Columnist Darcy Dumont: Towns taking lead on climate action

By DARCY DUMONT

Published: 01-17-2024 7:18 PM

Action on climate has been accelerating in the last year in Massachusetts municipalities. I wrote about leading municipalities in this column back in March 2021, and in other columns focusing on Northampton and on Ithaca, New York.

Much has happened since then. Following are some (but not all) recent municipal advances.

Decarbonizing new building construction

The biggest recent advance is in the area of building decarbonization. As reported in the Boston Globe this month, seven of 10 possible communities were approved by the Department of Energy Resources (DOER) to join a demonstration program allowing municipalities to ban fossil fuel infrastructure in new construction and renovations, the Municipal Fossil Fuel Free Building Demonstration Program.

Those approved are Acton, Aquinnah, Brookline, Cambridge, Concord, Lincoln and Lexington, which can now prohibit in most new construction or significant renovation projects within their borders the use of oil and gas hookups (for example, for heating, cooling and cooking).

Arlington and Newton will soon find out if they can also join the demonstration program. Somerville and Northampton applied for the 10th open spot in the pilot program and await an answer from DOER.

It is notable that ZeroCarbonMA has been pushing hard to expand the program so that it is not limited to 10 communities. A bill, S. 2093, sponsored by Sen. Jo Comerford, would expand access for any community to join the program. The first 10 communities represent close to 6% of the state’s population, but are wealthier and have relatively small environmental justice populations.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

This demonstration program goes further than the Specialized Opt In Energy Code recently adopted by over 25 state communities, including Amherst and Northampton, in that it allows municipalities in the program to move completely off fossil fuels in new construction.

Decarbonizing existing buildings

Very much on the cutting edge of municipal climate action, Lexington passed a building energy disclosure bylaw last year, following Cambridge’s lead. It requires that buildings owned or leased by the town and residential or commercial properties with buildings over 25,000 square feet report their annual energy use, electricity supplier’s energy labels, and water usage.

Lexington has also done outreach via its website to commercial and industrial property owners about taking advantage of the Commercial PACE program.

Energy coaching

Energy coaches are another positive innovation that is becoming more standard in leading communities in the state. The need for energy coaching has grown out of the move to transition to electric heat pump heating and air conditioning. As noted by the Heatsmart Alliance, residents have found the process of changing to heat pumps daunting, because“understanding what to do, technology options, choosing installers, evaluating quotes, and understanding incentives takes time.”

Municipalities or grassroots organizations within them that now provide energy coaching programs include Acton, Arlington, Cambridge, Lexington, Lincoln, Melrose, Newton, Sherborn, Concord, Beverly, Cape Ann, Harvard, Hingham, Wayland, Andover and Winchester. Salem and Wellesley have coaching programs that are newly starting up.

Municipal aggregation

Green Energy Consumers Alliance reports that, as of November, 54 municipalities in Massachusetts have “green” electricity aggregations in that their default option includes at least 5% more renewable energy content than required by the state standard.

Some offer much more than that. Northampton, Amherst and Pelham should be able to be added to that list sometime this year. Our local joint electricity aggregation (Valley Green Energy) application will have its first hearing at the Department of Public Utilities on Jan. 22.

Zero waste

Lexington has moved forward with its pilot curbside compost pick up program. Its DPW created a zero waste plan that was adopted by the Select Board in October and promotes the circular economy.

Climate action community building

Communities all around the state have moved to raise resident climate action awareness around actions they can take. MassEnergize, a nonprofit that creates climate action community web pages and toolkits, now works with a number of cities and towns to engage residents to work together to reduce emissions. Communities with high-profile, community-building pages include Acton, Boston, Boxborough, Concord, Framingham, Franklin, Harvard, Lexington, Medfield, Melrose, Milton, Natick, Newburyport, Newton, Pepperell, Sherborn and Wayland.

An example of how a community page can work is Wayland’s, where residents can get ideas about actions they can take. They can share testimonials, comments and questions in a community chat about greening their lives and get to know their neighbors at the same time. They can see the progress being made by the whole town to meet climate goals.

Acton has also set up a climate action plan tracker to show the current status toward achieving the target goals in their climate action plan, and Lexington has a timeline of year-by-year accomplishments and probably leads in the helpfulness and accessibility of its town sustainability presence. Northampton reorganized to create a new department, the Climate Action and Project Administration (CAPA), with a new Ddirector, additional staffing and unique financing.

You may have noticed a pattern in municipal leadership in the lists above. Acton, Newton, Lexington and Concord get the prize for leading in many areas. Let’s aspire to be as forward-thinking and to do as well.

Darcy DuMont is a former town councilor and sponsor of the legislation creating the Amherst Energy and Climate Action Committee. She is a founding member of Zero Waste Amherst, Local Energy Advocates of Western MA and the Amherst Climate Justice Alliance, and a non-voting member of Valley Green Energy Working Group. She can be contacted at dumint140@gmail.com.