Outlook 2021: Modernizing natural gas distribution system is priority for Eversource (Guest viewpoint)

So much of what makes Massachusetts appealing to live or visit is its rich history and the historic value of its buildings and streets. Walking through many communities across the commonwealth is like taking a step back in time. But history also applies to the infrastructure we don’t see, which ironically sits just feet below the historic streets we love and appreciate.

Massachusetts is home to one of the oldest natural gas distribution systems in the nation, with some sections built more than a century ago. Currently, Eversource operates more than 8,000 miles of gas pipeline across the commonwealth, 1,600 miles of which stretch beneath the homes and businesses across Western Massachusetts.

We take the responsibility of that infrastructure very seriously, and we’re proactively finding innovative ways to continue providing safe and reliable gas service to our more than 150,000 Western Massachusetts customers, reduce gas leaks, improve overall efficiency, and lower carbon emissions.

The replacement of aging bare steel, cast-iron and other leak-prone gas infrastructure is a top priority of ours to minimize the potential for gas leaks and the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Since 2015 with our Gas System Enhancement Plan, or GSEP, we’ve invested approximately $72 million a year and have replaced 500 miles of older gas mains across the commonwealth with state-of-the-art plastic pipe which is safer, more durable and better able to handle the fluctuations in underground temperatures.

In the weeks following our acquisition of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts last October, we replaced five miles of older gas lines in Western Massachusetts, and we’re scheduled to replace more than 100 additional miles across Western Massachusetts over the next five years. In fact, we’re on track to replace all of our leak-prone pipes statewide within 15 years.

These investments allow us to further modernize the gas distribution system, minimizing repairs and any service interruption. Proactively upgrading the system helps to ensure our customers have a better, stronger network to meet their energy needs.

Our GSEP not only ensures the safe and reliable delivery of gas but also has a positive impact on the environment by reducing leaks on the system and the amount of the greenhouse gas, methane, emitted into the atmosphere. The work we’ve done replacing the 500 miles of leak-prone gas main across the commonwealth has resulted in reductions of approximately 500 metric tons of methane annually, the greenhouse gas equivalent of removing 2,400 cars from the road in a year.

We’re proud to have developed and implemented a shared action plan with organizations like the Home Energy Efficiency Team, Gas Safety Inc. and Mothers Out Front to field-test multiple methods to identify leaks with a significant environmental impact. Our accelerated program eliminates high-emitter gas leaks, which are leaks considered to be environmentally significant. Depending on the extent of its spread, high-emitter leaks are repaired within 12 months to two years as required by state regulations, and we have committed to repairing these leaks sooner than that regulatory requirement.

Our commitment to reducing carbon emissions also includes preventing those incidents that can cause damage to our gas system and result in the releases of natural gas into the atmosphere. We’ve implemented a comprehensive program that employs high standards for marking underground gas lines prior to any excavation, as well as training locators and educating third-party excavators.

We were recently approved by our regulators, the state Department of Public Utilities, to test the viability of geothermal networks, which can provide heat without burning fossil fuels and help to decarbonize our gas future. And as a catalyst for clean energy, we will continue to look ahead at cleaner energy supply solutions, such as renewable natural gas and environmentally responsible natural gas supply.

We have long been committed to a culture of “Safety First and Always,” and we have been continually implementing safety improvement initiatives focused on our customers, employees, operations, and the adoption of new and emerging technologies. We will continue to deliver safe and reliable energy, make critical investments and propose new initiatives that will help Massachusetts achieve its bold carbon reduction goals.

Mark Gunsalus is general manager of gas operations for Eversource. To learn more about Eversource, go online to eversource.com.