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Massachusetts town experiments with community heating and cooling

Local News

Energy sharing works best when some buildings use heat while another needs it, the same way a grocery store needs to keep its checkouts refrigerated even in winter.

Groundwater gushes out during drilling for a geothermal heating and cooling system at a home in White Plains, New York

Groundwater gushes out during drilling for a geothermal heating and cooling system at a home in White Plains, New York, May 8, 2023. AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson, file

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

In winter, heating with natural gas often costs more than $300 per month, even with the temperature set at 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius).

“My mother, when she was alive, did not come to our house in winter” because it was too cold, said Eric Mauchan.

But starting Tuesday, their neighborhood will be part of a pilot climate solution that will connect 37 homes and businesses to a highly efficient underground heating and cooling system. Even accounting for the fact that many buildings will switch from natural gas to electricity, people should see their electricity bills drop by 20% on average. According to some experts, this is a model that can be scaled up and replicated elsewhere.

“As soon as they told me about it, I 100% bought in,” said Jennifer Mauchan, who works in finance, recalling her first meeting with representatives from Eversource, the gas and water company. electricity who installed the system. “From a financial standpoint, I thought it was a very viable option for us.” She cited reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change, as an important factor in the decision.

Gina Richard, owner of Corner Cabinet, a kitchen and bathroom cabinet showroom in Framingham, said she feels “pretty lucky” to be part of the project. She currently uses two air conditioners and two heaters and is looking forward to replacing all of that with one system. Richard said she was told she could see her $900 to $1,000 winter heating bill cut by a third, which she said would be “incredible.”

The Framingham system consists of a giant underground loop filled with water and antifreeze, similar to the way gas is delivered to multiple homes in a neighborhood. The water in the loop absorbs heat from underground, which stays around 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius) year-round.

Households have their own heat pumps which provide heating and air conditioning, installed by the public service. These extract heat from the loop, raise the temperature further and release this heat as hot air into homes. For air conditioning, heat is extracted from the home or business and released into the earth or transported to the neighboring home.

Energy sharing works best when some buildings use heat while another needs it, the same way a grocery store needs to keep its checkouts refrigerated even in winter.

Other grid geothermal projects exist across the United States, including in the Texas community of Whisper Valley and at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Eversource says it is the first utility-driven facility in the United States. If it works, it could be significant because an individual owner wouldn’t be able to do the digging and drilling necessary to create a neighborhood system.

Currently, homeowners can purchase individual air source heat pumps, which have become common and efficient. They can also drill for more expensive and even more efficient geothermal heat pumps. Incentives, such as those from the Inflation Reduction Act or Local Utilities, help reduce the price of these services, but the final cost can still reach tens of thousands of dollars.

Framingham beat out other communities that applied to Eversource to become pilot sites. The city located 20 minutes west of Boston is surrounded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as companies like Thermo Fisher Scientific, Pfizer and Novartis. Eric Mauchan said proximity to so much advanced technology and a state law requiring greenhouse gas emissions to drop to zero by 2050 have helped make the community receptive.

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

“We’re thinking, okay, we’re doing this pilot now, how can we turn this into a sustainable business model, into a sustainable program to offer in more places?” she says.

Jack DiEnna, founder of the Geothermal National & International Initiative, an alliance of industry professionals, said utilities are facing pressure to combat climate change, as well as incentives to do so. Geothermal heat pumps are very efficient, reduce electricity demand on the grid and can be installed in areas beyond the reach of gas pipes. They also cool homes and emit very little climate pollution compared to traditional heaters and air conditioners.

There is also an issue of equity that concerns some in the climate and energy sector. If people who can afford it disconnect their natural gas, it could have unequal consequences for people.

That “means that the people who can least afford it have to pay for this gas system, this gas system that leaks so badly,” said Ania Camargo, manager of thermal energy networks at the Building Decarbonization Coalition, an organization nonprofit that works to eliminate fossil fuels from buildings.

“One of the reasons I advocate for utilities to play an important role in the solution is because it’s a way to ensure we can do this for everyone.”

Back at the Mauchan house, the couple laugh about the adjustments they were making with their old heating system. “I was very aware of the expense we would incur if we raised the temperature to, God forbid, 70 degrees in the winter,” Jennifer recalls about letting the house cool in the winter.

They expect their new heat pump to make a difference. “I mean, we’ll keep our house at 71 degrees all year round,” Eric said.


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