March 22, 2018–New Power Supply Policy: Truly a Big Deal

March 22, 2018–Belmont Citizen-Herald

On its face, the document may seem dreadfully boring at best.  After all, even if one could fully understand Belmont Light’s new “Power Supply Policy,” why would anyone want to do so?

The policy, however, adopted last week by the Board of Selectmen, sitting as the Light Board, is one of the more important decisions Belmont’s chief policymakers have made recently.  The decision affects our pocketbooks; our homes and businesses; our children and grandchildren.  It affects us all, every day.  People should take note.

The centerpiece of the new Power Supply Policy is the decision that Belmont Light “should seek out both least cost renewable and non-carbon-emitting energy sources in New England and surrounding regions.”  That decision helps make Belmont part of the solution, not part of the problem, in responding to global climate change.  What that means is that each person’s decision to turn on each electric appliance each day is now less likely to result in carbon emissions spewing into the air as power plants consume ever more fossil fuel to keep up with the consumer demand for electricity.

In contrast, the new Belmont Light policy also recognizes that one of the most effective ways to decrease carbon emissions from electricity is to avoid using that electricity in the first place.  Programs to help Belmont customers reduce their electricity use through increased efficiency (think, new efficient light bulbs) and, yes, old-fashioned conservation (turn off those unused lights for gosh sakes!) are no less important to pursue than programs to clean-up the electricity we do use.  Belmont Light is not simply in the business to sell electricity. It is in the business to sell the wise use of electricity. And, sometimes the best use of electricity is not to use it all.

However, and it is a big “however,” the Belmont Light policy also recognizes that “increased electricity use may be effective in reducing carbon emissions” in some circumstances.  Called “strategic electrification,” the move from gasoline-powered automobiles to electric vehicles, for example, is a sound carbon reduction strategy (even while leaving your car at home and walking into Belmont Center to shop is an even better idea).  Taking advantage of Belmont Light’s program to help you install an electric heat pump in your home is another example.  Belmont Light’s heat pump rebate program increases electricity use, but helps residents reduce, if not entirely eliminate, their use of much dirtier fuel oil heating.

Belmont Light’s new Power Supply Policy goes where most municipal light departments in Massachusetts have thus far declined to go. When the state proposed last spring to mandate the same “clean energy standards” for municipal electric utilities that it had imposed on private utilities, the municipal light departments around the state howled in protest.  Now, however, Belmont has stepped forward to announce that “consistent with a moderate rate impact, Belmont Light shall meet” those very same state clean energy standards, even “though it is not otherwise legally obligated to do so.”  In fact, Belmont Light says, it will annually assess whether to pursue “a more aggressive” use of clean energy than that required of the state’s private electric utilities.

All in all, the new Belmont Light Power Supply Policy commits our municipal electric utility to pursue activity “that provides Belmont customers with reliable electric service at the lowest possible cost consistent with the Town’s Climate Action Plan.”  And that, folks, is neither boring nor inconsequential.  Belmont’s Climate Action Plan commits the town to pursue an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by the year 2050.

What Belmont Light just did catapults our locally-owned electric light department into a leadership position among the state’s municipal utilities on clean energy policy.  It is truly a big deal.  And whether it be Steve Klionsky, chair of the Light Board Advisory Committee; Craig Spinale, interim general manager of Belmont Light;  Adam Dash, chair of the Belmont Light Board; or the other members of the Board of Selectmen and Belmont Light staff, they should be congratulated and thanked for making the right decision.

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February 1, 2018–Belmont Light: Happy customers, greener power

February 1, 2018–Belmont Citizen-Herald

Belmont residents approve of the performance of Belmont Light, even while they don’t quite understand how our local electric utility operates.  Those are two of the messages found in the 2017 “Customer Satisfaction Survey” recently released by the utility.

Town residents are happy with both the service they receive from Belmont Light and the rates they pay.  According to the Belmont Light study, “when compared to other utilities (gas, phone, water, and cable), [customers] have a more positive perception of the service they receive from Belmont Light than other utilities.”  Belmont Light’s customers provided the utility a net positive rating of 94% in 2017, a slight increase over the rating of 91.8% received in the last survey in 2015.  Out of the nine factors customers were asked about, “reliable service” ranked the highest, with a positive ranking of 94.4%.

An overwhelming majority of Belmont residents know that Belmont Light is publicly-owned. The Belmont Light study reported that eight out of ten of the town’s residents recognized Belmont Light as a “community owned municipal utility” rather than as a private utility such as National Grid.  Knowing the public status of the electric utility, however, does not translate into public knowledge about how Belmont Light operates.  Fewer than half of Belmont Light customers knew that the utility is governed by a board made up of the town’s Board of Selectmen.

Being municipally-owned carries with it a host of responsibilities, Belmont customers told Belmont Light.  One such responsibility involves the efforts that Belmont Light should take to pursue “community goals.”  The Belmont Light study reports that more than one-third of the company’s customers (34.5%) believe that “community goals are more important than industry best practices,” while fewer than one-quarter (23.4%) thought the opposite, that industry best practices are more important.

One of those community goals is achieving higher levels of renewable energy.  More than one half of Belmont Light customers reported that they would be willing to pay somewhat higher rates to garner additional renewable energy for Belmont Light, while less than one-third said that they were unwilling to pay more money for this reason. The remainder said they “didn’t know.”  According to GreatBlue Research, the company that did Belmont Light’s study, this willingness of Belmont residents to pay somewhat more for “greener” electricity is significantly higher than in other communities comparable to Belmont.

Belmont residents believe Belmont Light is doing a good job of controlling its rates.  One advantage of public power is that the rates of municipally-owned utilities tend to be lower than the rates of private utility companies.  And Belmont residents are satisfied with Belmont Light’s efforts to keep electric rates reasonable.  According to the study, “a slightly higher rate of customers agree with the perception that Belmont Light is ‘doing all that it can to keep customer prices low’ despite changing fuel prices and economic factors.”  In fact, a higher percentage of customers believed this to be true in 2017 than in the previous survey performed in 2015.

Belmont Light should be pleased with how favorably it is viewed by its customer base.  Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned.  First, Belmont residents expect Belmont Light to be involved in contributing to “community goals.”  Belmont Savings, as our local community bank, even though not publicly owned, serves as a great example of an institution that defines supporting the community as part of its mission.  Second, Belmont residents not only expect Belmont Light to take a leading role in responding to global climate change that can be attributed in large part to emissions from electricity, but residents are willing, within reason, to pay somewhat higher rates for the light department to pursue more renewable energy as part of that response.

Reliability remains, as it should be, at the heart of the service provided by any electric utility.  When people flip the switch, they want their lights to go on.  And reliability is one place where Belmont Light excels. Belmont Light’s own research, however, shows additional steps that the utility could and should be taking to serve the interests and expectations of Belmont’s customer base.

January 18, 2018 — Belmont’s Comprehensive Plan — Much yet to do

January 18, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

In this third part of a three-part series that examines Belmont’s ten-year comprehensive plan, I examine aspects of the plan that have not been pursued in the eight years since it was adopted.  The progress taken to implement some aspects of the plan, as considered last week, should not mask the lack of progress elsewhere.

Much of what has not happened involves our local business centers. The comprehensive plan recommended that Belmont “establish a more predictable approval process [for new development] that focuses on design standards and impact analysis.” The plan noted that existing zoning focuses on “height, density and use,” factors which do “not ensure compatibility of new development with [Belmont’s] historic character and development patterns…” These new standards have never been considered.  The plan recommended rezoning Belmont’s business centers to allow “mixed uses,” a combination of residential and commercial uses, an action not taken.  This failure, the plan says, “inhibits an appropriate mix of uses and scaled new or infill development which can enhance the vitality of these districts.”

Re-visioning Belmont’s “commercial centers” was recommended.  For example, the plan recommended defining new business centers, including Central/Palfrey Square, East Belmont and Brighton Street (“Hill’s Crossing”) (nearby Hill Estates), each having its own individual character.  This recommendation has been ignored.

Preserving Belmont’s neighborhoods received considerable attention in the comprehensive plan.  The plan indicated that Belmont first needs to “strengthen [the] physical definition of neighborhoods.”  After doing that, the plan recommended “establishing neighborhood-specific design and site plan standards [that] can reinforce historical character and development patterns.” This has not been pursued.

For historic preservation, the comprehensive plan recommended a by-law to protect “specimen trees,” along with increased use of “scenic road designations.” (Somerset Street is Belmont’s only “scenic road”).  Neither have been pursued.

Increasing the “walkability” of Belmont is one essential strategy for a sustainable community.  The comprehensive plan recommended that “sidewalks should be included in road reconstruction policy.”  That is still not done. Not too many years ago, the Board of Selectmen determined that Belmont’s limited resources should be devoted to road repair and reconstruction, excluding sidewalks.  Perhaps now that there are sufficient resources for road repair, a corresponding sidewalk repair and reconstruction plan should be prepared.

Some things recommended in the comprehensive plan are beyond the direct control of Belmont and have not been pursued.  Improving bus connections to Alewife (such as diverting existing 128 shuttles to/from Waltham) is one example.  Advocacy by Belmont’s leaders is what is needed, not direct decisionmaking.

Some action steps, seemingly reasonably “easy,” have not been pursued.  Improving signage for Belmont Center parking has never occurred.  One certainly does not drive down Waltham’s Moody Street and wonder where municipal parking is located.  Similarly, developing a signed pedestrian circulation plan for the Leonard/Common/Concord intersection, as recommended by the plan, should be manageable.  Why do people feel they must risk their lives to get from Clark Street / White Street / Belmont Center to the Post Office? Is that process more difficult than it sounds?

The comprehensive plan recommended steps increase bicycling to school.  Designating bike routes to school, marked by signage, was one recommendation  not pursued. But who decides? The Selectmen? DPW? Office of Community Development? Similarly, “providing bicycle parking/storage at transit stations” and other public destinations was recommended but not done.

Comprehensive plan recommendations to increase housing alternatives have received some of the least attention.  The plan recommended consideration of allowing accessory/in-law apartments and allowing three-family structures where they have been historically located.  Allowing increased attached single-family housing and townhouse development was recommended for consideration. None of these have been considered, let alone adopted.

The failures identified above, if inaction can even be considered a failure –“failure” may be unduly harsh of a word– cannot be laid solely at the feet of the Selectmen.  Multiple decisionmakers can/should consider what was recommended in the 2010 comprehensive plan and what needs to be done to bring forth those recommendations for decision.  Inaction may simply indicate the lack of resources to pursue all of the plan’s recommendations, even over eight years. Inaction may also simply indicate the inherent difficulty in converting a “recommendation” into a “proposal.”  Ultimately, while much has been done since Belmont adopted the town’s 2010-2020 comprehensive plan, much remains to be done.

Roger Colton has been a Belmont resident since 1985 living in the Cushing Square neighborhood. He is also the host of Belmont Media Center’s podcast, “Community Conversations” and a guest host of Belmont Media Center’s weekly news program, “Belmont Journal.”  He’s a Town Meeting Member and chair of the Belmont Energy Committee.  Colton can be reached at Colton.Conversations@comcast.net.

April 27, 2017: Ill-fated solid waste facility should not shackle our future

April 27, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Town Meeting should act favorably on the Pay as You Throw article that will be considered in May. That article would allow the Board of Selectmen to consider PAYT when Belmont negotiates a new solid waste contract this coming fall, notwithstanding a 1990 over-ride regarding solid waste. Arguments that the 1990 vote created a “social contract” under which Belmont residents would never need pay for trash collection should be rejected.

The tale of the 1990 over-ride actually began years before, when Belmont yielded to pressure placed on Massachusetts communities to join a consortium to incinerate their solid waste. According to a 2001 Harvard Business School analysis: “in the late 1970s and early 1980s Massachusetts officials leaned hard on many communities to join a consortium to incinerate their solid waste. . .[The state] wielded heavy sticks, notably the threat to close down existing landfills. Some municipalities resisted this pressure, but almost two dozen—representing 500,000 Massachusetts residents—felt they could not.” Belmont was one of 23 communities that joined the North East Solid Waste Committee.

Things went wrong almost immediately. The biggest problem arose when the state stopped pressuring local governments to close their landfills. Landfills that were expected to close instead continued to operate. Since the NESWC contract called for a Guaranteed Annual Tonnage to be provided to the incinerator, when large communities such as Lawrence and Lowell decided not to participate, the 23 smaller communities (including Belmont) were required either to provide equivalent substitute tonnage for the trash that had been expected from the large communities or to pay for that tonnage anyway.

The adverse impacts on Belmont were extraordinary. The 1985 Warrant Committee report to Town Meeting noted that the “costs of disposal will rise to about $29 a ton from $16 during the current fiscal year.” In 1986, the WC reported that the “costs of collection and hauling will be about $56 a ton.” In 1987, the WC told TM that the budget for solid waste was “almost 70 percent above the amount voted [the previous year]. . .”

The cost increases simply didn’t slow down. A subsequent investigation of NESWC by the Massachusetts Inspector General reported in 1997: “NESWC communities currently pay approximately $95 per ton for waste disposal.” In short, NESWC created a financial crisis for Belmont: a 600% increase in trash collection and disposal costs (from $16/ton to $95/ton) in just over ten years (1985 to 1997). The Inspector General’s report noted that “rapid increases in the cost of waste disposal meant that other budgetary items necessarily had to get trimmed.”

Because of these budgetary pressures, Belmont swallowed hard and passed a 1990 over-ride devoted to solid waste. This was not based on any commitment that residents would “never have to pay for trash collection and disposal,” but rather because Belmont was drowning in NESWC debt that threatened the town’s schools as well as its police, fire and other community services.

The financial debacle associated with the NESWC trash incinerator no longer burdens our community. Today, moving to PAYT would not only be environmentally friendly, but would save the town close to a million dollars over five years. To allow the NESWC disaster to prevent Belmont from even considering a contemporary trash collection and disposal scheme would be to allow that NESWC incinerator to impose continuing environmental and economic harms on Belmont.

Belmont suffered for years because of the ill-fated NESWC facility. It should not, today, be allowed to shackle us in the future to both our financial and environmental detriment. In negotiating a new solid waste contract this year, the BOS should be authorized to at least consider PAYT.

February 23, 2017: Protests are fine, but how do we spend our own money?

February 23, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Much ado has been made about the devastating adverse impacts that President Trump’s decisions will have on the environment.  The President seeks to undo clean air and water regulations, dismantle clean energy programs, and promote environmentally destructive energy production and transportation facilities.  People are literally marching in the streets in protest.  In addition to this political response, however, one necessary local response to these policies is to pay even closer attention to how we handle our personal pocketbooks.

One thing we know in Belmont is that the biggest potential for a reduction in local Greenhouse Gas emissions lies in the transportation sector. According to the GHG Inventory prepared for Belmont last spring, “emissions from vehicles (mainly residential) are estimated to have increased 6% from 2007 to 2014.”  Indeed, today, transportation emissions make up the biggest source of GHG emissions in our community.

Reducing auto emissions is an effective tool to address global climate change. Belmont’s GHG Inventory stated, long before Trump was elected President, that “the largest opportunities for [GHG] reductions lie in the choices made when residents replace vehicles and heating systems.”  According to the Inventory, “the choice of an efficient vehicle is probably the single most important and effective action residents of Belmont can take for reducing emissions.” These personal choices on vehicles are made every day.  The GHG Inventory estimated that 1600 new vehicles are purchased every year by Belmont residents.  Through such purchases, 20% of Belmont’s existing vehicle stock is replaced each year.

The purchase (or lease) of electric vehicles is particularly sensible for Belmont residents.  Belmont’s automobile travel of 23.5 miles per day readily lends itself to the use of EVs, In fact, the town’s GHG Inventory reports, “vehicles in Belmont are driven substantially [fewer] miles per day on average than the state-wide average.” In addition, both the state and federal governments are putting their proverbial “thumb on the scale” to promote EVs by offering substantial rebates ($7500 Federal, $2500 MA). Possible increases in electricity use are offset by savings in fuel consumption.  EV drivers can expect to pay the equivalent of $1.40 to $1.65 per gallon of gas.  Discounts from Belmont Light also help offset any increase in electricity costs.

Mark Twain once said that it is not the things we don’t know that so frequently cause disasters. It is the things we do know, but aren’t true. There are considerable misconceptions about EVs.  People worry that EVs are too small, too light, or don’t go very far. As Belmont residents make choices about their vehicle purchases this year, the Belmont Drives Electric program is designed to provide sound information. Before you decide that EVs are “hard to drive,” for example, Belmont residents should visit one of the Belmont Drives Electric events to test drive a vehicle. You may well decide that an EV is not for you.  But, you may also decide that what you had “heard” or “thought you knew” about EVs is just plain wrong, and that an EV purchase would be appropriate to meet your household’s needs.

Taking time to learn about EVs is something that every Belmont car buyer owes both to themselves and to their community.  The Belmont Drives Electric program is designed to make that process of self-education easier.  It is an opportunity that should not be missed. And, when all is said and done, while marching to protest President Trump’s environmental decisionmaking may be necessary and appropriate, the cumulative impact of the car purchasing decisions that individual Belmont residents make in their ordinary course of living should also be recognized and acted upon in our continuing local efforts to clean up the environment.

September 22, 2016: Unbundled parking: Fewer cars from Cushing Village

September 22, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

As the final up-or-down decision grows near on whether the proposed Cushing Village development will move forward, it is important to consider not only “whether” the development will proceed, but to consider, also, “how” it will proceed.  In a prior Guest Opinion in the Citizen-Herald, for example, Cushing Village developer Chris Starr committed that “residential parking will be ‘unbundled’ from their monthly apartment rent, which will encourage residents to use the nearby public transit and go car-free if they prefer.”  That commitment should be carried forward by the new developers.

One way to manage parking, and thus help control the automobile traffic generated by new developments such as Cushing Village, is to “unbundle” the parking from the living units, such as was proposed by Chris Starr.  According to the Transport Policy Institute at Victoria University, “optimal parking supply is the amount that motorists would purchase if they paid all costs directly and had good parking and transport options.”

“Unbundling means that parking is rented or sold separately,” the Institute explains, “rather than automatically included with building space.”  Rather than rent an apartment with two parking spaces for $2,000 per month, in other words, the apartment is rented for $1,700, with each parking space rented separately for $150 per month.  In this way, residents of the building pay only for the parking they need.  For a development such as Cushing Village, which sits directly on a bus line to significant public transportation options (e.g., the T at Harvard Square, the train in Waverley Square), persons who choose to rely on public transit in lieu of a car are not forced to pay for parking spaces that they choose not to use.  In contrast, people who choose to rely on automobiles are called upon to pay the full cost of parking those automobiles.

The primary community benefit of unbundling the rent and/or sale of parking spaces from the underlying living unit is that the process attracts individuals who choose not to use cars as their mode of transportation.  The ready access to shared automobiles, such as Zip Cars, which will be located at Cushing Village, provides that transportation option when needed.

Unbundling has an unquestioned impact on reducing automobiles in new developments. In a 2013 “review of parking standards” in the Concord (MA) zoning code, Concord was told that “charging separately for parking is the single most effective strategy to encourage households to own fewer cars, and rely more on walking, cycling and transit.”  Unbundling residential parking, Concord was told, “can significantly reduce household vehicle ownership and parking demand.”

Concord was told that the process of unbundling parking makes “the cost of providing parking clear to residential and commercial tenants and buyers, and [helps] them make more informed decisions about their transportation needs.” Typically, the Concord zoning study found, “unbundled parking reduces parking demand by 10 – 30%.” One impact of this reduced parking demand is either that building size can be reduced or that developers can “build less parking and more of the functional building space (whether that is living units, commercial space or office space).”

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning agency of which Belmont is a member, agrees. According to MAPC, unbundled parking “is not only more equitable, but can also reduce the total amount of parking required for the building. . .Communities should encourage developers to unbundle the price of parking. . .”

As Cushing Village moves forward under the guidance of a new developer, Belmont would be well-served if Toll Brothers makes clear its commitment to follow-through on previously-announced plans to unbundle the pricing of parking and building space.