Report: Boston will need to ‘go electric’ by 2050

Boston must improve energy efficiency and convert completely to cleanly produced electricity in order to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, according to the new Carbon Free Boston Report.

The study, released on Jan. 29, focuses on three main strategies: energy efficiency, buying 100 percent clean energy and eliminating the use fossil fuels. Buildings, transportation systems, waste processing and energy consumption would all have to be upgraded, according the report.

The report was commissioned by Mayor Marty Walsh and researched by the Green Ribbon Commission and Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy.

One of the main recommendations in the report is the conversion of all heating systems in the city to electricity, not gas or oil. By electrifying heat, less greenhouse gas emissions will be released, and in the long term heat will be cheaper for residents, researchers said.

In addition, because many Boston buildings are old, with half of existing floor space built before 1950, they will need further work to become efficient. Buildings built before 1950 were constructed before the first building energy codes, and often have less insulation, are less airtight and use less efficient equipment.

These older buildings will need deep energy retrofits, the report states, referring to the process of upgrading the building envelope, heating, cooling and other appliances.

According to the report, deep energy retrofits have the potential to reduce citywide energy use by 30 percent to 40 percent.

New buildings should be required to meet net-zero emission standards, and rely on energy efficiency strategies and renewable energy sources to meet energy needs.

“For example, the implementation of a net-zero policy for all new buildings in 2030 reduces cumulative emissions by 17 percent,” said the report. “Earlier implementation of the same policy reduces emissions by an additional 25 percent.”

John Cleveland, the executive director of the Green Ribbon Commission, said that when it comes to adjusting building standards, the city will work to give owners time to prepare.

“That’s going to be a big piece of what the city does,” Cleveland said. “Looking at those mechanisms and how you phase them in. You aren’t going to jump in tomorrow and mandate things. Give the property owners predictability and visibility into the future so they can plan this into the future. This is a 2050 target, so we have thirty years so you need to build in predictability for owners.”

For transportation, the report said that by 2050 all small and mid-sized vehicles should be electric and the city should take steps to discourage people from driving into the city individually. It also suggests more space for bike lanes and walking spaces, as well as improving and expanding public transportation.

The city must also address how it deals with solid waste and wastewater treatment systems, as well as improve composting and recycling in the city, the report said.

“Rethinking consumption to reduce waste generation can lead to significant reductions in GHG emissions at low cost,” the report stated. “The Boston plastic bag ban is a first step in this direction but the opportunity exists to go much further.”

For remaining energy needs, the city will need to buy 100 percent clean energy. This can be done, the report suggested, by expanding the use of rooftop solar panels, local power purchase agreements and virtual power purchase agreements. A local power purchase agreement would require the city to seek out and buy zero-carbon electricity, and a virtual power purchase agreement would allow the city to buy electricity from a location that is too far away to supply the city, but Boston could then sell that electricity in order to subsidize the energy used in the city.

Overall, Cleveland said, one of the most notable pieces is that the goal of carbon-free by 2050 can be done with current technology.

“We have a pretty clear idea of what actions the city needs to take to get to carbon neutrality by the 2050 goal and we know the pathways are doable with the technology,” he said. “There is a data driven platform for the city to start making choices to implement the plan.”