Climate solution: Massachusetts town experiments with community heating and cooling (2024)

Jennifer and Eric Mauchan live in a Cape Cod-style house in Framingham, Massachusetts that they've been cooling with five air conditioners. In the summer, the electric bill for the 2,600-square-foot home can be $200.

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

“My mom, when she was alive, wouldn't come to our house in the wintertime,” because it was too cold, Eric Mauchan said.

But beginning Tuesday, their neighborhood will be part of a pilot climate solution that connects 37 homes and businesses with a highly-efficient, underground heating and cooling system. Even taking into account that several of the buildings will be switching from natural gas to electricity, people are expected to see their electric bills drop by 20% on average. It's a model some experts say can be scaled up and replicated elsewhere.

“As soon as they told me about it, I bought in 100%,” said Jennifer Mauchan, who works in finance, remembering her first meeting with representatives from Eversource, the gas and electric utility that installed the system. “From a financial perspective, I thought that it was a very viable option for us." She cited lower greenhouse gases that cause climate change as an important factor in the decision.

Gina Richard, owner of Corner Cabinet, a kitchen and bath cabinet showroom in Framingham, said she felt "pretty lucky” to be part of the project. She currently uses two air conditioners and two heaters and looks forward to replacing all that with a single system. Richard said she was told she could see her winter heating bill of $900-1,000 go down by as much as a third, which she said would be “amazing.”

The Framingham system consists of a giant underground loop filled with water and antifreeze, similar to the way gas is delivered to several houses in a neighborhood. Water in the loop absorbs heat from underground, which remains at about 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius) all year.

Households have their own heat pump units that provide heating and air conditioning, installed by the utility. These take heat from the loop, spike the temperature further, and release that heat as warm air into the homes. For air conditioning, heat is extracted from the home or business and released into the Earth or transported to the next home.

The energy sharing works best when some buildings are drawing on heat while another needs it, the way a grocery store needs to keep its cases refrigerated even in winter.

Other networked geothermal projects exist in the U.S., including the Texas community of Whisper Valley and Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Eversource says this is the first utility-led installation in the U.S. If it works, that could be important because an individual homeowner could not do the digging and drilling necessary to create a neighborhood system.

Right now, homeowners can buy individual air source heat pumps, which have become common and are efficient. Or they can drill for more expensive, even more efficient ground source heat pumps. Incentives, such as those in the Inflation Reduction Act or local utilities, help lower the price on these, yet the final cost can still be tens of thousands of dollars.

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

Nikki Bruno, vice president for clean technologies for Eversource, also cited the state's emissions law as a reason for the pilot. It was also "an opportunity from a decarbonization standpoint,” she said, because Eversource has its own net zero goal.

“We’re thinking about, okay, we do this pilot now, how can we scale this into a sustainable business model, into a sustainable program to offer in more locations?” she said.

Jack DiEnna, founder of the Geothermal National & International Initiative, an alliance of industry professionals, said utilities are seeing pressure to address climate change plus incentives to do so. Ground source heat pumps are highly efficient, reduce the electricity demand on the grid and can be installed in regions beyond the reach of gas lines. They also cool homes and release very little in the way of climate pollution compared to traditional heaters and air conditioners.

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

It “means that the people who can least afford it are stuck paying for this gas system, this very leaky gas system,” said Ania Camargo, thermal energy networks manager at the Building Decarbonization Coalition, a nonprofit working to eliminate fossil fuels from buildings.

“One of the reasons why I advocate for utilities to be a big part of the solution is because it’s a way to make sure we can do this for everybody."

Back at the Mauchans' home, the couple laughs about the accommodations they were making to their old heating system. “I was so mindful of the expense that we would incur if we increased the temperature to, God forbid, 70 degrees in the winter,” Jennifer recalled about letting the house get cold in winter.

They expect their new heat pump to change things. “I mean, we’ll keep our house 71 degrees all year long,” Eric said.

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Climate solution: Massachusetts town experiments with community heating and cooling (2024)


How much does AC affect global warming? ›

Air conditioners release roughly 117 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere every year. This number is likely to grow as seasons remain hotter for longer and people seek immediate shelter from the heat.

What is the feedback loop of the air conditioner? ›

The Feedback Loop

The more we run AC, the more electricity we use; more electricity releases more greenhouse gases, heating the planet and requiring even more AC to stay cool.

Does air conditioning heat the atmosphere? ›

Air conditioners use more electricity than any other appliance in the home. They consume 10% of global electricity and leak harmful planet-warming gases into the atmosphere. The link between AC use and increasing temperatures in cities has already been documented.

What is a heat pump HVAC? ›

A heat pump uses electricity to provide both heating and cooling to a building. These appliances are efficient at transferring heat from one place to another, depending on where it's needed. ​In the winter, a heat pump provides heating by extracting heat from outside a building and moving it inside.

At what temperature does AC become ineffective? ›

Temperatures Above 100 Degrees Fahrenheit

When temperatures outside become higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the air conditioning system can consume more energy and begin to malfunction or fail. Most air conditioning systems are designed to function with outside temperatures of 100 degrees or less.

Why is AC not good for the environment? ›

How does cooling contribute to the climate crisis? MR: Cooling is a big contributor to global warming. Much of the existing cooling equipment uses hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants, which are potent greenhouse gases, and use a lot of energy, making them a double burden for climate change.

What component controls the entire HVAC system in a house? ›

Thermostat. As the brain behind a home HVAC system, the thermostat deserves the first mention. It's essentially a thermometer with a direct connection to heating and cooling components, allowing it to control when the furnace and air conditioner come on.

Is feedback loop good or bad? ›

A feedback loop is a biological occurrence where the output of a system amplifies the system (positive feedback) or inhibits the system (negative feedback). Feedback loops are important because they allow living organisms to maintain homeostasis.

What are the three important functions of an air conditioner? ›

There are three primary functions to a room Air Conditioner. First is to cool a specific area, such as a room, not an entire home. The second is to dehumidify, to remove moisture out of the air, so you're not sitting in a cold, clammy environment. The third function is to filter the air within the home.

What is the paradox of air conditioning? ›

This is the paradox of air conditioning. In a warmer world, more people need to keep cool to stay healthy and productive. But air conditioning the way we do it now is only making the planet hotter.

What is the future of air conditioning? ›

The future of HVAC will revolve around sustainability, customer-centric services and the integration of smart technologies. The industry's commitment to environmental preservation, combined with innovative business models and automation, will lead to a more efficient, eco-friendly air conditioning experience for users.

Is AC refrigerant bad for the environment? ›

The gases in air conditioners and refrigerators can be extremely harmful to the environment if released into the atmosphere. Many old refrigerant damage the ozone layer. Other refrigerants are extremely potent greenhouse gases and contribute to climate change and impact human health.

Can a heat pump cool a house in 100 degree weather? ›

A heat pump can definitely cool a house in 100-degree weather. The most important thing is to have a heat pump professionally sized, zoned, and installed so that it's customized to your home.

At what temperature do heat pumps become ineffective? ›

Heat pumps do not operate as efficiently when temperatures drop to between 25 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit for most systems. A heat pump works best when the temperature is above 40. Once outdoor temperatures drop to 40 degrees, heat pumps start losing efficiency, and they consume more energy to do their jobs.

Can a heat pump replace an air conditioner? ›

Since heat pumps are essentially air conditioners that work both to heat and cool homes rather than just cool them, it's relatively simple to install them in place of existing one-way AC systems.

How much CO2 does an air conditioner emit per hour? ›

Expert-Verified Answer. If a typical domestic AC is used for 1 hour it can release up to 0.625 to 1 pound of CO2. Now see there is no direct mechanism in the AC that can generate Co2 directly; The logical explanation to this query can be how much Co2 generates in generating the energy used by Air conditioners.

Does the temperature of the AC affect the bill? ›

Obviously, raising the temperature a bit is a surefire way to save some on an AC bill. Estimates vary, but some experts believe that raising AC's temperature two to three degrees can save the homeowner as much as two to three percent on their energy bill.

How much does AC save per degree? ›

The exact savings depend on factors like climate, insulation, and the efficiency of your HVAC system, but it's estimated to reduce energy costs by around 1-3% per degree for each 8-hour period. Over a year, this can add up to significant savings.

What AC temperature is good for environment? ›

The Bureau of Energy Efficiency (a body of the Ministry of Power) has said that the reduction in AC temperatures to 24 degrees from the conventional 18-21 degrees can result in 24 percent of energy savings.

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