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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.
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.
30th Annual Local Environmental Action conference: Sunday, March 5th at Northeastern University, Boston, MA
Great way to connect with other towns and see what they are working on, and gain exposure to new ideas and information on climate / clean energy issues
Nearly 20 workshops that cover a range of issues and skills – from the future of energy in New England, to organizing in the age of Trump, to the health impacts of fracked gas well-heads to your kitchen stove
Recognize our many victories over the year and be inspired to go back and continue the fight to protect the health and safety of our communities, our environment, and our climate
Kandi Mossett Kandi Mossett is a powerful Indigenous leader and environmental justice hero on the frontlines of the fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. A member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, Kandi is the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Extreme Energy & Just Transition Campaign Coordinator, leading the fight to raise awareness about the environmentally & socially devastating effects of hydraulic fracturing on tribal lands. We’re so honored to have her joining us to share lessons from NoDAPL and her international and national climate advocacy work.
Lois Gibbs Lois Gibbs is known by many as the mother of the anti-toxics movement and the federal Superfund program. Lois was a housewife living in Niagara Falls, New York in 1978 when she learned that her neighborhood, Love Canal, was built on top of 21,000 tons of hazardous chemical waste. After successfully organizing her neighbors to win the evacuation and cleanup of Love Canal, Lois went on to found the Center for Health, Environment & Justice and has helped communities across the country fight to protect themselves from toxic exposures. Most recently, Lois has been working on the ground in Flint, Michigan.
The Green Acton Board of Directors just issued two statements through our social media accounts:
• Twitter: Real sustainability = every person & voice are included & valued. After centuries of racism & exclusion, we agree: #BlackLivesMatter.
• Facebook: Green Acton’s focus is primarily local, but we know that our small community is interdependent with the wider world’s concerns. Long-range sustainability means every person and voice must count. To unpack and heal centuries of systemic racism, and to ensure that everyone is valued and included, we understand the importance of affirming that #BlackLivesMatter.
These posts were the result of discussions at the July and October 2016 Green Acton meetings, at which we talked about the connections among racism, inequalities, environmental damage, and environmental justice. We noted that, although we are a local organization, focused primarily on Acton, we understand that our small community is interdependent with the wider world’s concerns, and that achievement of our broader sustainability goals means that changes will need to happen in the rest of the nation and world, as well as here at home.
Globally: we note that people who live near the equator, in deserts and tropics, are feeling the damaging effects of climate change first, and that these are areas populated largely by brown- and black-skinned people. Without clear empathy and a sense of connection to all sorts of people, white environmental activists in northern climes might not appreciate fully the urgency of stopping climate change.
Nationally: we recognize that much of everyday life in the United States has been distorted by a narrative of white supremacy, which allowed slavery and its persistent and insidious residue — a broad system of racial oppression that has huge impacts on black people’s lives. Silence in the face of oppression permits it to continue; we felt called to make a statement.
Locally: we recognize that Green Acton itself has room to grow as an organization, and that we’d benefit by the addition of people with a wider variety of life experiences, including more people from racial and ethnic minorities.
Broadly: we recognize that progress on environmental — and economic, social, and racial — justice necessitates that we connect across our “silos” of activity and advocacy to speak up and out. At every level, we understand that undoing racism is part of the work of making progress on environmental sustainability that works for all.
Going forward:One way we will continue this work is to look at how our planned actions in the coming years can be more inclusive. Another step we will take is to identify the local groups engaged in this justice work, and pass on their calls to action to our membership. We look forward to continuing this dialogue with all of you.
Green Acton Board of Directors
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) is chartered to distribute Federal planning money, and to assist towns in cities in their 101-city region to cooperate in planning. They’ve done a lot of helpful work on regional environmental issues, and they are a good source for regional data and analysis.
Acton’s current community plan was developed under the name “The Acton 2020 Comprehensive Community Plan”. The site has the plan and a lot of supporting material. Of particular interest to Green Acton is the material under Goal 2: Ensure Environmental Sustainability.