Lisa Cascio’s home is still without heating more than a month after a series of natural-gas explosions and fires damaged dozens of homes and businesses in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts, north of Boston.

“It’s still an emergency,” Cascio’s colleague, Sue Coakley, executive director of the nonprofit Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP), told Greentech Media in an interview. “There’s almost desperation among people because it’s getting cold. They don’t have heat. They don’t have hot water. They don’t know when it’s coming.”

The disaster is at once an immediate crisis for affected homes and small businesses and a harbinger of a looming debate over the future of century-old natural gas distribution networks in Massachusetts and elsewhere in New England.

Cascio, NEEP’s public relations manager, lives in Lawrence, one of three Massachusetts communities, along with Andover and North Andover, that suffered damage after the outbreak of fires on the afternoon of September 13. According to federal investigators, the explosions and fires were triggered by over-pressurized natural-gas distribution lines operated by Columbia Gas of Massachusetts.

A preliminary report released by the National Transportation Safety Board on October 11 found that the disaster resulted in one death, at least 21 people being taken to the hospital, and 131 damaged structures.

“Most of the damage,” the investigators concluded, “was a result of structure fires ignited by gas-fueled appliances.”

Prior to the explosions and fires, a Columbia Gas-contracted work crew had been replacing cast-iron gas distribution pipes dating to the early 1900s with new plastic pipes. Columbia Gas has stated that all cast-iron and bare steel piping in affected neighborhoods will be replaced, and gas service restored, by November 19.

Nearly 650 “serious” natural-gas distribution accidents (i.e., incidents resulting in a fatality or injury requiring hospitalization) have occurred in the United States since 1998, according to Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) figures cited by the Washington Examiner’s Josh Siegel. The accidents resulted in 221 deaths and 967 injuries.

Aging, fragile cast-iron pipes are disproportionately responsible for deadly incidents. According to the PHMSA, 41 percent of all fatalities and nearly 20 percent of all injuries connected to gas distribution line incidents from 2005-2017 involved cast or wrought iron pipes, even though just 2 percent of the gas distribution mains were cast iron.

Massachusetts attorney general pushes clean heating technologies

In the weeks since the disaster, Massachusetts officials, led by Attorney General Maura Healey, have worked to ensure that affected customers are compensated for immediate heating and cooking alternatives such as electric space heaters and hot plates and that they can opt for non-gas appliances, including electric heat pumps, when replacing damaged equipment.

On October 8, Columbia Gas confirmed it would replace all gas-fired appliances damaged in the Merrimack Valley disaster.

Healey’s office has pushed for the “safe and expeditious” restoration of gas service and a rejection of any attempt by Columbia Gas to recover costs from ratepayers for recovery efforts and damages.

In a September 27 letter to Columbia Gas, Healey urged the utility to “design its alternative fuel plan to support and encourage customers to switch to energy efficient and clean technologies.” These efforts, she wrote, should advance Massachusetts’ energy policy, including its 2019-2021 energy efficiency plans.

Additionally, she called on Columbia Gas to announce the timeline to inspect and replace existing appliances; “educate every customer on the availability and details of heat pump technologies”; “cover any cost for these technologies which exceed the costs for a one-for-one replacement”; and collaborate with her office, the Department of Energy Resources, the Mass Save program, and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC), “on the availability and deployment of heat pumps and other energy efficient and clean technologies.”

Soon after, MassCEC announced the availability of expanded rebates for low- and moderate-income residents for the purchase of air-source heat pumps. Households earning up to 120 percent of the state median income are eligible for a larger rebate, on top of existing rebates worth up to $500 for air-source heat pumps offered under the Mass Save program.

On October 23, the Department of Energy Resources published a guide to energy and heating resources for Merrimack Valley residents.

The future of gas and need for efficiency

Climate and energy efficiency advocates note that the Merrimack Valley disaster has raised awareness about the danger of relying on combustible fuels for heating and cooking and sparked debate about the role of gas going forward.

“The Massachusetts gas disaster — combined with Hurricane Michael and epic fires across the West — opens up the critical and urgent conversation about how Massachusetts (and every other state), now that it has phased out all...coal, [is] going to rapidly phase out all of its gas use, including in all of its buildings,” wrote Bruce Nilles, senior fellow at Rocky Mountain Institute, in an email.

“Yes, on its face it appears complicated,” he went on, “but in 2010 we set out to retire and replace the U.S. coal fleet. Eight years later, we are half done, and coal use has dropped from providing 50% of our electricity to 29% of our electricity. We need similar speed and ambition to de-gas and electrify all of the state's buildings over the next decade.”

The Merrimack Valley disaster “is driving a conversation, for the first time, about the future of gas,” said NEEP’s Coakley. “People are painfully aware of [the danger] now, where they hadn’t been before.”

The status of natural-gas pipelines “has been a third-rail issue in Massachusetts and New England for the past few years,” she added.

The creaky gas distribution system adds to concerns about natural-gas availability and reliability also applied to the region’s power plants. Coakley highlighted concern over natural-gas supply constraints raised by ISO New England, the regional grid operator, last winter during a historic cold snap.

Winter heating demand peaks have prompted some experts to ask if the region needs more gas. Coakley counters that New England has a building performance problem. Most of the existing buildings predate energy codes and may not be able to handle increased electrical loads.

“Something we can do right now to reduce our gas use and address peak demand is improve the thermal efficiency of homes and businesses,” she said.

There are also logistical and infrastructure constraints to deploying heat pumps and other non-gas appliances. NEEP board member Eric Dubin, who works at Mitsubishi Electric Cooling and Heating, has been working to boost the availability of heat pumps in the wake of the Merrimack Valley disaster.

“But,” said Coakley, “there’s not a robust installation network to do that. And every contractor up to New Hampshire and down to Fall River, Massachusetts, is engaged in trying to do restoration.”

For affected residents who still lack gas service, the collective sentiment is: “What will put heat in my house as soon as possible? What will get me hot water as soon as possible?”

There is just not the infrastructure in place to do efficiency and electrification, at scale, quickly, Coakley lamented. “It’s kind of a missed opportunity.”

“The way we have been framing the conversation has not allowed us to really think of all the options we might pursue that might be in line with our long-term policy goals on carbon reduction and public safety and health,” she said.