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.


January 11, 2018: Looking at all that has been accomplished

January 11, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

Now that Belmont is eight years into its ten-year Comprehensive Plan, community members might wish to think about which recommendations from that plan have been accomplished and which have fallen by the wayside.  It would be unreasonable to expect that all recommendations would be pursued.  There is never sufficient staff, time or money to pursue all recommendations.  Those action steps that are taken, and those that are set-aside, however, do reflect the “high” and “low” priorities of Belmont’s decision-makers.  It seems reasonable, therefore, to review those decisions to allow community members to assess for themselves whether the priorities pursued by the town’s leadership comport with the priorities residents believe to be most important.

The reference to Belmont’s “leadership” is not a reference exclusively to the Board of Selectmen. Rather, Belmont relies heavily on volunteer committees to assert leadership in the areas that are within their charge.  Indeed, much of the progress that Belmont has made in pursuing the recommendations of the Comprehensive Plan originates from the Town’s committees.  Town Meeting Members, too, have a role to play in asserting leadership. They should not simply react to the proposals of others.

In this week and next, I will examine those Comprehensive Plan recommendations that have and have not been pursued.  I begin with some of the more notable accomplishments since the Comprehensive Plan was prepared.  They are considerable.

Preserving the character of Belmont was key to the Comprehensive Plan.  The Comprehensive Plan recommended consideration of a demolition delay by-law to help protect the historic nature of the community.  Under the leadership of the Historic District Commission, that by-law was adopted by Town Meeting. The Comprehensive Plan recommended “adoption of energy efficient building code standards and incentives.”  At the behest of the Energy Committee, Town Meeting adopted the Stretch Energy Code (an energy efficient building code).  The Comprehensive Plan recommended adoption of the Community Preservation Act.  Town Meeting approved the CPA, as did the voters.

Addressing financial issues received substantial attention in the Comprehensive Plan.  The Plan recommended that Belmont “undertake planning for the next phase of public building projects.” Just last year, for the first time, Town Meeting approved short- and long-term plans to move forward on the library, the DPW Yard and the police station.  A high school building committee has been appointed, and is working diligently toward a new school.

Supporting our commercial districts was an important element in the Comprehensive Plan.  The Plan recommended “improv(ing) the physical appearance of commercial areas.”  Not without considerable pain in the process, Belmont Center and Cushing Square both received complete facelifts since that recommendation.

Open space was a critical Comprehensive Plan element.  The plan recommended taking steps to “preserve and enhance active and passive recreation areas.”  At the behest of the Conservation Commission, Clay Pit Pond has been subject to a master planning process with implementation steps now occurring.  Through the leadership of neighborhood groups, the Grove Street Park and PQ Playground are both being subject to renovations, and Joey’s Park was completely rebuilt.  Town Field is next in line for approval by Town Meeting, perhaps even this spring.  The Comprehensive Plan recommended steps to “expand off-street recreational trails that interconnect. . .to inter-town trails both to the East and West.”  The Board of Selectmen just recently approved a route for Belmont’s community path.

Energy and sustainability were addressed in the Comprehensive Plan.  The Plan recommended that Belmont should “reduce the Town’s energy budget.”  Belmont became a Green Community and has been receiving state funds ever since to reduce energy usage in town buildings. The BHS Building Committee has made sustainability one of its priorities for the new school.  The Plan recommended new “zoning for by-right alternative energy equipment/installations.” Town Meeting approved a new solar zoning by-law and more than 250 residents have since installed rooftop solar units.

The list could continue.  Frequently, it seems that complaining about what the Town is not doing is a favorite past-time among some Belmont residents.  However, while there are certainly elements of the Comprehensive Plan that have not been pursued as aggressively as they should be (and should have been) (a topic I will consider next week), assertions that “nothing ever gets done” in Belmont are demonstrably wrong.

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.

February 9, 2017: Belmont’s drought response: Increasingly ‘too late’

February 9, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

While the poor quality of water that Belmont dumps into the Mystic River has gained considerable attention in recent years, the quantity of water in Belmont, not merely the quality, should also be of concern.  In five of the last seven months of 2016, the northeast region of Massachusetts, the region of which Belmont is a part, has been subject to a Drought Warning by the state.  In the state’s system of drought classifications, Drought Warning is just one step down from a Drought Emergency.

Under a Drought Warning, Belmont is not under the threat of mandatory water conservation measures.  Mandatory state restrictions on water use, such as a ban on watering one’s lawn, can only be imposed when the drought becomes a Drought Emergency.

Nonetheless, according to Belmont resident Julia Blatt, executive director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, Belmont should take the Drought Warning seriously even during these winter months.  People have been poorly conditioned by other warning systems, Blatt believes.  For example, when one hears a winter storm warning issued, the caution is about a storm that will occur in the future.  In contrast, Blatt says, a Drought Warning is not a prediction of a future event.  The Drought Warning under which Belmont has been placed means that the drought is here today.

By the time a Drought Warning has been issued, in other words, it is largely too late for people most effectively to respond.  The adverse impacts of the drought are not coming, they have already arrived.  In addition, Blatt says, those adverse effects cannot be alleviated simply through a few rain storms.  It takes months of wet weather for the impacts of a drought to be undone.  Moreover, she continues, hard rain storms are not generally helpful in ending drought conditions.  Big storms result in rain water quickly draining into the streets, being funneled into streams and rivers through stormwater pipes, and eventually flowing into the ocean.  In contrast, lots of snow could help.  Snow can melt slowly, soak into the ground, and help replenish ground water and drinking water sources.

Belmont residents are in no danger of turning their kitchen faucet on and not having water come out.  That, however, is not an entirely crazy notion.  Cambridge, for example, was forced last fall to begin to buy water from the Mass Water Resources Authority because of the decline in water levels in the city’s own reservoir. That need to purchase MWRA water not only imposed substantial costs on Cambridge residents, but also reduced available water supplies to other MWRA communities (of which Belmont is one).

I realize that as I write today, snow is on the ground and the Super Bowl (and, even more importantly, the coming start to baseball’s Spring Training) are more on peoples’ minds than things like restrictions on watering one’s lawn.  In fact, however, that is precisely the point.  The longer the Belmont community postpones its responses to the existence of drought conditions in Massachusetts, the more likely two things will occur.  First, the restrictions that may eventually be imposed will need to be more severe.  Second, even those more severe restrictions will be a less effective response to the drought conditions since it will increasingly be “too late.”

Through its water department, the town should be taking an aggressive response to the drought that has befallen Belmont (and many other parts of Massachusetts).  At the least, community education regarding ways to implement water conservation, even during these cold weather months, would be an important beneficial response to dry summer weather.  Waiting until the summer months to respond to continuing dry weather will be too late.

July 21, 2016: Community Path Lessons from the Minuteman Trail

Belmont Citizen-Herald: July 21, 2016

My wife and I really aren’t bicyclists.  We had let our bikes gather dust in the garage for several years, victims of the “tomorrow-I’ll-have-more-time” syndrome.  Unfortunately, as Annie says, “tomorrow is always a day away.”

But, having passed the milestone of “turning 60” awhile back, and now moving ever so surely toward “comfortably in our 60s,” this summer, in a nod toward keeping fit, we pulled our bikes down off their hooks, had them tuned-up at Wheelworks, and declared ourselves ready to explore the western ‘burbs and beyond.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, we headed down the Goden Street hill –not worrying, yet, about how we would get back up it—glided around the High School parking lot, and were surprised at how quickly we reached Alewife using the path along the train tracks.  We then hung a left and headed out toward Lexington on the Minuteman Trail.

That’s when the day’s education began.  Our ride on this warm summer day was an experiential lesson, a class on the difference between a “bike path” and a “community path.”

For our voyage, we intentionally waited until late afternoon, thinking that we might perhaps miss the bulk of the day’s traffic.  But the users of the Minuteman Trail surpassed all expectations. There were walkers galore, ranging from young adults to the aged.  Single walkers, couples, families with young children aplenty.

Some groups of people ambled, clearly enjoying each other’s company; other folks were plugged into their headphones, removed from the world around them.

People traveled on wheels as well.  Some were pushed in strollers, while others glided on blades.  One little boy pulled a classic little red wagon, though I couldn’t tell whether his passenger was a Teddy Bear or a puppy. A young girl with training wheels pedaled furiously to keep up with her parents.

Not everyone was exceedingly careful. Just as I was getting comfortable in looking up and around, in addition to straight ahead, as I plodded along, two 10-year olds raced by, their attention focused exclusively on some finish line existing only in their imaginations.

There were the serious bikers, who view their cycles as a mode of transportation, while there were others, like us, who view their cycles as a mode of exercise.

I’ve followed the community path debate in Belmont in recent years. I’ve attended the meetings, studied the maps, read the reports.  But, as my wife and I rode along that day, it struck me that I was experiencing exactly what Belmont’s community path advocates have been seeking to communicate for years.  We weren’t simply on a bike path.  We were on a path that promoted community cohesion and shared community experiences.

In my mind, I tried to lift that trail out of the woods through Arlington and Lexington, and place it along Concord Ave. in Belmont.  I couldn’t make it happen. I just couldn’t place someone pushing their stroller down that busy thoroughfare. I couldn’t see a dad worrying about his young daughter’s biking skills on a quality-time jaunt while the cars whizz by.  I could see two tweens obliviously darting their bikes into traffic as they pass the “old guy” poking along as he rode.

Try as I might, I just couldn’t envision that path, with the community members we were passing, located along Concord Avenue.

If you don’t understand why siting part of Belmont’s community path along Concord Ave. is unsatisfactory, I invite you to spend a few hours some summer afternoon traversing the Minuteman Trail starting at Alewife.  You, too, will experience the meaning of a true community path and what it would mean to Belmont.

June 23, 2016: Making progress on carbon reduction, more needed

Belmont Citizen-Herald: June 23, 2016

In 2009, Belmont’s Town Meeting adopted a climate action policy committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the town by 80% by the year 2050.  The first update on Belmont’s GHG emissions was just released. The town is making progress, but not nearly fast enough to meet the goals established by Town Meeting.

The recent GHG inventory shows that while local government policies and programs can play a role in driving major change in emissions reductions, consumer purchasing decisions are even more important.  Over the past six years, three major initiatives of the town’s Energy Committee have been to successfully promote adoption of an energy efficient building code in Belmont; to lead the most successful home weatherization program (Better Homes Belmont) in the commonwealth; and to lead the most successful community solarization program  (Belmont Goes Solar) in the commonwealth,  Still, Belmont lags behind where it needs to be.

According to the recent GHG inventory, “total emissions from electricity, transportation, and heating fuels are estimated to have declined by 5% from 2007 to 2014.  This is promising, though not as large a decrease as needed to be on track for achieving Belmont’s long-term goals.” The major sources of carbon dioxide emissions in Belmont are transportation (36%), electricity (29%), natural gas (21%) and fuel oil (14%).

Overall electricity usage in Belmont was “virtually identical” in 2014 to the level in 2007.  “Electricity usage stayed essentially flat” for both residential and non-residential customers, the inventory said.  While that result “may seem disappointing,” the report said, in prior years, electricity usage in Belmont had been increasing.  “Stabilization of consumption is at least a step in the right direction.”

Where the town lost ground is with transportation.  Emissions from vehicles in Belmont increased from 2007 to 2014, the GHG inventory found.  This was due largely to an increase (13%) in the number of vehicles registered in Belmont.  However, the inventory continued, “the increase in emissions due to the number of vehicles was partially offset by likely improvements in vehicle fuel efficiencies.”  Since 2007, the inventory said, there has been a substantial increase in average fuel economy for cars (from roughly 23 mpg in 2007 to roughly 28 mpg in 2014).  In addition, the inventory found, vehicles in Belmont are slightly more fuel-efficient than the state average.

Offsetting this increased fuel economy, however, is the fact that emissions from gasoline production have been increasing in recent years.  More than one-third of the emissions from the use of gasoline comes not from the tailpipe, but rather from the gasoline’s production. “The trend toward ‘dirtier’ gasoline will reduce the overall positive climate effects of increasing fuel efficiency,” the inventory warned.

“The largest areas for potential improvement through the actions of Belmont residents are afforded by the choices made when replacing vehicles and heating systems,” according to the GHG inventory.  “In both cases, even relying on currently available technology, large-scale reductions are possible.”

“Given the fact that transportation-related emissions are the single largest category of emissions in Belmont, and the very wide range of vehicle efficiencies, with electric vehicles currently available that produce as little as a fifth of the emissions per mile traveled as the least efficient gasoline vehicle, the choice of an efficient vehicle is probably the single most important and effective action residents of Belmont can take for reducing emissions.”

Making progress toward reducing carbon emissions is the bottom line in acting locally to address the global challenge of climate change.  Understanding where we are, and what steps we can each individually take to make the most difference, is critical in deciding what local actions to pursue.