Community Energy Advice from Massachusetts

On February 15, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources’ Green Communities Division announced the first six grantees of the Community Energy Strategies Pilot Program, a $500,000 state program to help local communities identify and implement strategies in energy efficiency and renewable energy to meet their local energy needs.

The program is expected to help a total of 16 communities assess, prioritize, and pursue clean energy opportunities through tailored technical and financial assistance. It is part of a broader effort that the Green Communities Division is driving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the local level. In our view, it is yet another example of how Massachusetts is breaking new ground by fostering community-led clean energy solutions (see previous post).

I called Meg Lusardi, Green Communities Division Director, and Lisa Capone, Deputy Director, to learn about how they are making all of this work happen. Their answers may be the Most. Important. Community. Implementation. Advice. that a serious clean energy governor needs to hear.

Political and Policy Leadership. State executive leadership is essential. Perhaps no action embodies Massachusetts’ top-level commitment to local clean energy solutions more than the very existence—and robustness—of a Green Communities Division within the state’s executive branch. Created under the Green Communities Act of 2008 (SB 2768) as part of an impressive suite of measures by the Deval Patrick Administration to mitigate climate change, the Division reports to an Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, and is explicitly charged with helping the 351 communities of the state along a path to net-zero energy.

The Division’s primary responsibility is to “serve as the principal point of contact for municipalities and other governmental bodies concerning all matters under the jurisdiction of the Department of Energy Resources (DOER),” including a first-of-its-kind Green Communities Program for financial and technical assistance to communities that meet five clean energy benchmarks.

Division staff work with local government officials to pursue municipal energy efficiency improvements, navigate the procurement processes for energy performance contracting (which are uniform under state law), and overcome other barriers localities may face. The Division also has four regional coordinators each assigned to a different geographic area across the state.

In its newest offering, the Community Energy Strategies Pilot Program, the Division will leverage these existing services, as well as industry expertise and other resources from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, to help localities assess and implement potential community projects.

Utility Partnership. The most prominent aspect of the Green Communities Act may be its significant requirement for utilities to increase their energy efficiency investments. But the Act is also driving utilities to streamline and standardize how they do business with cities, through required three-year energy efficiency plans and regular quarterly meetings with the Green Communities Division.

Among the results: the creation of a specific investor-owned utility program for municipal energy use that is now separate from the commercial and industrial programs, where municipal accounts had previously been managed; a plan for addressing challenges with upgrade of municipal streetlights, which is a pressing opportunity for American cities today; and a commitment to data-sharing between utilities and the Division to identify the best energy efficiency opportunities statewide.

To ensure that cities don’t leave free utility money or services on the table, the Division has also begun requiring that Green Communities grant recipients provide documentation that they have begun conversations with their utilities regarding the availability of rebates and incentives for their projects as a condition of grant disbursement.

Real Money.  Funding for the Green Communities Program—up to $10 million a year— comes from Massachusetts’ Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) proceeds, compliance payments from the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, energy efficiency systems benefit charge revenues, and the state’s Renewable Energy Trust Fund. These funding commitments are in statute, but off of the state budget, which means that they are not subject to budget cuts. To date, the Green Communities Program has issued $23.2 million in grants to communities for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects and programs.

By coincidence, the Division launched in April 2009—around the same time that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds, such as the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) went live. As a result of its Green Communities legwork, Massachusetts had the infrastructure already in place to disburse EECBG funds and teach communities how to use them, unlike so many other states around the country.

That’s not all. The state proactively finds additional money for community clean energy priorities, such as electrified transportation, wherever it can. In 2010, Massachusetts used money from an air quality settlement for an electric vehicle (EV) charging station grant program, which provided funding for over 100 EV charging stations in municipalities. Lusardi anticipates using funding from another settlement for a second round of the grant program in the future.

Local Enthusiasm and Hands-On Engagement. Across the state’s geographic and economic spectrum, a diverse range of towns and cities—well beyond the “usual suspects”—have signed up for designation as Green Communities.

According to an instructive April 2012 assessment completed by MassINC and Clean Energy States Alliance, which included a survey of official Green Communities, the number one reason that communities have chosen to participate is that they want to reduce energy costs. Other motivations cited were: their desire to secure state funding, their desire for recognition as a green municipality, the personal interest of municipal leaders, and the encouragement and instigation of local citizens.

The report also noted that the state has 46 grassroots groups of activists focused on climate action, as members of the Massachusetts Climate Action Network, representing at least 76 cities and towns.

In other words, the local excitement for climate action is high; Green Communities has provided a cohesive framework for communities to turn it into real progress.

Finally, high-level Patrick officials appear to "get" the time and energy it takes to cultivate local success. As the first Division director, Mark Sylvia, said in 2008, “From the outset, staff members at DOER were vigilant in going out into the communities to meet with Select Boards, Energy Committees, Groups of Interested Citizens, anyone in a community who was seriously looking at this new opportunity and trying to figure out how to become a Green Community.” It also helps that Sylvia, now DOER Commissioner, has a firsthand community perspective from his longtime professional and personal service as a Massachusetts town official.

A state division with a robust, tailored, and energized effort to meet local demand. Sound rare? It doesn’t have to be.

Author Bio

Elizabeth Willmott

former New Energy Cities Program Manager, Climate Solutions

Elizabeth served Climate Solutions as program manager for the New Energy Cities program, working with cities to help them meet their carbon reduction goals through innovative programs and policies. She most recently authored The Urban Clean Energy Revolution, a detailed compendium of urban climate solutions worldwide (also published in segments as the Low-Carbon Cities blog series), and Breaking Down Barriers to Deep Energy Efficiency in King County, a briefing paper on how to overcome obstacles to deep home energy efficiency. She also co-authored Powering the New Energy Future from the Ground Up, a July 2012 report on small and medium-sized cities around the U.S. that are demonstrating leadership in local clean energy innovation.

Elizabeth knows and loves local government. As lead author of the World Bank’s 2011 climate change adaptation guide for cities in developing countries, co-author of King County’s 2007 adaptation guidebook with ICLEI and the University of Washington, climate change aide to former King County Executive Ron Sims, and project manager of the first King County Climate Plan in 2007, Elizabeth brings a deep and wide background in community climate planning to the New Energy Cities team.

The program’s focus on "carbon math" also bears Elizabeth’s signature. She first found religion in Excel spreadsheets as the Recovery Act performance and accountability lead for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, overseeing the results of $13.6 billion in grants to cities and communities around the U.S.  Today her data-driven approach is most obvious in New Energy Cities’ energy maps and carbon wedge graphics.

Outside of work Elizabeth leaves ample time for gardening, biking, and movie-watching with her husband Andy. She holds a double degree in biology and Chinese language from Williams College and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School.

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