Climate solution: Massachusetts city experiments with community heating and cooling

Jennifer and Eric Mauchan live in a Cape Cod-style home in Framingham, Massachusetts that they cool with five air conditioners. In the summer, the electric bill for the 2,600-square-foot home can reach $200.

In winter, heating with natural gas often costs more than $300 per month, even when the temperature is 18 degrees Celsius.

“My mother, when she was alive, wouldn't come to our house in the winter” because it was too cold, Eric Mauchan said.

But starting Tuesday, their neighborhood will be part of a pilot climate solution that connects 37 homes and businesses to a highly efficient, underground heating and cooling system. Even taking into account the fact that several buildings will switch from natural gas to electricity, it is expected that people will see their electricity bills drop by an average of 20%. It's a model that some experts say can be scaled up and replicated elsewhere.

“As soon as they told me about it, I was 100 percent into it,” said Jennifer Mauchan, who works in the financial industry, recalling her first meeting with representatives from Eversource, the gas and electric company that installed the system. “From a financial perspective, I thought this was a very viable option for us.” She cited lower greenhouse gases that cause climate change as a major factor in the decision.

Gina Richard, owner of Corner Cabinet, a kitchen and bathroom cabinet showroom in Framingham, said she was “pretty lucky” to be part of the project. She currently uses two air conditioners and two space heaters and is looking forward to replacing them all with a single Richard said she was told she would see her winter heating bill of $900-1,000 drop by as much as a third, which she said was “great.” would be.

The Framingham system consists of a giant underground loop filled with water and antifreeze, similar to the way gas is supplied to different houses in a neighborhood. Water in the loop absorbs heat from the subsurface, which remains at about 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius) year-round.

Households have their own heat pump units that provide heating and air conditioning, installed by the utility company. These extract heat from the loop, further increase the temperature and release that heat as warm air in the houses. With air conditioning, heat is extracted from the home or business and released into the earth or transported to the next home.

Energy sharing works best when some buildings use heat while another building needs heat, like a supermarket needs to keep its display cases cooled even in winter.

Other networked geothermal projects exist in the US, including the Texas community of Whisper Valley and Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Eversource says this is the first utility-led installation in the US. If it works, that could be important because an individual homeowner can't do the digging and drilling required to create a neighborhood system.

Currently, homeowners can purchase individual air source heat pumps, which have become commonplace and are efficient. Or they can drill more expensively and even more efficiently ground source heat pumps. Incentives, such as those in the Inflation Reduction Act or local utilities, help reduce the price of this, but the final cost can still be tens of thousands of dollars.

Framingham beat out other communities that signed up with Eversource to become pilot sites. The city, 20 minutes west of Boston, is surrounded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, plus companies like Thermo Fisher Scientific, Pfizer and Novartis. Eric Mauchan said the proximity to so much cutting-edge technology and a state law requiring greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced to zero by 2050 have made the community receptive.

Nikki Bruno, vice president of clean technologies at Eversource, also cited the state's emissions law as a reason for the pilot. It was also “an opportunity from a decarbonization perspective,” she said, because Eversource has its own net zero goal.

“We're thinking about, okay, we're doing this pilot now, how can we scale this up to a sustainable business model, to a sustainable program that we can offer in more locations?” she said.

Jack DiEnna, founder of the Geothermal National & International Initiative, an alliance of industry professionals, says utilities are seeing pressure to address climate change, plus incentives to do so. Geothermal heat pumps are highly efficient, reduce electricity demand on the grid and can be installed in areas beyond the reach of gas pipelines. They also cool homes and release very little climate pollution compared to traditional heaters and air conditioners.

There is also an equity issue that is worrying some in the climate and energy sectors. If people who have the means shut off their natural gas, it could have unequal consequences for people.

It “means that the people who can least afford it have to pay for this gas system, this very leaky gas system,” said Ania Camargo, thermal energy networks manager at the Building Decarbonization Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating fossil fuels from buildings.

“One of the reasons I'm advocating that utilities should be a big part of the solution is because it's a way to make sure we can do this for everyone.”

Back at the Mauchans' house, the couple laughs about the adjustments they made to their old heating system. “I was so aware of the costs we would incur if we raised the temperature to, God forbid, 70 degrees in the winter,” Jennifer recalled about letting the house get cold in the winter.

They expect their new heat pump to change that. “I mean, we'll keep our house at 71 degrees year-round,” Eric said.

___

The Associated Press' climate and environmental reporting receives funding from several private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find APs standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas AP.org.

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