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Buildings are a big part of New England's emissions. States are working to change that

A row of three-story buildings sit on a street with snow on it and some cars in Boston.
Robin Lubbock / WBUR
Two triple-deckers that were recently renovated with energy efficiency in mind on Stanton Street in Worcester.

As New England moves to drastically reduce its carbon footprint, one of the big fossil fuel uses it must address is its buildings. The region's homes and buildings are the second-largest emitter, falling just behind transportation; buildings emit around one-third of states’ planet-warming emissions.

That’s in part because New England housing stock tends to be older, poorly insulated and less efficient. In Maine for example, more than half the homes were built before 1980 and 61% of Maine homesuse fuel oil for heat. Buildings in the Northeast require significant heating — and will increasingly require more cooling as summers continue to warm.

Building emissions in New England

The burden of updating a home typically falls on the homeowner but some states are moving forward with incentives, updated building codes and pilot projects to jumpstart decarbonization in existing homes. And municipalities and developers alike are exploring ways to construct new homes with significantly lower carbon footprints — everything from using greener building materials to electrifying the way homes heat and cool.
Here’s a look at some innovative projects happening across New England to reduce our buildings' reliance on fossil fuels.

Find other stories about climate change and housing from our 2024 Earth Day series.

Building new homes to be more climate-friendly

The good news is that there are a lot more innovative options for building more efficient and climate-friendly homes. One building technique that is gaining some traction is what's known as the "passive house" technique— it entails insulating the home to be nearly airtight with thicker walls and windows, as well as siting the home to take advantage of natural heat from the sun. Read more about one Maine family’s experience living in a passive home, where their heat and electricity costs were about $13 a month during the winter. The technique is even more economically viable for multi-unit buildings like this one in Boston.

The building materials themselves also have a climate footprint. That's why some are experimenting with a form of composite wood that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and drastically lower waste. Called “mass timber,” it can be made into large slabs that can match or exceed the performance of concrete and steel, and it's been used in some new affordable housing. Habitat for Humanity has also begun building some near net-zero homes in Connecticut, which cost about 10% more than a fossil-fuel-based home.

A worker in a yellow shirt stands at the center of a building under construction that's all made of wood.
Abigail Brone / Connecticut Public
A 69-unit affordable housing project in New Haven (pictured) is second affordable housing project in the country to use the “mass timber” construction system.

A 69-unit affordable housing project in New Haven (pictured) is second affordable housing project in the country to use the “mass timber” construction system. (Abigail Brone/Connecticut Public) Home demolition contributes to emissions, too: 40% of the volume of our landfills are waste from construction and demolition, according to Felix Heisel, who teaches architecture and directs the Circular Construction Lab at Cornell University. That’s why two women in Cape Cod have formed their own company to salvage and repurpose parts from homes being demolished. Since founding WasteNot in 2017, the company estimates it has diverted from landfills more than an acre of hardwood flooring, roughly 570 kitchen cabinets, and 500 windows.

Where we choose to build our homes also matters — New England has thousands of miles of coastline and with rising sea levels, not all those beautiful locations are viable for supporting homes.

Greening up older buildings

Much of New England’s urban population lives in aging multi-family homes — Boston, for one, has nearly 10,000 three-deckers — which present their own unique challenges to green up. Some companies have begun that work, doing what’s known asa “deep energy retrofit” for Mass. triple-deckers: insulating the building by sealing off air leaks and installing more sophisticated HVAC systems —and in some cases, installing solar panels.

Other entrepreneurs are tackling even older buildings. Students in New Bedford, are working to transition an old firehouse into a climate-friendly apartment building. And this Portsmouth house built in 1750 is getting a new, higher foundation to help it face the growing flood risk.

A woman in a black sweatshirt photographs a brick building that has boards in the windows and is surrounded by a chain link fence.
Eve Zuckoff / CAI
Jai Edward Blyden takes photos and videos of the Hillman Street Firehouse in New Bedford.

New England states have long offered financial support for home energy efficiency projects for different kinds of housing, and more funds are soon coming through the Inflation Reduction Act.

Decarbonizing homes in an equitable way

There are a dizzying amount of options to green up our homes — but many residents can’t afford big overhauls or don’t own the home they live in.

Massachusetts has developed several pilot programs to transition low-income housing off fossil fuels. The Healey administration recently allocated $27 million to several affordable housing developments to install electric heat pumps, insulate walls, replace leaky windows and, in some places, put up solar panels. And last year, the state created a $50 million grant program to fund retrofits in low- and moderate-income homes.

Some advocates say the burden shouldn’t fall on individual homes when there are larger-scale changes that would make buildings greener and more efficient. Consider, for example, the pilot project the gas utility Eversource is building in Framingham. The company is using its natural gas equipment not to drill gas lines, but to dig boreholes and lay pipes for a networked geothermal system that will heat and cool 37 buildings. Not only does Eversource estimate it will slash emissions by 60%, but some environmentalists say it could provide a model for how gas utilities can participate in the decarbonization transition — and provide fairer access to fossil-fuel-free heating and cooling.

A man in a bright green shirt and hard hat operates a large machine that's drilling into the ground.
Robin Lubbock / WBUR
A drilling crew bores a geothermal well for Eversource's networked geothermal project in Framingham.

Networked geothermal has been around for some time, but it’s getting renewed attention as efforts to combat climate change ramp up.

There’s another utility geothermal project breaking ground in Boston, and Dartmouth College installed geothermal heating and cooling to slash its emission a few years ago.

Growing renewable power

A large boat with a crane is next to a wind turbine in the ocean
Courtesy of Vineyard Wind
One of the first completed turbines of the Vineyard Wind project, an 800 megawatt wind farm near Martha's Vineyard.

Even as New England electrifies more of its buildings, that alone won't zero out fossil fuel emissions. To do that, the region also needs to transition the energy powering the grid to renewable sources. Progress on developing renewable energy varies across the region. The nation’s first large-scale offshore wind project is up and running off the coast of Massachusetts. Vermont already has significant solar and hydro power — and an aggressive requirement that electric utilities have to get 75% of their power from renewables by 2032.

The region’s last two coal plants will shut down by 2028, according to the plants’ operator, Granite Shore Power. It also announced plans to build about 100 megawatts of solar and significant battery storage for renewable energy that could power the grid in times of high demand.

Amid these large-scale projects, many communities are working to make renewable energy more accessible for their residents, too. A new program in New Hampshire pairs low- and moderate-income residents interested in solar with developers who build community solar projects. The project aims to boost solar development while helping residents to receive the solar credits on their electricity bill. Another program in the Granite state is aiming to spuradoption of solar panels on homes and businesses in the North Country.

Some of these changes face challenges, especially in some historic communities in New England. Cape Cod is home to one of the largest historic districts in the country, and some residents who want to install solar panels there have had to first confront their historic committees.

This story was originally published by WBUR. It was shared as part of the New England News Collaborative.

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