My Turn: A Granite Bridge to nowhere?

For the Monitor
Published: 12/17/2019 6:00:59 AM

Last summer, the quiet residential road on which we live near downtown Nashua was transformed into a construction zone. For weeks on end, crews from Liberty Utilities inched their way down the street cutting and excavating and resealing pavement in order to fix our neighborhood gas lines. Although the workers could not have been friendlier or more professional, the noise and dust and constant blocking of traffic – all for a project we never expected or requested – was not ideal to say the least.

Recalling the recent horrific gas explosions in Massachusetts and hundreds of reported pipeline incidents each year, I was grateful to our utility for performing necessary maintenance (not to mention providing daily entertainment to our kids). But I couldn’t help asking myself: Is this really the future?

If maintaining existing gas lines is an unavoidable expense for current customers, should New Hampshire really be adding an entirely new pipeline and storage facility – at an estimated ratepayer cost of $414 million – so thousands more homes and businesses can burn natural gas, as the Granite Bridge proposal seeks to do?

Put differently, at a time when the world’s best climate scientists say we have 10 short years to radically reduce our fossil fuel use to avert the worst effects of global warming, should we really be expanding fossil fuel infrastructure for decades to come, or could there be a better way?

I’m glad you asked.

Compare the month-long roadworks we experienced for natural gas to another construction project my family undertook with a similar end-goal in mind, this time voluntarily: electric heat pumps. A few years after installing solar panels to meet our home electric needs and power my Chevy Bolt, our family embarked on another two-day project of installing ductless heat pumps to heat and cool our home year-round. There was no heavy equipment, little dust or noise, and the promise of virtually no maintenance for decades to come except the occasional filter cleaning.

If “heat pump” sounds like a foreign concept, look no further than your fridge or window AC. In a refrigeration process first demonstrated by the Scottish chemist William Cullen in 1748, heat pumps simply reverse the normal flow of thermal energy by absorbing warm air molecules in a colder space and releasing them into a warmer one via a refrigerant.

Thanks to recent technological advances, modern cold-climate heat pumps are now capable of heating our average N.H. home and keeping our family of five (plus visitors) warm throughout the winter, even when temperatures drop below zero on the coldest nights. In summer, with the press of a button on the remote, the heat pumps operate in reverse to extract warm air molecules and cool our entire home in minutes.

They do so quietly at more than twice the efficiency of conventional heaters and air conditioners, saving us hundreds of dollars on gas and electric bills each year, or thousands of dollars compared to the oil and propane fuels my family once used when we lived in rural New Hampshire.

Most importantly, heat pumps burn no fossil fuels when powered by clean energy. Thanks to the solar panels on our roof and wind electricity we receive through our independent supplier Arcadia Power when solar output dips, our family and countless others across New Hampshire are able to radically reduce our carbon footprint and cut costs.

Although proponents of Granite Bridge are right to argue that burning natural gas is less polluting locally than burning oil or coal, the environmental impacts of fracking in nearby states and the safety risks to N.H. communities along the pipeline route cannot be overlooked. What’s more, the growing evidence of methane leaks associated with extracting and transmitting gas over millions of miles of pipe has led the United Nations and top scientific organizations to strongly discourage its use. This is especially true because methane is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat and warming our planet over a 20-year period, meaning even a very low leak rate renders gas no better than oil or coal for the climate.

Even if every leak in every pipe and processing facility was immediately fixed, as I have no doubt Liberty Utilities seeks to do in its territory, the climate-warming impacts of burning natural gas far exceed those of efficient electric heating as fossil fuel power plants are increasingly replaced with local renewable energy from wind, water and sun in the coming years. The sooner New Hampshire joins its neighboring states in setting robust Renewable Portfolio Standards, the sooner these benefits will be realized in the Granite State.

What about the cost? Analysis by the Rocky Mountain Institute and other independent bodies finds that installing air-source heat pumps in new homes with current insulation standards is less expensive from the start than installing the latest ducted gas furnace systems and conventional AC. For existing homes with ductwork, installing a gas furnace to replace the existing oil or propane burner will likely cost less than a heat pump retrofit like ours – until you factor in the public ratepayer cost of adding and maintaining new gas service. Add the tens of billions of dollars U.S. taxpayers spend each year subsidizing fossil fuels and there’s no comparison.

What’s more, investing in heat pumps, solar and weatherization would result in thousands of good-paying jobs right here in New Hampshire, as neighboring states have shown – far more than the 330 construction jobs and 15 operating jobs promised in connection with Granite Bridge. Indeed, Liberty Utilities is already proving the potential these clean tech solutions have for New Hampshire through its innovative energy efficiency and beneficial electrification programs.

Is it any wonder millions of American homes now rely on heat pumps for heating and cooling year-round, and thousands more units are being installed annually in the Granite State?

Whether your goal is cost or comfort, clean air or a healthy climate, the data clearly show that New Hampshire does not need another multi-decade investment in technologies of the past. Rather than a Granite Bridge to nowhere, policy makers should build the clean energy future our children demand before it is too late.

(Dan Weeks works on clean energy and lives in Nashua with his wife and kids.)


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