Work with Communities and Governments

  • Since the fall of 2018, when I became a Chairperson of Newton Citizens Commission on Energy, we embarked on a very ambitious project of writing a climate action plan for Newton. The 9-member Commission collectively represents a very high level of expertise in science, engineering, energy systems analysis, management consulting, urban planning, building science, social science, and others. Over a period of about eight months the group spent many hundreds of volunteering person-hours on that project, with no budget, producing an impressive 130-page document Citizens Climate Action Plan. The Plan offers a specific and feasible roadmap for reaching a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

That was of course just the beginning. The document calls for a series of new ordinances that are the purview of the City Council as well as a package of new policies and implementation actions to be executed by the municipal administration, including allocation of funds. Over the next half a year the professed commitment by the City Hall to climate action will be put to a harsh test. So will be the commitment on the part of largely politically liberal Newton residents, though they still need to realize it: the cost of reducing GHG emissions will largely fall on them. 

The Plan does not address consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions, focusing instead on more traditional emission accounting from direct use of energy: heating, cooling, cooking, mobility, and electricity use. But its driving rationale is “personal responsibility for significant reduction, not just gestures like recycling of reusable shopping bags”. I hope that by confronting Newton residents with this personal lifestyle challenge we are making a significant step toward re-examining the impacts of their consumption and lifestyles on climate. 

  • In 2017-2018 I was engaged in the development of the electricity aggregation program in my home city of Newton, the so-called Newton Power Choice. Power aggregation, known also under such names as Community Choice Aggregation and Municipal Aggregation, was first introduced in Massachusetts in 1997 to increase market competition, and is becoming increasingly popular among municipalities nationally. It works as follows. A municipality (or some other entity representing a town or another large community of households), serves as an intermediary in purchasing electric power on behalf of all its residents. Such bulk procurement, generally done through a consultant under a 1-3 year renewable contract, gives the municipality a leverage to negotiate better price and to avoid large price fluctuations. Very recently, power aggregation has been also used to increase the content of renewable electricity sources in the mix. And important feature of all aggregation programs is the opt-out option: people can choose not to participate by taking an active step of opting-out.  

More than a hundred municipalities in Massachusetts currently participate in aggregation and of those about two dozen use it as a vehicle to increase the level of renewables generated in the New England region above the state-mandated 13% (so-called Class 1). All but one have set their “default” value for renewables (from which a consumer can opt-out) at 5% above the state-mandated level. The town of Brookline, at 25% default, was an exception. Newton had an opportunity to go far beyond the level chosen by its neighbor and rival Brookline, which mobilized the very active local grassroots community.

While the Mayor’s decision hanged in the balance a lively contestation took place over what the “default” content of renewable electricity should be. I played a triple role in that process: as a member of the Newton Coalition for Climate Action I was an advocate; as a member of the Municipal Working Group on Power Choice I was part of the process of reconciling and balancing competing objectives: the extra cost of green electricity vs. the City’s commitment to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions; as a member of the Newton Citizens Commission on Energy I helped frame the debate, provide conceptual clarity and ground it in science and empirical data. A few of us with scientific training developed a survey to find out how much the residents were willing to pay for clean electricity. The survey was administered at various locations in the city by trained volunteers. The results showed that people were willing to see their electric bills increase by 5% for a 40% extra clean electricity content, in addition to the state-mandated 14%.

The final decision by the Mayor, in October 2018, was to purchase 46% additional clean electricity, bring the total to 60%. While this looks like a major victory for the advocates, at the time of the bidding prices of renewable electricity in this region dropped so much that this 60% high mark actually costs less than the regular electricity provided by the utility company. In short, while we are happy with the result, this case has not demonstrated the Mayor’s commitment to sustainability.

  • Since 2017 I have been engaged in the development of the electricity aggregation program in my home city of Newton, the so-called Newton Power Choice. Power aggregation, known also under such names as Community Choice Aggregation and Municipal Aggregation, was first introduced in Massachusetts in 1997 to increase market competition, and is becoming increasingly popular among municipalities nationally. It works as follows. A municipality (or some other entity representing a town or another large community of households), serves as an intermediary in purchasing electric power on behalf of all its residents. Such bulk procurement, generally done through a consultant under a 1-3 year renewable contract, gives the municipality a leverage to negotiate better price and to avoid large price fluctuations. Very recently, power aggregation has been also used to increase the content of renewable electricity sources in the mix. And important feature of all aggregation programs is the opt-out option: people can choose not to participate by taking an active step of opting-out.  

More than a hundred municipalities in Massachusetts currently participate in aggregation and of those about two dozen use it as a vehicle to increase the level of renewables generated in the New England region above the state-mandated 13% (so-called Class 1). All but one have set their “default” value for renewables (from which a consumer can opt-out) at 5% above the state-mandated level. The town of Brookline, at 25% default, is an exception. Newton has an opportunity to go far beyond the level chosen by its neighbor and rival Brookline, which has mobilized the very active local grassroots community.

It will take until the fall of 2018 for all the decisions and approvals to be completed. Until then, we will witness a lively contestation over the value of the “default” among all the key actors in Newton. I play a triple role in this process: as a member of the Newton Coalition for Climate Action I am and advocate; as a member of the City Working Group on Power Choice I am part of the process of reconciling and balancing competing objectives: the extra cost of green electricity vs. the City’s commitment to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions; as a member of the Citizens’ Energy Commission I help frame the debate, provide conceptual clarity and ground it in science and empirical data.   

  • Since 2014 I have been a co-leader in the emerging close collaboration between SCORAI and Urban Sustainability Directors Network USDN on sustainable consumption. The underlying rationale is that cities have a unique role to play in fostering lifestyle choices that carry a small carbon footprint. In 2015 we jointly (with One Earth) published Eugene Memorandum, which articulates the principles and actions that cities can take to foster more sustainable lifestyles and consumption patterns. In 2016 a Toolkit has been completed to help urban sustainability directions with that work.
  • Since 2003 and I am member, and more recently Vice Chair, of Citizens Commission on Energy in my home city of Newton, Massachusetts. Members of the Commissions are appointed by the Mayor, City Council, School Committee and Chamber of Commerce. In this capacity the Commission monitors energy consumption in Newton, advises the Mayor and City Council on reduction in energy demands, energy efficiency, renewable energy technologies and energy conservations measures. It also undertakes various initiatives on behalf of the City.
  • Between 2009 and 2012 I co-founded and co-led Worcester Housing Energy and Community (WoHEC), a multi stakeholder group in Worcester, Massachusetts, seeking to combine a program in energy retrofits in the residential sector with community development and employment creation for high risk youths. So framed, the initiatives attracted a large group of academics (from Clark University and others), local community activists, politicians and business people.