What to do about natural gas will be one of the biggest—and toughest—challenges facing a new state-appointed commission on decarbonizing the building sector in the Bay State.

A 22-member panel appointed by the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker (R) will be tackling that and other thorny issues during the next 10 months, with buildings and homes accounting for roughly a third of all greenhouse-gas emissions in the state. The Baker administration has tasked the commission to come up with recommendations on how the state will meet its obligations under the Global Warming Solutions Act passed last March. The legislation calls for Massachusetts to slash emissions below 1990 levels by 2030, ratcheting that up to 75% by 2040, then to zero net emissions by 2050.

In order to get there, the commission—comprised of real estate development and utility executives and labor leaders, as well as state agency personnel and environmental advocates—will examine ways to convert homes and buildings to electric power that over the coming two decades will be increasingly provided by off-shore wind, solar and other renewable sources.

“The crux of the issue, in my mind, is what we are going to do with natural gas and oil and the infrastructure that supports it,” says Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. “Are we going to continue to use these pipelines 30 years from now?”

One of the trickiest challenges will be what to do about older office and commercial buildings that currently rely on gas or oil for their heat.

Many of those buildings in Boston and beyond have struggled since the pandemic erupted in the U.S. two years ago. Companies are still sorting out what their remote-work/in-office balance will be when the latest surge finally recedes.

In addition, some corporate tenants are taking advantage of a glut of empty office space on the market to move up to better digs in newer office towers.

That has left owners of many buildings with declining revenues at the same time that state and city officials eye new and stricter emissions requirements.

“People are still trying to figure out, as we keep getting variant after variant, what the new world is going to look like after the return to work,” says Greg Vasil, head of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. “We are already seeing people take less space.”

One way of easing the transition would be to wrap in the switch from natural gas to electric power in older buildings when major upgrades are made, as opposed to a one-off project, says Blake Jackson, sustainability design leader and senior associate for Stantec Architecture in the Northeast U.S.

One focus of those upgrades, in turn, will need to be energy efficiency.

Electricity is not as efficient for heating as natural gas.  And if no other building improvements are made, such as pumping in insulation and installing energy-efficient windows, that will push up the cost for building owners and tenants, Blake says.

A flood of buildings switching from gas to electric without significant energy-efficiency retrofits would also throw a huge amount of stress on the electric grid, even as it transitions from a reliance on fossil fuels to clean, but more intermittent, renewable-energy sources.

“You really need to reduce the amount of energy consumption of the building at its source—that will make it practical, affordable and desirable,” Jackson says.

There also are concerns about requiring new towers and other buildings to go electric as well.

In particular, that could drive up the cost of housing, especially on the rental side, leaving tenants to grapple with higher utility bills.

“The cost of housing here is already expensive,” GBREB’s Vasil says. “As you start to go towards net zero, what impact does that have on the cost of housing, and can people really afford it?”

The commission, which will be chaired by Judy Chang, undersecretary of the Executive Officer of Energy and Environmental Affairs, will hold its first public hearing in March.

The commission “will bring together stakeholders to take on our most pressing emissions reduction challenges in the building sector through a collaborative, inclusive approach,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides, in a press statement.