Opinion Analysis | Massachusetts Has Climate Change Policy in the (Green) Works

Bill aims to help cities meet carbon reduction goals and provide infrastructure for climate change mitigation and resilience

Electric bus in Springfield, MA (wikimedia commons)

On 18 June, 2019, the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy held a hearing on Bill H.3846, “An Act Relative to GreenWorks.” Presented by Representative Thomas A. Golden, Jr. of Middlesex, the bill proposes a bond authorization of $1.3 billion to be directed towards climate mitigation and adaptation strategies across the state. The bill offers grants to municipalities to improve publicly-owned energy infrastructure, such as a $100M grant program to support municipal development of microgrids, or a $125M grant to encourage the electrification of municipal vehicle fleets. In addition, the legislation offers $50M through a Green Resiliency Fund to provide loans to municipalities who have demonstrated financial need to meet the bill’s matching requirements, along with aid for resiliency improvements and investments for extreme weather events and economic revitalization. Overall, the bill aims to help Massachusetts cities meet carbon reduction goals and provide infrastructure for climate change mitigation and resilience.

Although the joint hearing yielded a demonstration of overwhelming support for GreenWorks, most testimonies included provisions to make the legislation as effective as possible through improvements. Many parties expressed concern around the general language of the bill. As it stands now, for example, the bill’s vague definition of “biomass” could include wood: burning wood for fuel, according to Nobel-Prize winning scientist Bill Moomaw, could hardly be considered environmentally sound. Many pointed out possible  dangers of double-counting energy credits—an unproductive shortcut that allows one entity to take credit for another’s renewable energy. This practice improves the environmental statistics of an area without actually yielding more energy efficiency. These concerns echo an acute interest to see this bill deliver a bold and progressive plan to combat climate change and to prepare our cities for a carbon-neutral future. The bill’s many critics warned legislators that without further specificity, the current  draft could undermine GreenWorks’ bolder intentions.

The GreenWorks bill could complement our Gateway Cities Transformative Transit-Oriented Development (TTOD) Initiative if the bill absorbs some of the critiques presented at the hearing. In using GreenWorks to electrify their bus fleets, Gateway Cities could save big on transit. The Chicago Transit Authority, for example, estimates that every electric bus in its fleet saves the city $25,000 in fuel costs. Electric buses coupled with solar panel infrastructure on buses and in transit hubs which—as Framingham and Natick have discovered in the last few years—will save hundreds of thousands on energy costs. The electrification initiative promises significant returns and a much smaller carbon footprint.

Particularly exciting are the proposed loans. They could fund projects that accommodate electric bus infrastructure and maintenance, allowing Gateway Cities to incorporate mixed-use development around electric bus transit hubs. One study about such mixed-use transit hubs by A Better City suggests building mixed-use infrastructure around bus garages using the electrified infrastructure for commercial and residential development. This study is in keeping with TTOD at MassINC and depends on a private/public partnership to link the transit hub to surrounding mixed-use area. Currently, this approach would be unfeasible under GreenWorks, which disallows public/private partnerships and only applies to municipal energy infrastructure. In addition, the current bill might not contain enough dedicated funds to ensure quality charging infrastructure. As demonstrated by cities like Albuquerque and Indianapolis who have cut short their electrification projects due to inefficient bus charging infrastructure and batteries, electrification is not universally cost-effective. Massachusetts’ legislature should prioritize increasing the bill’s budget to accommodate lasting, high-quality electric infrastructure.

Private-public partnership would not only enhance the potential for improved mixed-use developments but also allow cities to transition existing housing to renewable energy sources. Greenworks provides funding for modern microgrid infrastructure programs across the state that offer the promise of energy networks that rely on sustainable energy. In the Cambridge-Boston area, for example, the Kendall Square microgrid provides thermal energy heating for residents and businesses in the area. Microgrids also have the advantage of being extremely resilient to bad weather conditions, serving as backup heating and electricity sources during storms. Lastly, microgrids keep electricity costs low by selling electricity back to the main grid and by being self-sufficient if main grid energy costs escalate. Microgrids through Greenworks provide an exciting opportunity to combine microgrid investments with transit infrastructure to strengthen the resiliency of energy resources in the TOD area, keeping energy costs low for local residents and helping dense, mixed-use areas stay resilient during storms.  With a more open private-public partnership, a higher percentage of our Gateway Cities’ residents could feel the impact of green energy infrastructure and reap the benefits of revitalized transit and microgrids.

GreenWorks is not the only piece of legislation on the table to help fight climate change. Governor Baker released his own alternative proposal, Bill S10, offering a fresh take on how  to fund resiliency and mitigation strategies across the state. DeLeo’s GreenWorks bill looks to borrow the $1.3 billion while exempting the sum from the state’s statutory debt ceiling—a political maneuver many in the State House do not support due to the already high debt ceiling. Governor Baker, on the other hand, seeks climate change funding by raising the real estate transfer tax in the hopes of generating $137 million a year for a Global Warming Solutions Trust Fund. The trust, Baker promises, will exist as a sustainable source of funding for municipalities to launch their own climate resiliency and mitigation projects.

Governor Baker’s bill is more oriented towards climate resilience than climate mitigation, with most of his measures fund upgrades to vulnerable municipal infrastructure. While GreenWorks seeks to combine resiliency and mitigation in the form of clean energy solutions like microgrids, Baker’s proposal includes other alternatives like stormwater upgrades, dams, drought mitigation, and other nature-based solutions. While Baker’s bill includes transportation funding in its Global Warming Solutions Trust Fund, it provides flexibility for municipalities to fine-tune proposals to their own needs.

Overall, the two bills complement each other—neither could serve as a catch-all solution to climate change in Massachusetts, but together they cope with issues of natural land and water-based resilience and municipal energy infrastructure. Without accommodating Baker’s emphasis on nature- and land-based resiliency efforts, GreenWorks will fail to adequately prepare municipalities of the Commonwealth for the future. Ultimately, the bills offer two distinct channels of revenue for climate change efforts; both should be considered in tandem so as to enable Massachusetts to boldly meet our environmental challenges head on.

Baker’s emphasis on nature- and land-based solutions fills a very evident void in the GreenWorks bill, which fails to adequately acknowledge threats to our waters, coasts, and vegetation. What’s more, Baker’s real estate transfer tax is met with more approval from legislators in the state house, and provides a sustainable and flexible source of funding so that municipalities can create their own climate change solutions. This being said, GreenWorks offers much more concrete infrastructure for municipalities to adapt, acknowledging electrification of municipal transportation and smarter energy grids as a pressing priority. While Baker’s proposal leaves municipalities with fewer guidelines from the state, GreenWorks provides funding for technical assistance from the state as well as revenue for each municipality to hire a sustainability coordinator. Overall, the two bills complement each other—neither could serve as a catch-all solution to climate change in Massachusetts, but together they cope with issues of natural land and water-based resilience and municipal energy infrastructure.

GreenWorks is compelling because of its emphasis on transportation and energy, which is vital to creating a state-wide culture of climate awareness to spur future projects. Its specificity and vast financial and technical support system will allow municipalities to more quickly and effectively implement climate change solutions. However, without accommodating Baker’s  emphasis on nature- and land-based resilience efforts, GreenWorks will fail to adequately prepare municipalities of the Commonwealth for the future. Ultimately, the bills offer two distinct channels of revenue for climate change efforts; both should be considered in tandem so as to enable Massachusetts to boldly meet our environmental challenges head on.

The opinions expressed represent the views of the individual author, not MassINC. 


 

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Niamh Doyle

Research Intern, MassINC

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