Imagining a Just Transition in Western Massachusetts Part III

Part III: Energy

By Sarah Field

Sarah Field’s five part series on imagining a just transition in Western Massachusetts will consider housing, land, transportation, energy, food, work and education over the course of the week. This is Part III, which will cover energy. You can read Part I and Part II. This series is published in collaboration with Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative by over 250 outlets to cover climate change in the lead up to the U.N. climate summit on September 23rd.

Energy

Nathan points out that “the lowest hanging fruit of energy consumption is energy efficiency and conservation.” Mass Save currently offers incentives, rebates, and support to help homeowners “button up” their homes and transition to more energy efficient heating and cooling systems, but, as Nathan points out, these programs don’t do a great job covering people in rental units. This is not insignificant: 55% of housing units in Holyoke and 44% of housing units in Northampton and Easthampton are rental units. When most renters bear the financial costs of their heating bills, there is no financial incentive for landlords to make often costly structural changes to their rental properties. Not only is this an economic justice issue that leads low-income renters to spend more money on energy costs than wealthier homeowners, it also leads to the continued burning of huge quantities of oil and gas and the release of carbon into the atmosphere. Nathan emphasizes that in addition to better insulation, every home in our communities must be converted as soon as possible to efficient electric air-source or ground-source heat pumps that can be powered renewably. This transition is expensive, and Nathan emphasizes that it needs to be fully subsidized through state and federal funding as part of a larger national transition. She recommends that this funding be drawn from sources such as the military, taxation and removal of subsidies from the fossil fuel industry, and carbon pricing.

In order to provide renewable energy to meet increased demand, we need extensive investment in solar energy projects. Nathan points out that these projects need to be sited on land that doesn’t require the clearing of forests (especially since trees are essential for sequestering carbon) or grazed farmland, and that we should be focusing more on building solar projects in existing developed spaces such as rooftops and parking lots. This will necessitate heavy subsidies, and should also take into account issues of equity and access. Unfortunately, in 2018, the Massachusetts legislature voted down a proposed Solar Access Act that would have encouraged the development of solar energy projects in low-to-middle-income communities and would have provided meaningful savings for people in those communities. Legislation like this is essential for ensuring that all people are able to reap the benefits of renewable energy.

Another consideration that should be explored is a shift to publicly run utilities. Holyoke Gas and Electric, for example, is a non-profit municipal utility that is officially accountable to community members in Holyoke, rather than a for-profit utility that is accountable to shareholders. Utilities owned and managed by the public, rather than by private, for-profit corporations, are important and worth fighting for, in that this structure makes it more possible to put political pressure on utilities to transition to renewable energy sources. (Unfortunately, even publicly owned utilities like HG&E can make destructive choices: HG&E has signed a memorandum of understanding that allows Columbia Gas to start construction of a 6 mile pipeline in November, 2019).

Snapshot: Western Mass Community Choice Energy

One promising energy program that is already under exploration locally is Community Choice Aggregation or Community Choice Energy (CCE). In this model, local municipalities aggregate their community purchasing power to prioritize the purchase of renewable energy. This electricity is still delivered through existing utility services (e.g., National Grid or Eversource) but is sourced from a higher percentage of renewable sources like solar and wind, rather than coal or natural gas. Bundling purchasing power has the potential to save money for energy consumers and to equitably distribute the benefits of renewables.

Adele Franks, a local organizer with Grow Food Northampton and Climate Action Now has been organizing with other advocates and with local municipalities to explore the viability of Western Mass Community Choice Energy. This program, which currently includes Amherst, Northampton, and Pelham and is open to additional municipal partners, is an example of CCE 3.0. Franks explains that basic CCE programs focus primarily on renewable energy credits, which are not a long-term solution on their own. The 3.0 model goes beyond the purchase of renewable energy credits common in previous CCE iterations to take active measures for improving energy efficiency in buildings and increasing the local production and distribution of renewable energy. This means that communities will be able to look at meter level data to identify the buildings that are wasting the most energy, and to upgrade those buildings through improved insulation, the addition of solar panels, or techniques for recirculating heat. CCE 3.0 also includes provisions for building community-owned clean energy generation facilities (in our area would likely be solar facilities), storage for clean energy, and microgrids to provide resilience if the larger grid is disrupted.

Currently, an intra-municipal task force made up of officials and advocates is exploring the legalities and logistics of Community Choice Energy. The task force will make a recommendation at the end of 2019.

 

Sarah Field is a person who likes trees, dogs, and snacks. She lives in Northampton. Artwork by Anya Klepacki, whose show “If the Future of This World Can’t Be Depended On, I’ll Make My Own” was featured in The Shoestring earlier this year.


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