Leadership needed on renewable energy

Monday, August 13, 2018

This column was originally publish in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Massachusetts residents expected some heat this summer, and maybe even welcomed it after a long winter.

However, the heat that residents have experienced across the state has gone beyond expected summer temperatures and veered into dangerous territory. Unfortunately, scientists tell us these risky heat waves are not an anomaly, but Massachusetts’ new normal. If we do not take expedient action to avert the worst effects of climate change, science tells us it is going to get even hotter.

Many people are familiar with the facts of a warming climate and rising sea levels. We experienced these impacts directly in July’s scorching heat waves in which temperatures reached over 90 degrees across the state, and up to 108 degrees in Springfield with an excessive heat warning. Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and other public officials had to organize emergency responses such as cooling centers and public pools to deal with these temperatures.

Unfortunately, this is not a passing event. According to the commonwealth’s own research, in Massachusetts the number of days with temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit is expected to increase from the five to 20 that we experience today, to 30 to 60 annually by the end of the century.

Springfield-area residents experienced almost 50 days of poor air quality in 2016. These nearly two months of poor air quality will only increase with a warming climate. Rising temperatures will also exacerbate respiratory illnesses, vector-borne diseases and water quality concerns.

And yet, this future is not inevitable. A different, more resilient, path is within reach. Right now, we can begin the complete transition away from the fossils fuels that got us to this place.

Massachusetts has historically been a nationwide leader in renewable energy. With strong energy efficiency programs, statewide renewable incentives, and the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), the commonwealth has a track record of action.

Despite these efforts, now is not the time to rest on our laurels. Massachusetts is behind its legally binding 25 percent emissions reduction goal set forth in the GWSA, and continues to import polluting out-of-state natural gas, while building more pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure, such as the proposed expansion of the Kinder Morgan/Tennessee Gas Pipeline in southwestern Massachusetts.

What Massachusetts needs now is bold leadership. Across the state, local initiatives exemplify the renewable energy transition that Massachusetts as a whole should work toward.

In Amherst, the Town Meeting adopted an ambitious net-zero energy bylaw, mandating that all new buildings produce as much energy as they consume. The Hitchcock Center for the Environment’s living building is already an innovative example of the success and feasibility of net-zero energy.

In Springfield, the town’s Resilient Springfield partnership between the city and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission works to enact the city’s Climate Action and Resiliency Plan to reduce greenhouse gases by 80 percent and improve the city’s resiliency. Across the region, energy efficiency efforts and innovative local efforts, such as a geothermal heat pump at local senior center, and renewable energy training classes at tech schools, ensure that the region is leading the way forward.

These local efforts are innovative and strong, but we also need action on the state level.

This session, state officials were considering legislation that would have increased the percentage of our electricity coming from renewable resources to 50 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2047. A recent study showed that adopting this policy, along with removing arbitrary limits on solar power and setting ambitious goals for offshore wind and energy storage, would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 600,000 metric tons per year by 2030, equivalent to the pollution from 128,000 cars.

Ultimately, the compromised legislation that was passed on the last day of the legislative session was less ambitious, increasing the portion of Massachusetts’ electricity coming from renewable resources like solar and wind to 35 percent by 2030, but not addressing the caps on net metering that have been holding back investments in solar in communities for up to two years. This is a step in the right direction, but the bottom line is there is more work to be done if Massachusetts is to remain at the forefront of this renewable energy transition.

The governor also has an important role to play in implementing policies that would accelerate this transition. These include setting a strong goal for 100 percent renewable energy economy-wide by 2050, mandating net-zero energy building construction and increasing the availability of electric vehicles and clean transportation options across the state.

Massachusetts has always been a leader in clean energy and energy efficiency initiatives. Now is the time for strong leadership once more.

For the sake of breathable air, a resilient coast, the future of our economy and the health of our children, our leaders should take swift action to accelerate and encourage a renewable energy transition in the commonwealth.

Ariel Moyal is an intern for Environment Massachusetts, a nonprofit in Boston, and Julie Johnson is executive director of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst.

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