any investment in new fossil fuel/natural gas infrastructure locks us into using it for decades to come. And continued creation of fossil fuel infrastructure, even at a small, local scale, thwarts our Town and 2020 goals.


A simple carbon action plan would involve the same general steps for every pie slice.

This is our handy carbon-reduction plan. First, we need to reduce energy use. In the case of residential heating and cooling, one way is through air sealing and insulation, which are heavily subsidized by MassSave and available to all homeowners.

The next step is to move away from fossil fuel use. This is accomplished by first switching to systems that use electricity, and then working to source as much of the electricity supply as possible from renewables. And we must do this as quickly as possible.

(On to Part 2, mostly about Heat Pumps)

To Acton Selectmen, Dec 2016. Part 2: Heat Pumps

The best current technology for heating and cooling homes and buildings is the heat pump, which comes in air source and ground source varieties

Here’s what a typical air source heat pump with mini-split installation looks like. It comprises one or more outdoor pump units, and one or more indoor mini-split units, connected with small flexible pipes that carry refrigerant. Town Hall uses this technology in the new wing. You can see the indoor mini-split unit in Conference Room 9.

How do these systems work, and why are they good solutions for heating and cooling?

Heat pumps get most of their energy from the air or ground outside. Refrigeration technology takes advantage of how heat is absorbed when a gas turns to liquid, and how it’s released when a liquid turns back to gas. Even when it’s cold outside, there is still energy in the air, and modern heat pumps can extract energy down to 10 or even 20 degrees below zero, and bring it inside. For those few super-cold days that occasionally happen, supplemental heat is used, such as conventional electric heat. In hot summer weather, the cycle runs in reverse, providing air conditioning nearly twice as efficiently as other systems. The use of energy from the grid is only ⅓ to ¼ of the energy used in the system, because most of the energy comes for free from the air or the ground outside.

We’ve been talking about air source heat pumps. There are other versions:

  • Ground source heat pumps take advantage of the steady temperatures below the frost line. Though they are even more efficient than air source heat pumps, the higher capital cost of ground source systems has become harder to overcome as air source technology improves.
  • Heat pump technology can also be used for water heating, which is typically done with an all-indoor system in the basement.
  • Heat pump heating and cooling systems can use small flexible tubes to transport the refrigerant, eliminating the need to add expensive ductwork.
  • For retrofits, systems can use existing heating or AC ducts, saving on installation costs, and allowing for a single central heating and cooling unit inside.

So what’s the financial story on air source heat pumps?

Heat pump operating costs are lower than those for any other available option because of the free energy heat pumps get from the local environment. With the incentives that are available to cushion the installation costs, heat pump costs are similar to those for other heating and AC solutions. Thus, they save money as soon as they are turned on. As an upgrade from oil, coal, gas, or propane, heat pumps begin to save money — sometimes called the “payback” point — within a few years. As an upgrade from natural gas, at current gas and electricity prices, payback can take as long as 30 years. The payback period is shorter if the alternative is an expensive repair to an existing heating or AC system.

Here’s the heating part of the operating cost comparison, from a great site called “Efficiency Maine.” You can type in expected prices for various fuels and the site then shows you the expected operating cost. At typical prices, heat pumps are by far the least-expensive option.

Here’s the cooling part of the cost comparison. The key measurement is called the SEER ratio. As this efficiency rating goes up, costs go down. Heat pump systems operate at very high efficiency, with SEER ratings of 20–30 so unless you have a very new AC system, cooling with a heat pump will cost less.

Incentives for heat pump systems are available as rebates from both the state’s Clean Energy Center and from Mass Save. And a remarkable state loan program offers so-called HEAT loans, which are interest-free loans for terms as long as seven years. These can help make some upgrades cash-flow positive fairly quickly. There is also currently a 30% federal tax credit, but we don’t yet know yet whether this will extend into 2017.

You can see our recommendations here, but to summarize: It is especially urgent to prevent new natural gas infrastructure that will lock in fossil fuel use for decades. Clearly, heat pumps are part of the solution for reducing fossil fuel use in meeting Acton’s heating and cooling needs. We recommend that the Board of Selectmen affirm these goals, and via the Town Manager, direct staff and boards to educate homeowners, developers of single and multi-family homes, real estate agents, and the public on heat pump technology, and how and why to adopt it. We recommend that research be done on additional ways for the Town to discourage new natural gas infrastructure. We also recommend that the Selectmen consider tasking an existing or new town entity with creating an overall carbon reduction plan for the Town. And finally, we commend the work the Town has done already, including creation of the Acton Power Choice plan and working with the gas company to coordinate upgrades to their leaky gas infrastructure.

Thank you all for your time and your thoughtfulness on these issues. We look forward to the next part of this dialogue.

(Read Part 1 here: mostly about Climate Change)

Statement on 2015-11-16 to Acton Board of Selectmen from Debra Simes about new gas pipelines in Acton

The natural gas industry has worked hard over the last few years at its greenwashing campaign, which aims to convince the public that natural gas is a “bridge fuel” and that we have a natural gas “crisis.” Continue reading

Statement on 2015-11-16 to Acton Board of Selectmen from Jim Snyder-Grant about new gas pipelines in Acton

I want to speak in favor of not adding new natural gas lines in Acton. Continue reading

Natural Gas Infrastructure

Green Acton interacts with issues around natural gas (NG) infrastructure, both existing and potential, in at least two areas: (1) the multitude of leaks in NG infrastructure across the Commonwealth, including Acton, and (2) the building of new NG infrastructure in the state and locally. We advocate that NG leaks need to be repaired/eliminated, and that building new fossil fuel infrastructure in the state takes the Commonwealth down the wrong energy path. It’s important to note that natural gas is primarily methane — a potent greenhouse gas that causes 86 times the warming of CO2 over a 20-year period.

Natural Gas Leaks

Massachusetts has one of the oldest systems of NG pipes in the country; its more than 20,000 leaks are a waste of resource and money, and represent safety, environmental, and health threats. They account for 8–12 billion cubic feet (and perhaps more) of lost gas that cost taxpayers nearly $39M in 2015. These leaks account for the equivalent of one million metric tons of CO2 emissions annually.

In 2014, the Environmental Defense Fund and Google issued a series of maps identifying the thousands of active natural gas leaks in the Boston area. MAPC (Metropolitan Area Planning Commission) and the nonprofit HEET (Home Energy Efficiency Team) teamed up in 2015 to conduct a year-long pilot study of gas leaks in several Metrowest towns; the ensuing report will become public in fall 2016.

Acton has more than its share of leaks. You can see a map of Massachusetts natural gas leaks, including Acton’s, here.

Leaks are assigned a “grade” that captures info about their urgency. A Grade 1 leak is a leak that represents an existing or probable hazard to persons or property, and requires immediate repair or continuous action until the conditions are no longer hazardous. A Grade 2 leak is a leak that is recognized as being non-hazardous at the time of detection, but justifies scheduled repair based on probable future hazard. A Grade 3 leak is non-hazardous at the time of detection and can be reasonably expected to remain non-hazardous.

In 2016, the MA Legislature passed, and the Governor signed, legislation to address repair of NG leaks. One of the impacts of the legislation is to “bump up” the repair schedule for Grade 3 leaks by directing that evaluation of their urgency include any “significant environmental impact” (definition of that still TBD) they may be having; the legislation also requires establishment of a timeline for repair. Another section of the legislation mandates that during a significant road project, companies have to survey for leaks that have a significant environmental impact, and establish repair and replacement plans for those leaks. Enactment of these repairs will be a complex business that will likely take years.

Here are resources for more info:

New Natural Gas Infrastructure

Locally: We believe that NG infrastructure at the local level also takes us in the wrong direction, locking us into use of the climate-heating fuel for decades to come. In 2015 Green Acton began to attend to local NG infrastructure, spurred primarily by the fairly standard permitting of NG hookups for new housing construction in Acton. GA members have testified against establishment of new local gas hookups; you can read more about that here.

Regionally: We opposed the Northeast Direct (NED) project, a natural gas pipeline and compressor-station system (proposed by the Tennessee Gas Pipeline division of Kinder Morgan), whose route would have traversed much of Massachusetts and perhaps some of New Hampshire. We considered it unnecessary, and dangerous to fragile ecosystems, farmland, aquifers, and protected open space. We also recognize that every new pipeline or extension of service encourages the destructive and dangerous fracking industry.

Update: In April 2016, Kinder Morgan suspended further work and expenditure on the proposed 120-mile pipeline. The company cited inadequate capacity commitments from prospective customers in explaining the decision; yet it’s widely thought that the level of opposition the pipeline faced from activists, municipalities, and NGOs, as well as the skepticism of some legislators and the Attorney General’s office, were instrumental in shaping the decision.

For more information, look at the News and Updates link on the right, or contact

Stop the Pipeline: Nov 15 Summit in Fitchburg

Stop the Pipeline Summit
Saturday, Nov. 15, 8:30 am–12:30 pm
Montchusett Regional Vocational Technical School
1050 Westminster St, Fitchburg, MA 01420


Background: Kinder-Morgan Pipeline

This text was sent to the Acton Beacon by Green Acton when the Beacon asked for some background information on the Kinder Morgan/TGP pipeline:

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