Now’s the time for the city to ‘walk the talk’ on the clean energy front

By Mike Prokosch
Special to the Reporter

It’s been a year since President Trump took the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. That same day, June 1, 2017, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh reacted to the move, saying, “Boston will not back down” from honoring the Paris goals and fighting climate change. Our mayor’s statement came none too soon, for over the following winter, three storms flooded the city’s streets, leaving no doubt that we need to get off climate-changing, carbon-based fuels as fast as we can.

This week Boston is hosting an International Mayors Climate Summit as a curtain-raiser for the 86th annual meeting of the US Conference of Mayors. Walsh can take pride in his administration’s ceaseless efforts to combat the climate change threat. He recently announced steps to make Boston more resilient to storm threats by, for example, raising Morrissey Boulevard. Protecting city real estate is essential, but it’s not enough. Boston can’t reach its climate goals – a cut in emissions by one-quarter by 2020, zero net carbon by 2050 – if we keep burning gas the way we are doing now.

New buildings are going up all over downtown, but they’re gas-fueled. The city recently okayed a new gas pipeline so that multimillionaires in the One Dalton luxury tower can enjoy gas fireplaces and stoves in their penthouse suites. Why doesn’t the city require buildings to use electricity instead of gas so it’ll be easier to switch them over to renewable energy?

As to the concept of Community Choice Energy (CCE), the city’s department of environment has been very slow to implement the program. Passed unanimously by the city council and signed by the mayor last fall, CCE is the most significant tool a city can use to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the residential sector. That conclusion comes from someone who knows what she’s talking about, Ann Berwick, a former chair of the state Public Utilities Commission.

Community Choice Energy is a simple proposition. Instead of Eversource buying your electricity, the city purchases the power, then increases the amount of wind and solar energy in the mix. Some 140 Massachusetts municipalities have already committed toprograms like CCE at little-to-no extra cost to electric customers. Eversource still delivers the power and bills you, and the switchover is automatic, so you can tell those “buy our electricity” people who call you or knock on your door to take a walk.

Experts, including Berwick, recently urged the Walsh administration to hire an energy consultant to work on the pricing side so that we can know when the best time would be for Boston to switch to CCE. The program’s consultants work on spec – they are paid through a tiny “adder” tacked onto the price of the electricity if the deal goes through – so no taxpayer dollars are needed to pay the consultant. “This isn’t rocket science,” Berwick declared at a recent council hearing. “Hire a consultant and get the ball rolling.” Councillors and advocates are calling on the mayor to appoint an advisory committee on CCE to iron out the requirements for a consultant.

Boston needs Community Choice Energy – now. Our total carbon emissions are rising because our population is growing, and that makes the need for carbon-free electricity all the more urgent. CCE would bring the equivalent of 14 large windmills into Boston’s energy stream. Whether those are built in New England communities that have good sites for wind or solar farms, or off the shores of Martha’s Vineyard, new local green energy generation is the only way to displace dirty and dangerous power plants that have driven up our asthma rates and created other public health problems.

We need to switch our energy dollars to green energy production to uphold the goals of the Paris Accord and to do our best to keep Boston truly climate ready. No other single tool in the city’s possession will make that big a difference. It’s time for our mayor’s staff to walk the talk on clean energy.