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Energy & Environment

In Marathon Hearing, Senators Consider Sweeping Climate Change Legislation That Aims to Slash Emissions from Buildings

Before the Senate bill hearing for the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022, several dozen advocates and lawmakers gathered in Lawyers’ Mall, pushing for a smooth passage of the legislation’s provisions. Photo by Elizabeth Shwe.

Advocates and lawmakers pushed for a comprehensive climate bill on Tuesday that would take significant steps to reduce emissions from buildings and set the state’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal at 60% of 2006 levels by 2030.

“The problem is providing solutions and implementing solutions that will make a difference,” Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), the lead sponsor of the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022, told the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday. “If there are two watch words…they are ‘urgency’ and ‘boldness.'”

“This legislation pushes the envelope — let me admit that upfront — but it is also conscious of the ability to implement what’s in the bill,” Pinsky continued. He called this proposal a “work in progress” and promised to listen to opponents’ suggestions in amendments but said he wanted to hear “evidence that something absolutely cannot work.”

The Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022, sponsored by Pinsky and 26 additional Democratic senators, is a far-reaching proposal that calls for a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions — based on 2006 levels — by 2030 and would require building owners to take significant steps in moving away from gas and oil systems and toward electrification. The bill would accelerate the state’s current state goal — set in 2016 — of a 40% emission reduction by 2030.

More specifically, newly constructed buildings would have to meet all water and heating demands without the use of fossil fuels by the start of 2023 and be prepared to install solar energy systems and electrical vehicle charging equipment under Pinsky’s bill.

The legislation would also compel the state to adopt new building codes that require commercial and residential buildings larger than 25,000 square feet to gradually reach net-zero emissions by 2040, while large state-owned buildings would progressively reach net-zero emissions by 2035. A building transition task force would be responsible for making a plan that supports building retrofits through tax credits and subsidies.

In its 2021 report, the Maryland Commission on Climate Change recommended that the state achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 and adopt an all-electric building code for new building construction.

A slew of advocates, gas and building lobbyists and academic experts testified in-person before the Senate committee for 4 hours and 45 minutes on Tuesday, with proponents heralding the bill for curtailing climate change’s most devastating impacts and opponents arguing that the bill’s decarbonization timeline was unrealistic and too expensive.

Victoria Venable, the Maryland director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network said the Climate Solutions Now Act marked a good balance of setting necessary climate goals while also including a strategy that charts how the state will reach those goals. Venable contended that building all-electric single-family homes cost less to construct than homes that depend on fossil fuels. “The key to decarbonization is electrification,” she said.

Josh Tulkin, the director of Maryland Sierra Club, said mitigating climate change also means healthier Marylanders, as efforts to reduce pollution emissions from buildings leads to less toxins in the air that we breathe. “Climate solutions are public health solutions,” he said.

But opponents said that the cost to electrify buildings and the power grid are too high to be realistic.

Representatives for NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, said retrofitting buildings need significant financial incentives. “The cost is enormous, and it doesn’t take an architect to think that if you have a 15- or 20-story building and it’s heated by a boiler in the basement … that converting all of that to electricity for heating is going to be difficult,” said Michael Powell, a representative of NAIOP.

The Climate Solutions Now Act calls for a task force to develop financial incentives, but those incentives need to be put in place sooner, Powell said.

Joe Bryce, representing Pepco — a public utility owned by Exelon Corporation — testified against the bill, saying there are practical consequences of transitioning from gas to electricity that require time to upgrade machinery to ensure it can meet the energy demand.

But Pinsky noted that Anne Linder, director of state government affairs at Exelon and co-chair of the Maryland Commission on Climate Change, voted in favor of the commission’s recommendations that included an all-electric standard for new buildings.

“Was that vote when it was [just] talk and now here’s a concrete bill and now Pepco has decided it’s a bad idea?” Pinsky asked.

Bryce said Linder’s vote was not a mistake and pointed out that the bill had not existed when she voted.

When asked what changes they would like to see, Pepco representatives did not give a specific timeline on when the utility could practically transition to electricity.

Sen. Katie Fry Hester (D-Carroll) suggested that Pepco, instead of asking for more time, could “come up with some really specific amendments” that could help their cause.

“There’s a lot of energy behind this bill,” Hester said.

Charles Washington representing Baltimore Gas and Electric Company said the bill includes “an aggressive timeline” to shift to electrification that moves “too far, too fast.” Electrification requires additional capital infrastructure and BGE needs more time to analyze the capacity needs to continue reliable utility services, BGE representatives continued.

But Pinsky said disagreed that more time is needed.

“The science tells us…that we have to move to clean energy or our planet faces some really big challenges and we face big challenges here in Maryland,” he said.

BGE representatives said they support decarbonization goals but want to consider different cost-effective pathways besides to “ban natural gas and electrify everything.” Gas distribution systems are reliable and should be a part of any future plan, they contended.

After opponents highlighted the costs of transitioning to electrification, Kim Coble, the co-chair of the Maryland Commission on Climate Change and executive director of Maryland League of Conservation Voters, asked the committee to also consider the cost associated with inaction. She listed some of those costs: businesses and roads that have to close due to flooding and delayed freight, rising insurance rates and displaced homeowners from climate-related disasters.

The wide-ranging climate proposal also takes steps to address environmental justice, which refers to the idea that no population, regardless of race, national origin or income, should shoulder a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences.

More specifically, it would require the state’s environmental justice commission and the Maryland Department of the Environment to identify communities disproportionately impacted by climate change and allocate state funding for emission reduction to benefit those communities.

On transportation, the legislation calls for expanding the state’s electrical vehicle fleet, transitioning school buses to electric vehicles, and requiring local school districts to build at least one net-zero school by 2030. A fund, or a “green bank,” that would invest state funds into private projects that reduce gas emissions, would also be created under Pinsky’s bill.

Several dozen advocates and lawmakers gathered in Lawyers’ Mall before the hearing, pushing for a smooth passage of the Climate Solutions Now Act.

Del. Kumar Barve (D-Montgomery), the chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, said that both chambers have ironed out major differences that led to the legislation’s collapse last year and have been “working hand in glove” during the five months before the legislative session began. He said only small differences between the two versions of the climate package remain. For example, the House package calls for a 60% in emissions by 2032, two years after the Senate’s proposal of 2030.

Instead of one big bill, the House chamber divided its climate package into several smaller bills:

  • House Bill 708, sponsored by Barve and Del. Dana Stein (Baltimore County) increases the state’s emission reduction goal, includes environmental justice provisions and provides supports to climate mitigation projects
  • HB 806 and HB 831, both sponsored by Barve and Stein, addresses changes to building standards that aim to reduce emissions.
  • HB 696, sponsored by Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-Montgomery) would establish an electric school bus pilot program.
  • HB 94, sponsored by Fraser-Hidalgo and 13 additional delegates, expands the state electrical vehicle fleet.

In addition to the Climate Solutions Now bill, senators on the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee heard testimony on several other climate bills Tuesday. Most received favorable testimony. The other bills were:

  • Senate Bill 61, sponsored by Sen. Craig J. Zucker (D-Montgomery), would provide for job training and worker protections for mechanics at government-run transit agencies who currently work on gasoline- and diesel-powered buses, now that the agencies are in the process of transitioning to electric vehicles. The legislation provides “an attractive unionized green path for young workers” who may not attend college, said Brian Wivell, political and communications director for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689.
  • SB 588, sponsored by Sen. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-Baltimore County), would expand the application of the state’s “high-performance” building requirement to any capital project, including major public school renovations, that receives more than 25% of its funding from state government. The bill also includes a provision that new public school buildings obtain independent certification of their “green” status, and requires the Maryland Green Building Council to ensure compliance with the bill’s requirements.
  • SB 627, from Sen. Jeffrey D. Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery), would update the state’s building code to allow for greater installation of electric vehicle charging stations at apartment buildings and offices. Waldstreicher argued that the state needs to boost its EV infrastructure if it is going to meet its goal of putting 300,000 EV’s on the road by 2025. But representatives of the building industry said the legislation as written requires builders to supply more electricity to parking lots than is currently feasible.
  • SB 471, from Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s) and called Facilitating University Transformations by Unifying Reductions in Emissions (FUTURE) Act, lays out a timetable for the state’s higher education institutions to become carbon-free. Rosapepe introduced the bill last year but it was not voted out of the committee.
  • SB 494, from Pinsky, would require the Maryland Energy Administration to review certain water and heating efficiency standards in the state. The bill passed through the Senate last year but stalled in the House.
  • SB 135, introduced by Sen. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery), would establish the Climate Crisis Initiative in the Maryland Department of the Environment and would lay out aggressive greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals. As a funding source, the bill would impose various pollution fees on fossil fuels.
  • SB 126, from Kramer, would impose pollution fees on the sale price of vehicles that get low gas mileage. “This bill deals with gas guzzler, high pollution-producing vehicles,” he said. The revenue collected by the state would be used to provide rebates to purchasers of electric vehicles, fund the state’s expansion of EV use for transit system buses and school buses, and to increase EV infrastructure across the state.

Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.