Bill seeks electric infrastructure in all new construction

Boston Statehouse

The frame of new home under construction sits in a neighborhood under development in north Dallas, Thursday, April 15, 2021. The first numbers from the 2020 census show southern and western states gaining congressional seats. The once-a-decade head count shows where the population grew during the past 10 years and where it shrank. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

BOSTON (SHNS) – Massachusetts can avoid the “tremendous additional work, disruption and cost” involved with retrofitting buildings to meet its 2050 net-zero emissions target if the state requires all new construction and major renovation projects to install electric infrastructure, lawmakers said Tuesday.

The climate and emissions reduction law Gov. Charlie Baker signed in March requires the state to fully reduce and offset greenhouse gas emissions over the next three decades, an effort that will feature significant shifts in energy efficiency standards.

To help pull the 2050 target and interim thresholds within reach, a trio of Democrat legislators pitched legislation Tuesday that would require many public buildings to be designed for net-zero operations by 2050 and would update state building codes to require developers to ensure structures have capacity for future use of electric appliances, utilities and vehicles.

Rep. Kay Khan, one of the bill’s main sponsors alongside Rep. Tommy Vitolo and Sen. Harriette Chandler, told her colleagues the legislation “prepares for the inevitability of an electrified future.”

“The reality is that electrification is the future, and the future is now, so we need to be paving the way for electrification in buildings and homes across the commonwealth right now,” Khan said at a Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight hearing. “We need an ability to transition as we educate and spread the message wide.”

Under a bill sponsors dubbed the “Spark Act” (H 3243 / S 2014), regulators would update the state building code to require that all new construction and renovation in Massachusetts also involve the installation of the necessary infrastructure to support vehicles, appliances and heating systems that run on electricity rather than fossil fuels.

The proposal “recognizes that in the near future, some new gas- or oil-fired appliances will still be installed, some gasoline- or diesel-fueled vehicles will still be parked, and some roofs will still be built without solar panels installed just yet,” Vitolo said.

The legislation would not mandate immediate use of electric-powered stovetops, heat pumps or solar panels. Instead, it aims to ensure that the necessary wiring or hookups are in place — for example, putting an electric dryer plug behind a new gas-fired dryer — so that businesses and residents can eventually make the switch more easily.

“When the building owner is ready for an electric heat pump heating system, a Chevy Volt or solar panels, the building will be ready,” Vitolo said. “To retrofit requires tremendous additional work, disruption and cost. Planning ahead by running wires when the walls are open is a negligible incremental cost when compared to the cost of the building itself.”

“To be compliant with the roadmap bill, by 2050, we will have fully retrofitted every single building in the commonwealth to be all-electric,” he added. “It’s going to take a tremendous amount of work as many of our buildings in 2050 will predate 2021. But with this bill, we have the opportunity to avoid creating even more work in 2050.”

The legislation would also require any newly constructed or significantly renovated government-owned building to comply with the stretch energy code the Department of Energy Resources must establish by 2023 under the climate law.

All federal, state, county, municipal or quasi-governmental buildings would need to be designed to achieve net-zero emissions to comply with the Spark Act, even in cities and towns that do not adopt the stretch energy code.

In April, Baker issued an executive order similarly requiring all new construction at state agencies and campuses to adhere to that stretch goal.

“Although he offered no credit to Senator Chandler, Representative Khan or myself, we consider his imitation flattering,” Vitolo said.

Lawmakers have sought reforms similar to those in the Spark Act in prior legislative sessions, and they said Tuesday they hope to find greater traction now that the state has formalized a net-zero emissions goal for 2050 and implemented a range of other climate priorities.

Chandler told the committee that the legislation is “an adaptation” of past versions that takes the climate law into account, adding that it would “build on the work the Legislature has already done.”

“We have seen the negative impact of fossil fuels on our communities, and in environmental justice communities, it truly is alarming,” Chandler said, pointing to research linking higher levels of carbon dioxide equivalents to more frequent respiratory issues. “A shift from fossil fuels is imperative to improving the health of our children, our vulnerable communities and generations to come.”

Environmental and labor groups have also been pressing for passage of legislation they refer to as the “Building Justice with Jobs Act” (H 3365 / S 2226), which would retrofit 1 million Massachusetts homes over the next decades with energy efficient heating systems and other infrastructure upgrades designed to reduce emissions.

That bill, filed by Reps. Maria Robinson and David LeBoeuf and Sen. Marc Pacheco, remains pending before the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee, which has not yet scheduled it for a hearing.

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