HEET: Too Many Holes in Energy Policy

A map of Somerville is overlaid with a graph of natural gas leaks made last year. “It looks like the Swiss Alps,” says Audrey Schulman of HEET, a non-profit that surveyed the city.
A map of Somerville is overlaid with a graph of natural gas leaks made last year. “It looks like the Swiss Alps,” says Audrey Schulman of HEET, a non-profit that surveyed the city.

By Todd Feinburg

Published December 28, 2015, issue of January 07, 2016.

The pipes under the streets of Massachusetts are leaking natural gas. Huge amounts. A fact that drives Audrey Schulman crazy. “I read an article about old leaky pipes in Boston and there was one line that said the amount of gas leaked in the city each year totally dwarfs the amount that Mass Save saves,” she said.

Mass Save is a statewide energy efficiency organization run by the utilities and funded by a small surcharge on our energy bills. The money is used to help homeowners and businesses reduce their energy bills through free energy assessments and incentives like rebates to homeowners who insulate their homes or install a more efficient heating system.

Schulman runs a non-profit called HEET, which helps non-profits access rebates and services from Mass Save so they can save money and “save the planet,” she said. “In the Cambridge YMCA, the work we helped them with this year will reduce their energy bill by almost $50,000 a year,” said Schulman. But she remains frustrated that her efforts to cut greenhouse gases are offset by the leaks in Boston (where half of the pipes are over 50 years old) that should be repaired. “I’m swimming against the tide!”

How could the Y save so much? “We worked with them to find what energy inefficiencies they had, then we found the right rebates, services and also financing to allow them to get an extensive lighting upgrade, as well as steam traps.” And a control unit added to the boiler will adjust its on/off cycles to cut fuel consumption.

In 2012, when the story came out about the research done at Boston University that showed there were 3,300 leaks in the city, Schulman immediately reached out to Professor Nathan Phillips, who explained that his research was done by driving down every street in the city with a device that measures the amount of natural gas in the air. “I said I wanted to do a survey of Cambridge and Somerville, and he said ‘Sure, I’ll give you my equipment. You can do the survey. It will take you a few weeks.’”

Schulman was amazed by what she found. “You see a yellow line wherever the car drove, and anywhere there were elevated parts per million of methane you get a huge spike. You look at parts of Somerville and it looks like the Swiss Alps.” That’s wasted gas that we all pay for since the gas companies “can increase the price per therm by the amount of gas that they lose.” Leaving them no incentive to do the repairs, despite the fact that we also pay them to fix the leaks.

HEET president Audrey Schulman speaks at a recent event at a solar installation in Boston.
HEET president Audrey Schulman speaks at a recent event at a solar installation in Boston.

The leaks from natural gas pipes are the worst for the environment, according to Schulman. “The pipe quality natural gas is 95% methane and methane is a greenhouse gas on steroids.”

Schulman was so appalled by the wasted gas that she reached out to Marblehead Representative Lori Ehrlich, who had already successfully passed a law that created a uniform system of coding leaks on the level of danger they represent, and also required the utility companies to share the data they have on where the leaks are and how they’re rated. “That’s the part that Audrey has stepped up to really shine a light on,” said Ehrlich. “The specifics of the leaks and how long the gas companies have been following them, that information has never been available,” she explained. “Now that it’s available, HEET is taking that information and making maps for every community so they know where the leaks are. That’s huge,” said Ehrlich, because now communities can put pressure on the gas companies to make repairs.

Unfortunately, the change in the law that would have made the most sense – to simply require the companies to fix the leaks – was cut from the bill before it was passed. This year, Ehrlich is trying to change the law once again, this time with a requirement that “when road construction is being planned, the towns have to notify the gas companies so they can come in and fix the leaks when the roads are opened up.”

Which is necessary because the other bad news in the current system is that not only do ratepayers pay for the gas that leaks, “which costs customers about $90 million a year,” according to Ehrlich, “but we also pay for the repair and replacement of the bad pipes.” A second bill filed by Ehrlich this year would force the gas companies to make a certain amount of progress in fixing leaks in return for the ratepayers continuing to pick up the tab for repairs.

The problem of decaying infrastructure and gas leaks is not just a local problem, it’s nationwide. “There’s a single gas leak in California,” said Schulman,” that spills enough methane into the air to equal 25% of that state’s total greenhouse gas emissions.”

Schulman is a serious person, a successful novelist who put her career on the back burner a few years ago to co-found HEET. But she’ll do anything in her power to help “save the planet. It’s a matter of conscience,” she said. That includes doing silly things to get the media to focus on the problem of leaking gas.

In September, HEET (which stands for Home Energy Efficiency Team) helped to organize held a birthday party for the gas leak at the corner of Beacon Street and Park Drive near Kenmore Square in mock celebration for a leak that’s been there for 30 years, showing that the politics of energy in Boston is as decayed as the pipes. “It’s been leaking since Larry Bird was named league MVP for the second time,” said Schulman. “That’s way too long.”

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