Lessons from the Ground: Where Activism, Technical Analysis, and City Action Intersect

This blog is a part of the Frontier Series, a collaboration between SCORAI and the Hot or Cool Institute that brings you lessons learned, personal experiences and insights from the cutting edge of climate and sustainability research and practice.

I live in Newton, Massachusetts. With a population of 90,000, the city is located on the northeast coast of the U.S., a few miles west of Boston. Over the past three years I have been deeply immersed in pushing the city toward reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. Newton’s carbon footprint is high, proportional to our average income, and the building stock is the primary source of emissions. While politically liberal and progressive, our city had taken few steps to reduce its carbon footprint until three years ago.

Approximately a third of the U.S. population lives in midsize cities and towns like Newton, with populations ranging between 25,000 and 250,000, and there are many lessons to be learned from the challenges and successes we have had.

Setting the scene

So far, we have achieved several key successes in Newton: In 2019, the City approved the Newton Climate Action Plan which includes an ambitious policy agenda, measurable goals such as the commitment to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, and specific metrics for tracking progress.  The City has also adopted an electricity aggregation contract with 80% renewable electricity. We have also worked with the business community to help them realize that change is under way and are setting key implementation projects and policy processes in motion.

To explain our progress, I first introduce the principal actors in this drama: the Energy Commission, which I chair; the local environmental grassroots organizations (Green NewtonMothers Out Front, and 350Mass.org); the City Council and the Sustainability Team in City Hall. The Energy Commission, established in 1979, is an independent body of nine highly achieving professionals appointed for renewable three-year terms, with no compensation and minimal administrative support. We function as a team of colleagues, set our own agenda, come up with policy proposals for the City, perform technical analysis, implement specific projects, and advocate; all as volunteers.

The City Council and the Sustainability Team are actors two and three. These are political bodies with ears to the ground, generally risk averse, and have a strong preference for actions that have already been tested elsewhere. The environmental organizations are the fourth actor. In principle, they are natural allies of the Energy Commission, but our respective agendas, priorities and modus operandi often diverge. Members of the Energy Commission are policy wonks who follow the data and analysis, wherever these may lead it, including generally unpopular regulations and financial incentives; the grassroots community gravitates toward campaigns, protests, and voluntary actions by citizens.

Lessons learned

Through trial and error, we have collectively learned some important lessons for getting things done. First, political goals can be successfully pursued by playing the legislative and executive branches off one another. For example the Energy Commission forced the City’s hand to develop a strong and specific Climate Action Plan by producing its own plan and garnering support from the City Council. Another lesson is that an independent and seemingly powerless body such as Energy Commission can instigate action by producing a technically defensible stance that cannot be ignored. This was the tactic with the climate plan. More recently, we developed a website and a service system called Energy Coach, which connects homeowners with volunteer experts who can answer a wide range of questions related to home retrofits, solar installations, and electrification of heating. The city liked it so much that they took over the maintenance of the service and appointed a person as Energy Coach.

We also proposed major new legislation, modeled on one just adopted by Boston, to require all large commercial buildings to report their energy intensity ratings and to meet specified GHG emission standards. It is a radical step toward reducing emissions from commercial buildings, unloved by buildings owners, and requiring significant government resources to implement. This time, we started with the Mayor as the more likely agent to be persuaded and to persuade the City Council. The Mayor is proceeding with it.

We have also learned that citizen pressure can produce results. The municipality treats the grassroots community and Energy Commission as outsiders while we would prefer to work collaboratively with the city. It is a perennial, unresolvable tension, but it can be attenuated. Under pressure from the grassroots community and the Energy Commission, the city formed an Implementation Working Group that includes city representatives alongside engaged activists and citizens. The Working Group meets regularly to discuss the details of various implementation projects.

We also learned about the power of local coalitions. It was due to pressure from the coalition of Energy Commission and grassroots organizations both environmental and social, that the Mayor adopted the electricity aggregation program with 80% renewables; and that the City council approved a large buildings project, deeply resented by many conservative groups, that will become a truly sustainable village in Newton: high density, walkable, with Passive House building construction.

We also discovered that there is a strong multiplier effect for actions taken by municipalities because they keenly observe and learn from each other. This presents a great potential for large-scale change: not only do municipalities model their actions on each other, but also through a positive feedback loop, the originator of so-diffused innovation is emboldened to take the next and more radical step. In 2019, Newton adopted 64% renewable electricity in the aggregation contract after its neighbor and rival went for about 40%, the highest in the state at the time. The figure below shows that subsequently several municipalities adopted increasingly higher renewable contracts, and in 2021 Newton, by now hailed as a leader, went up to 80%.

% renewables in municipal electricity aggregation contracts

What’s next?

And what of sustainable lifestyles? Newton is simply not ready for a consumption-based inventory, much less an explicit action agenda. My public presentations on the need to reduce house sizes (the average newly built house in the well-to-do and politically liberal Newton is close to 5000 square feet, or 480 square meters) have been met with reproaches about individual freedoms, government overreach, or even accusations of socialist ideology. At this stage, we are trying to make homeowners aware, in a personal way, of the connection between their daily lives and GHG emissions. To that end, the Energy Commission is developing a legislative proposal to require all homeowners to obtain an energy intensity score for their homes, which will be publicly posted. The Commission has developed an easy-to-use computer application that will calculate the score from certain simple data inputs.

This legislative proposal will be very hard to push through. Even the environmentalists in Newton balk at the idea of a mandate and public disclosure of information they consider to be private. It will be an uphill battle – but push we must.

Originally Published in partnership with the Hot or Cool Institute: https://hotorcool.org/hc-posts/lessons-from-the-ground-where-activism-technical-analysis-and-city-action-intersect/

Making Newton Sustainable

This is an evolving story in many parts. I tell this story as it emerges, more or less chronologically, focusing on the parts in which I personally and the Energy Commission (the official name is Newton Citizens Commission on Energy, NCCE) took active part.

I update it every few weeks or months.

Chapter 1. About Newton

Newton is a wealthy suburb of Boston, population 90,000, with high average income, very high educational attainment, and expensive properties. Its operating budget if over $500 million. Newton has very good amenities: superior public schools, fine city services, public transit to downtown Boston, cultural life, open space, beautiful landscape, and proximity to both the countryside, Boston downtown, highways, and the airport. Majority of residents live in single or double family houses and 70% of them drive SUVs. The housing stock in Newton is beautiful but old, energy inefficient, and in a dire need of retrofits. About 90 percent of houses in Newton were built before 1970, and more than half were built before 1930.

Newton residents are predominantly white, politically liberal, and very active in local politics: they expect the politicians to listen and respond. We have a strong mayor, an unwieldy 24-member City Council, and a large and very active grassroots community. People in Newton are deeply concerned about climate change but are also averse to making changes in their largely comfortable lifestyles. There are many municipalities like Newton across the country and the world. We have a large consumption-based carbon footprint.

The size of the Sustainability Team in Newton is not easy to describe numerically: its two co-directors in principle share a single position but in reality represent about 1.5 person-hours; there is a full time Energy Coach; and there are two other professional employees who devote part of their time to sustainability matters (one in transportation and one in natural resources).

During the past four years the collective efforts of the activists and the Commission produced several results: Newton Climate Action Plan, GHG Emission Inventory, the City entered into electricity aggregation program with 80% renewables, large building developers are increasingly expected to meet the Passive House standard of construction, or close to it. But the most difficult tasks are still before us: private residences and commercial buildings need to drastically reduce their carbon footprint and to electrify their heating; and we need to drive less, let go of the huge SUVs and transition to EVs. Above all, residents and businesses need to take personal responsibility for their own GHG emissions. 

Chapter 2. 2017-2019

Newton adopts the highest level of renewable electricity among the 360 Massachusetts municipalities.

Until about four years ago, Newton was virtually asleep with regard to climate action. The municipality did not consider the greenhouse emissions from non-city operations (97% of total) to be their responsibility. And the greens in Newton have focused mostly on the traditional environmental agenda: waste recycling, tree planting, preservation of open space, water management, pesticide use, and so on. And on solar roofs.

The first major municipal action directed specifically toward GHG emissions from the residential and commercial sectors took place in 2017-18 around clean electricity. Notably, it was triggered by actions taken in the neighboring municipality, which, as I will highlight in this story, exemplifies horizontal diffusion of learning and policy innovation.

Massachusetts law allows cities and towns to adopt what is known as “community aggregation” or “municipal aggregation” programs for electricity. It 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 from sources other than a local utility which is regulated by the state, 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. 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 without penalties.  

In recent years, aggregation has gained renewed popularity in Massachusetts (more than a hundred municipalities participate), with a novel feature: the municipalities channel the so-achieved savings toward increasing the renewable content in the electricity mix, the latter being usually more expensive. In short, the customers receive greener electricity without having to pay the price premium. A typical green content in Massachusetts has been only 5% above the state-mandated level provided by the local utilities (in 2018 it was 14%, with 2% annual increases).

In 2017 Newton started considering an aggregation contract. In the same year, a neighboring town – similar to Newton in a socioeconomic profile and in several respects our rival — adopted an aggregation program with 25% additional level of Class 1 locally-generated clean electricity above the Massachusetts baseline. This was a trigger for the grassroots organizations in Newton to call for a similar, and even more ambitious, contract for Newton. This quickly became a well-organized campaign, which took the Mayor totally by surprise; she thought of aggregation as an internal administrative matter, to be decided in her office.

The Energy Commission, which I chair since 2018, joined the campaign. 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. It was established in 1979 during the Carter Administration and partly in response to the OPEC energy crisis.

The Mayor was cautious, worrying about the political and human costs of increased electricity rates. The campaign responded by implementing a random survey to find out people’s willingness to pay. This was not a survey that would make it through a peer review process in a scholarly journal, but it was pretty good on scientific grounds: in designing the questionnaire, sample size and the target participants the members of the Energy Commission reached out to experts in the field. The interviewers accosted residents at key physical locations through the city. The Municipality tacitly approved doing the survey but left the sponsorship to the local activist organization Green Newton.

The result: an average household paying about $150/month for electricity was willing to pay an extra $10/month for about 56% of renewable electricity. These numbers became the centerpiece of the campaign.

The campaign was very successful. In 2019 Newton signed an aggregation contract with 40% Class 1 renewable electricity above the baseline (actually, these are Renewable Energy Certificates, or RECs, not “green electrons”). But we never had a chance to test people’s willingness to pay because at that brief moment in time the renewable electricity prices dipped.

  1. The Mayor became so emboldened with her success that when the first 18-month contract expired, she signed a new contract in 2021 for 62% renewable electricity above the baseline, for a total of 80% renewable electricity (the graph below, with Newton I and Newton II marked). This time the cost to homeowners about 7% higher that if the electricity supplied by the local utilities. Nobody complained.
  2. About 10% of residents opted out of the program. Otherwise, nobody complained. People barely noticed the higher price.
  3. The grassroots activists and Energy Commission learned that they can successfully campaign.
  4. Within a year, other communities in MA adopted aggregation with higher than 5% renewables. The graph below shows the timeline of municipalities adopting aggregation and the level of renewables. The action by Newton had a big effect on other municipalities. This horizontal diffusion of learning is an important avenue for social change on municipal level.
  5. For the first time, Newton has made a major decision addressing greenhouse gas emissions from the residential sector.
  6. Newton acquired a reputation of being a sustainability leader in Massachusetts, which hopefully gave the Mayor some political capital for making more difficult decisions in the future. It also raised expectations.

Chapter 3.  2018-2019

Newton adopts a Climate Action Plan

In 2018, the newly-elected mayor won by a very narrow margin, largely thanks to strong support from the environmentally engaged community. Her campaign promise was to develop during her first year in office a climate action plan. In 2019 she engaged a consultant for the City to do just that. Environmental activists and Energy Commission were invited to the table where the scope of the project was to be discussed. It became very clear very soon that for various reasons the plan the city was going to get would be an off-the shelf template document of little use in setting implementation priorities and goals, or guiding the implementation process.

This gave the Energy Commission an impetus to get to the finish line ahead of the City with its own climate action plan. Over a period of about eight months the group spent many hundreds of volunteering person-hours on that project, with no budget. The resulting 130-page document Citizens Climate Action Plan, handed to the Mayor a shortly before the consultant completed their work, contained an extensive quantitative analysis and modeling of Newton’s circumstances – the building stock, the private car fleet, the turnover of houses and cars, the demographics, and so on – followed by specific recommendations for priority actions and the approaches for achieving the overarching goal of carbon neutrality in 2050. I then proceeded to meet each member of the City Council (all 24 of them) over coffee to hand them a copy of the document and explain its significance.

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. Newton was not ready for it, and in any case, we do not have the technical capacity to develop one. 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. 

The Citizens Climate Action Plan was formally presented to the City Council in August of 2019. It garnered unanimous support from the City Council and forced the hand of the City to produce a high quality “official” plan several months later. The environmental community in Newton also raised its voices, calling for carbon neutrality in 2050. The official Newton Climate Action plan was largely modeled on the Citizens Plan. Its most important feature was that identified priority actions and adopted very specific numerical goals for 2050 and interim progress milestones. In other words, it created a mechanism for accountability.

In December of 2019 the official Newton Climate Action Plan was unanimously adopted by City Council. And about a year later (after some COVID-related delays) the City created a new position of Energy Coach and fills the position with a young, energetic, smart and highly motivated person.

This incident gave the Energy Commission a high standing in the community as a highly competent body whose advice should not be ignored.

Two political lessons for the Energy Commission and the activist community: 1.  City Council can be a powerful ally in mobilizing the Mayor toward our objectives; 2. In a municipality, all politics is personal. 

Chapter 4. The grassroots community takes action for climate protection

The long process of creating the Climate Action Plan, CAP, injects energy into the climate activism in Newton. Here, I focus on two areas of activities most relevant to implementing CAP.

Building Standards Committee

Green Newton, the highly regarded and very visible local organization, established the Building Standards Committee, BSC. It comprises architects, progressive local small developers, urban planners and other professionals, and one city councilor who is also an architect. The initial work of the BSC, going back to about 2018, is to introduce a new criterion in the review by the City Council of applications for permits to build large buildings: consideration of environmental impacts.

After this modest success the BSC takes on a bigger task. One of its members has a task of identifying developers of multi-unit residential buildings who are seeking permits from the municipality (City Council’s job), and then approaches them with proposals to adopt fully electric heating with air pumps and a highly insulated construction method known as Passive House. Their modus operandi is a combination of pressure, persuasion, and highly sophisticated technical advice. In 2020 the BSC scores a major victory when a large national developer headquartered in Newton, Northland, adopts these principles of construction for a large project consisting of about 800 apartment units. The project becomes very controversial because of its size, greatly polarizing Newton between the pro- and anti-development supporters. It eventually leads to a city-wide referendum in March 2020, in which the project wins in a landslide. I get deeply involved in the campaign supporting the Northland project, and after they receive the permit I publish an article about it in Commonwealth Magazine “How Newton Bridged the Housing Divide”.

After the Northland victory the prestige of BSC grows and its agenda as well as its effectiveness rapidly increase. This small group of volunteers puts an outsized imprint on the types of residential building projects taking place in Newton. Looking at their work through the theoretical lens of socio-technical transitions, the change they introduced to Newton takes place on the accelerated section of the S-curve of transitions; each new development project is a little easier to fight for and to justify. By the end of 2021 the BSC is responsible for about two dozen building projects executed to very advanced sustainability construction standards.

And the City Council gets educated in the process.

Electric Vehicle Taskforce is established sometime in 2020 to advocate for a rapid adoption of EVs in Newton. I do not elaborate here on their many activities.

Chapter 5. Implementation sags

But the hardest job is still ahead: mobilizing residents and businesses to upgrade the existing buildings toward higher insulation and replacing gas with heat pump heating systems. Existing buildings are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Newton.

In 2020, the Mayor creates a new full-time position, Energy Coach, to help with implementing Climate Action Plan, CAP. This is a major manifestation of her commitment, especially that in the meantime the Covid pandemic creates temporary chaos in the municipal operations and its budget. With some delays related to the pandemic, Liora, Newton Energy Coach is hired in early 2021.

Among the numerous job responsibilities of the Energy Coach, the largest is to develop a campaign directed at homeowners. With the help from volunteer professionals in communications and web design a campaign with a slogan 4Our Future is developed, focusing on four areas of voluntary actions:  solar roofs, insulation, electrification of heating, and electric vehicles. The idea is to assemble a large number of volunteers who would then engage in peer-to-peer communications and over time build a large network for communication and encouragement. Green Newton, a prominent local organization, is working closely with the City on this project.

But the Energy Commission is skeptical.  It has been showed time and time again that information, persuasion, and campaigns do not yield significant results. This is because it requires several factors to work in tandem: people paying attention and internalizing the message, knowing what to do, finding trustworthy professionals to do it, financing the work. It is highly unlikely for these factors to be present all at the same time. I do not know if the City Sustainability team recognizes these barriers, though they certainly have heard it from me numerous times. My guess is that if pressed they would admit that reality but prefer not to think about it because it implies taking more coercive and politically risky action.

The activists create CAP Implementation Working Group comprising representatives of the Energy Commission, EV Taskforce, Green Newton, the entire municipal team working on climate and sustainability (5 individuals with various levels of assignments toward that topic), one city councilor, and Mayor’s community outreach director. A highly regarded grassroots activist chairs the Implementation Group. This group has a potential to become an important venue for open conversation about CAP implementation by the City and about accountability.

But over time the Implementation Working Group does not deliver on its promise. It becomes a forum for planning communication strategies, exchanging information and updates on actions taking place elsewhere in the City. That elsewhere comprises:

    • Energy Commission, currently working on BERDO, and hopefully soon takin on the residential sector;
    • EV Task force, which advocates for charging stations, electric school buses and others, and organizes various events to inform Newton residents about electric vehicles;
    • Building Standards Committee within Newton, which very successfully works with developers to adopt Passive House building methods for large residential new construction;
    • 350Mass-Newton node, which advocates for state legislation focused on Climate protection;
    • Mothers Out Front-Newton node which focuses primarily on gas leeks and on transitioning away from using natural gas.

Chapter 6. 2020-2021

Citizens Commission on Energy takes initial steps toward implementing the most challenging provisions of CAP: improving energy performance of current buildings.

The focus of the Energy Commission is on residential and commercial buildings. We take two initial steps regarding the residential sector: public posting of energy efficiency rankings of homes; and creating energy coaching service of homeowners.

Posting HERS ratings. As the first step toward getting the homeowners engaged with their energy use, we worked with the city to post energy efficiency ratings of homes on publicly accessible database: The tax Assessor’s database. Through a state law, since 2010 all newly constructed homes in Newton must meet a certain minimum energy efficiency rating score, so-called HERS rating. Since 2017, this is a state-wide requirement in Massachusetts.

The assessor’s database is the most frequently used page on the City’s website. It posts detailed information about each house, including the history of its sale prices, the type of a heating system, and the size. The HERS ratings have now been added to the list of these features. Unfortunately, it only affects houses build and radically renovated wince 2010, which represents only a small fraction of total.

Energy Coaching. In 2020 we develop the Energy Coach website in order to provide advice to homeowners on a variety of energy-climate-retrofits topics. The website has hundreds of questions and answers, and it has a portal for making appointments with any of the several volunteer experts. The City loves this service. In the summer of 2021, the City takes over the management of the site and the coordination of the meetings with residents. The newly hired Newton Energy Coach manages this process. The Energy Coach service receives high marks from all who use it. But not a lot of people use it.

Coaching responds to homeowners who are already involved in energy upgrades of their homes. They are a minority. Furthermore, the commercial buildings are a challenge that has not been tackled at all. It is going to be very hard to mobilize the City to do anything about these two biggest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions in Newton because any kind of coercive policy proposal will be politically very risky.

Chapter 6a.  Covid pandemic slows everything down for a year.

Chapter 7. We are still not making measurable progress:  Newton Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory

Since the adoption of Climate Action Plan in December of 2019, the foundation has been set in Newton for taking meaningful steps toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions: the Energy Coach hired, Energy Coaching Service installed, HERS ratings of new homes publicly posted, BSC works toward future reductions from new construction, EV Taskforce is working, the City is developing an outreach campaign for homeowners. But we on the Energy Commission suspect that none of these are currently leading to actual measurable reductions in energy use in Newton. Furthermore, the City does not have a strategy on how to reduce energy use and is not interested in developing one. And because the impressive Power Choice contract for 80% renewable electricity gave Newton the reputation of being a leader, nobody is in a hurry to do anything drastic.

I raise these critical issues in my presentation at Newton Public Library in March of 2021. The virtual presentation is well attended, including several city councilors and the City Sustainability Team, but it does not have any visible impact.

We need facts and figures to draw the attention of the government and activists to that reality, and to open the door for bolder and more coercive policy initiatives. In the summer of 2021, the Energy Commission develops a Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory, the first such update since 2013.

The Inventory went public in November 2021, and it indeed showed no progress in energy demand and the only reductions in GHG emissions being attributed to green electricity contract.

Among its conclusions and recommendations are these:

    • “Continuing the current trends in energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions virtually guarantees that Newton will not meet its stated goals. While we made progress in shifting toward a more renewable electricity mix through NPC, the accounting reductions so produced are being counteracted by a growing demand for heating fuel in the residential, commercial and municipal sectors.”
    • “No matter how large, the resources never match the challenges. We should therefore focus our energy on actions that are likely to succeed rather than actions that we know how to implement. Our strategies and tactics should be evidence-based. The fields of sociology, behavioral economics, management and others offer a large body of research and knowledge on how to effectively change individual, institutional and business behaviors; what works and what does not work. There lies Newton’s best hope for the innovations needed in its next steps.”

The graph above shows that commercial and residential buildings are the primary source of GHG emissions in Newton (this is a traditional inventory, not consumption-based). And since relatively few new single- and two-family houses are built annually, we estimate that it will take several hundred years for the current housing inventory to be replaced with new and highly efficient construction. Something needs to be done about existing buildings.

Chapter 8. Addressing commercial building emissions: BERDO 2.0

A great opportunity arises in 2021.  In September of that year Boston, the main city in Massachusetts and only a few miles away from Newton, adopts a very innovative policy regarding large commercial buildings 20,000 square feet or larger. Under the name BERDO 2.0, it mandates two things: annual reporting of energy use and GHG emissions per square foot; and meeting specific GHG emission standards. The former requirement (under the name BERDO) has been on the books for many years, but despite a high compliance rate it produced no significant reductions in GHG emissions. This is why Boston moves to adopt the latter requirement; a mandate to meet specified performance standards, tailored for 13 different types of buildings. These performance standards get tighter every few years until reaching net zero in 2050. The program has significant financial penalties for non-compliance. At this time of this writing specific regulations are being developed for BERDO 2.0

Boston’s BERDO 2.0 is a path breaker. While there are more than a dozen programs around the country (Including Cambridge, Massachusetts) which require regular reporting of energy use intensity, none set enforceable specific emission standards for buildings. This is a template policy we on the Energy Commission have been looking for. Within weeks of the Boston ordinance, the Energy Commission informally introduces a proposal for a BERDO 2.0-like program in Newton: in informal conversations with sympathetic city councilors and through the CAP Implementation Working Group. The idea is quickly embraced by several city councilors. After the initial reservations, over the next three months the Sustainability Team of the City also warms up to this policy proposal, clearly with at least a tacit approval from the Mayor to cautiously proceed.  

Chapter 9. BERDO ordinance gains traction in Newton

Once we sense an interest in BERDO on the part of one of the Sustainability co-Directors and our “friends” on the City Council (especially the chair of the powerful Zoning and Planning Committee ZAP), we on the Energy Commission move forward using the tactics that were previously successful: we produce data, present numbers and graphs, make the BERDO ordinance seems feasible; we make proposals on topics that are complicated, require tradeoffs or are confusing before anyone else makes them, thus getting the first mover advantage. One of the Commission members – a wizard with numbers and technical analysis, who had been indirectly involved in planning compliance with the Boston BERDO for his university– takes the ownership of this initiative on the part of the Commission.

On February 18th, 2022, the Energy Commission organizes a presentation for the Environmental Committee and of Chamber of Commerce, our potentially greatest opponent. The presentation describes the BERDO 2.0 ordinance adopted by Boston, presents the analysis of buildings in Newton that would be the subject of BERDO (numbers in various size and use categories, number of individual owners) and assures that there will be help for building owners.   

We invite to the presentation several city councilors. The president of the Chamber also attends and asks questions that on the one hand indicate his interest, and on the other hand suggest that he may want to slow it all down. The presentation is well received, and the representatives of the municipality are clearly impressed with the level of knowledge the Commission has and the thinking that has already gone into this initiative. In short order, the Sustainability Co-director is invited to give a similar presentation to the Zoning and Planning Committee on March 18th. The presentation is prepared jointly by the Energy Commission and the Sustainability co-director, and they split the presentation between the two of them.

It goes very well. The legislators are very positive. Our strongest leverage points are: that the City of Boston has done it already, proving that it is feasible both technically and politically; and that the Energy Commission is confident in its technical analysis. Soon after that presentation, the ZAP unanimously adopts a resolution calling for the City to continue the work on the BERDO ordinance and expressing its support for it. From then on, the duo – Sustainability co-director and the key member of the Energy Commission – are a team when it comes to giving presentations about BERDO.

Chapter 10. BERDO ordinance develops.

In the late spring of 2022, with a tacit approval from the Mayor, the City makes an official commitment to work on developing BERDO ordinance. They create a website, form a team of staff members, and invite two people form the Energy Commission (me and my colleague) to participate in the weekly meetings. After the first couple of meetings a question arises that requires expertise from another Commission member. He is invited to one meeting, then another, and he stays. This way, our BERDO team is balanced; three people from the City and three people from the Commission.

We work as a single team, largely because the Energy Commission provides crucial expertise and willingness to work for free. The City would not be able to do it on their own. There are several key decisions to be made, all requiring analysis, discussion, consideration. Examples: what should be the minimum size of buildings covered by the ordinance; Should Newton adopt the same emission standards as Boston; should large residential properties be included; what time table to use for implementation; how to reach out to the building owners to explain and avoid political surprises; how to allocated the funds that will be collected from fees and fines; how  to involve the utilities in helping building owners with data assembly for annual reports on energy use; should smaller buildings have more time for compliance than  large and professionally managed buildings; how to count REC’s in calculating GHG emissions.

Between March and June/July these decisions get all made by our team of six. On some of those, such as an implementation timetable for different types of buildings, and the inclusion of large residential properties, the Energy Commission takes the first step, and our proposals get accepted partly because there are no strong counterarguments. The passing of the ordinance gets tentatively scheduled for February 2023.

Starting in June, the Sustainability co-director and the key member of the Energy Commission begin a series of outreach presentations and Q&A sessions for the commercial real estate community. By the end of August, five information sessions have been offered, each attended by about two dozen people, and moderated aby another volunteer: the Chairman of the Board of Green Newton.  Over time, the presentations get more concrete, as the decisions about the details of the ordinance get made.

The state and local legislation improves the climate for our work. In the spring of 2022, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources unveils its long-anticipated draft new opt-in building stretch code. The code does not satisfy many environmentalists, but it is significantly more stringent than the current code, thus raising the bar for all the existing buildings as well.

More importantly, on August 11th the Governor reluctantly signs a new Climate Legislation for the Commonwealth, which, among several excellent provisions, creates a requirement that all buildings above 20,000 s.f. must annually report their energy use. Compared with Boston, and hopefully Newton, BERDO this is a small step toward accountability of building owners for their energy use, it is becoming clear to all building owners that the trend toward disclosure of energy performance is here to stay: sooner or later they will have to do it even if Newton’s BERDO were to be defeated.

The Mass Climate Bill also provides for 10 communities to experiment with prohibition of new gas hookups in new construction. Newton is among the ten. While not directly related to our efforts regarding existing buildings, and still open to adoption or rejection by Newton City Council, this is another step in the same direction which is hard to ignore. Clearly, the winds are blowing toward more and more stringent requirements for GHG emission reduction.

In the same spring of 2022 Newton City council adopts what is called PACE legislation, which is an interesting program for long-term financing of energy upgrades of commercial buildings. That may prove very helpful to some building owners that would be covered by BERDO.

Case studies in BERDO reporting and compliance. In parallel to the development of the ordinance, the Energy Commission decides to conduct several case studies for BERDO reporting and implementation planning. For that, we need several volunteers building owners to work with us. It is not an easy task to enroll them, mostly because it is seen as a distraction from the daily business. We reach out to building owners who are in favor of reducing emissions and use various personal networks to enlist them. AT this time of this writing (August 2022) we are working on it.

Chapter 11. Progress Report to the City Council.

The City council requests that the sustainability team reports on September 19th 2022 on the progress with the BERDO ordinance and with the implementation of the Climate Action Plan. Almost three years have elapsed since the City released its Five-Year Climate Plan.

Chapter 12. The toughest challenge: residential retrofits

At the current rate of replacement, by 2050 80% of Newton’s current housing stock will still be in place. These structures are largely energy inefficient. The Climate Action Plan calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20% through insulation and by another 80% by replacing gas heating with electric heatpumps. Massachusetts has a robust program that provides homeowners with free home energy assessments and generous subsidies for insulation and other energy efficiency improvements. The program is not perfect, and is currently undergoing much needed improvements, but it has a great potential to improve energy efficiency of homes. Unfortunately, relatively small number of homeowners use it. Newton Climate Action Plan calls for approximately tripling the number of home energy assessments and insulation projects in the next couple of years, but there is little evidence that this will happen. 

Partly, the problem is the voluntary nature of the program. As shown by scientific research and decades of national experience, voluntary programs compete with other urgent demands for attention in people’s lives and rarely rise to the level of visibility required for taking action. Other barriers include: unfamiliarity with technical matters, lack of knowledge about what actions are needed, feeling powerless because of the highly technical challenges involved, confusing and inconsistent advice, lack of trust in contractors, and general reluctance to tackle potentially large, expensive and time-consuming projects.

The Energy Commission has been developing a proposal for an ordinance requiring that every homeowner in Newton obtains what is known as Energy Use Intensity score, EUI.

The program has several benefits: It –

  • Induces homeowners to engage with the energy performance of their homes;
  • Identifies homes most in need of greater energy efficiency, relevant professional advice, and help from the Newton Energy Coach service;
  • Provides a mechanism for homeowners to compare their homes to others, using a simple metric, and for energy-efficiency competition among homeowners with different ratings through the public posting;
  • Stimulates the demand for retrofits and adds to the local economic activity;
  • If deemed necessary, it provides the basis for developing additional data-driven future policy instruments that will mobilize building owners to improve their properties.

It imposes both a responsibility and an accountability on building owners. It drives home the message that what people do with their homes impacts local and global communities.

One of the members of Energy Commission has developed an app for calculating EUI from the data on the use of natural gas and electricity, and the square footage of a house. The app is extremely easy to use. A pilot program for the App is under development at the time of this writing.