A future without fossil fuels? Making sense of a gas moratorium

Krista Harper, Alison Bates, Vivian Ogechi Nwadiaru, Julia Cantor, Makaylah Cowan, Marina Pineda Shokooh.

Krista Harper: Department of Anthropology and School of Public Policy, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Email: harper@umass.edu

“That’s the goal,” [Councillor] Bartley said. “The ‘G’ in the ‘Gas and Electric’ might as well go away.” (Christensen 2020)

In a May 2020 Holyoke city council meeting, a councillor opposed accepting an energy
transition planning grant, invoking the potential disappearance of Holyoke Gas and Electric’s “G.” The grant aimed to guide the city in planning for increased reliance on renewable energy, aligning with state and federal policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Massachusetts, where Holyoke is located, recently passed a climate law targeting a minimum 50% carbon emission reduction by 2030 on the path to a net-zero energy system by 2050.

Despite new policies promoting decarbonization, Massachusetts still heavily relies on fossil gas. Over half (51.2%) of homes in the state are heated with fossil gas, while nearly two-thirds of electricity comes from gas-fired plants (U.S. EIA 2021). When the Holyoke City Council debated the climate planning grant, however, some councillors were unwilling to envision a municipal utility without gas service. Referring to contemporary fiction, Amitav Ghosh points to the “imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis,” even as it is already transforming the world around us (2016). While climate and energy experts create models of efficiency, demand, and how much energy can be produced using renewable energy systems, most social actors struggle to imagine and plan for what Emily Grubert and Sara Hastings-Simon call the “mid-transition,” the awkward “medium-term future where the conventional, fossil-based energy system coexists with a new, zero-carbon energy system” (2022, p. 1).

Figure 1. Holyoke Gas & Electric. Photo credit: AlexiusHoratius, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Holyoke (pop. 37,720) is an ideal place to study the implications of transitioning to renewable energy. Once a thriving industrial hub powered by hydropower, it faced decline, unemployment, and neglected infrastructure. Over 75% of its population meets the state’s criteria for designation as an environmental justice community, based on income, racial and ethnic minority status, and English language proficiency level. Local activists have formed coalitions to fight against projects harming under-resourced communities, advocating for clean energy, affordable housing, and green jobs. Collaborating with Holyoke Gas and Electric, the city successfully converted a coal-fired plant into a low-carbon renewable energy facility. Yet retrofitting and converting systems to meet Massachusetts’ climate goals remains a significant challenge.

To understand perspectives on the energy transition, we used qualitative and ethnographic research methods. We interviewed seven energy experts specializing in policy, energy justice, and utility management. Additionally, we conducted participant observation in local organizations and forums addressing climate issues, and organized four focus groups with 42 participants. We coded transcripts for themes such as fossil gas and equity concerns in the energy transition.

Figure 2. Focus group discussion. Credit: Joseph Krupczynski.

Energy is an abstract concept, and its ubiquitous infrastructure is often invisible, leading to differing conceptualizations of gas by residents and experts. Residents associate gas with their home heating systems, viewing it as cleaner and more cost-effective than oil: “As a kid, we had oil, and it was so dusty and dirty…And then as I got older, we moved to a gas furnace. I found that the energy bill was less, the dust was less, my allergies were less” (FGP 47). However, concerns about safety and environmental impact: “Gas is a little more dangerous” and “Natural gas or propane? [The utility] shouldn’t be creating our energy or electricity by burning flames” (FGP 19). Experts acknowledged gas as a greenhouse gas emitter but noted its lower particulate pollution. They considered gas a transitional fuel, bridging the gap to intermittent renewable energy, but experts varied in how quickly they thought gas would be phased out. An energy system manager noted that gas remains crucial for managing peak loads and maintaining electricity reliability in the current system. Since gas makes up the majority of fuel used to produce electricity in New England, he doubted it could be eliminated in the near future without inconvenience, expense, and disruption.

Gas infrastructure has become a contentious issue in Holyoke and the region. The 2012 Springfield explosion and the 2018 Lawrence explosion caused public concern about gas pipeline safety. Local organizations like Climate Action Now and Neighbor to Neighbor successfully campaigned against gas pipeline expansion in various cities. This, coupled with market-supply disruptions, led to gas moratorium policies in eleven municipalities in western Massachusetts since 2014, including Holyoke, where new residential gas hook-ups were halted in 2019.

Residents expressed a mix of responses to the gas moratorium, which became a contentious issue during the mayoral campaign. One person doubted residents’ level of concern regarding the gas moratorium: “People are caught up in the day to day struggles, and they cannot look as far as, you know, municipal services. It’s more basic than that” (FG_06). This view held true for the focus group of mostly middle-aged and older Spanish speakers, who did not mention the gas moratorium. One person expressed strong opposition: “The gas moratorium? Like, I think it was just a stupid move of the administration…hey, look, we’re banning gas and banning these things, because we’re a clean city” (FGP_33). This resident objected to the gas moratorium because they saw it as inequitable but also a deterrent to new businesses: “Why is it that these things that they ban always, 100% of the time, they always fall on the poorest people. Not only that, but on the businesses who want to come here and want to set up shop, right?” (FGP_33). Another participant acknowledged the moratorium’s potential benefit of reducing emissions but worried that affordable alternatives were not yet available: “From a global perspective, the idea of banning the gas is great because we want to reduce our dependence on fossil fuel… [but you] can’t take away from the fact that it’s a cheaper source of heating than electricity, or more efficient and oil. And cleaner, greener” (FGP_12). This person voiced the opinion that the city needed “flexibility” to use gas until more people could afford to upgrade their homes.

Experts who discussed the case of the gas moratorium expressed conflicting views. An energy justice activist underscored that building new gas infrastructure “just locks us in for 20, 30 years when IPCC says we only have 10.” An energy policy expert agreed on the urgency of halting gas infrastructure expansion but remained optimistic due to the fast-paced renewable energy transition: “We’re adding renewables all the time. And people at times, genuinely just don’t understand how electrons in a wire are fungible, they can just go everywhere.” An energy manager acknowledged the need for increased electricity generation and transmission to eliminate fossil fuels but highlighted the hesitation among energy managers, who see gas as a transitional “bridge fuel.” Discontinuing gas pipelines may lead consumers to resort to more polluting fossil fuels, as expressed by the Director of Holyoke Gas and Electric, Jim Lavelle, in a newspaper article:

It’s not a good situation. We’re in the natural gas business, we like to sell natural gas and people like to use natural gas for heating and cooking and it’s better than some of the alternatives that people are having to go to, specifically oil and propane, which are heavier carbon emitters than natural gas,” he said. (Noel 2022)

An energy manager also worried that gas workers might not be able transition to other careers as gas infrastructure is phased out. A policy expert agreed that rapid abandonment of gas and fossil fuel infrastructure could lead to stranded assets, unemployment, and brownfields. Without planning, the “mid-transition” to renewable energy will be disruptive.

The gas moratorium provides insight into the “mid-transition” stage observed by Holyoke residents and energy experts. In the mid-transition, renewable energy becomes a larger part of the energy mix, and high-efficiency, electrified energy systems become the norm for new and upgraded housing, but some fossil fuel infrastructure remains, with older equipment and a dwindling user base (Grubert and Hastings-Simon, 2022). Despite Massachusetts’ goal of phasing out fossil fuels by 2050, many residents have not contemplated the upcoming changes to their current residential infrastructure in the near-future transition. Holyoke’s gas moratorium makes the “mid-transition” tangible by restricting the expansion of previously unquestioned fossil fuel infrastructure. Residents have mixed views on the role of fossil gas, seeing it as a cleaner alternative to oil and coal for particulate pollution but struggling to imagine a world “without the ‘G’” in “gas and electric.” Energy experts recognize the challenges of managing an equitable renewable energy transition, despite the increasing feasibility of replacing fossil fuels with new technologies. Without planning, loitering in the mid-transition phase is more likely than a leap into a renewable energy future (Perlaviciute et al., 2018).

References

Christensen, D., 2020. Holyoke City Council turns down $275K grant for green energy planning [WWW Document]. Daily Hampshire Gazette. URL https://www.gazettenet.com/Holyoke-City-Council-rejects-climate-change-planning-grant-34240405 (accessed 3.28.23).

Grubert, E., Hastings-Simon, S., 2022. Designing the mid-transition: A review of medium-term challenges for coordinated decarbonization in the United States. WIREs Climate Change 13, e768. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.768

Perlaviciute, G., Schuitema, G., Devine-Wright, P., Ram, B., 2018. At the Heart of a Sustainable Energy Transition: The Public Acceptability of Energy Projects. IEEE Power and Energy Magazine 16, 49–55. https://doi.org/10.1109/MPE.2017.2759918

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