Massachusetts: Green Monster of Renewable Energy

By NEIL RHEIN/ecoRI News contributor

Massachusetts is known as the home of Fenway Park’s Green Monster, but the state is also earning acclaim for its green environmental policies. Thanks largely to the impact of the Green Communities Act, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) recently ranked Massachusetts No. 1 in the nation for energy-efficiency policies and programs for the third year in a row.

Gov. Deval Patrick signed the Green Communities Act (GCA) into law in July 2008 in an effort to promote renewable-energy projects and encourage energy efficiency. By virtually any measure, the GCA has been a success. In 2012 alone, more solar and wind-energy systems were installed statewide than in every other year combined. In fact, more than 347 megawatts of solar capacity have been installed, surpassing the Patrick administration’s goal of 250 megawatts by 2017 four years early.

Of Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns, 110 are now “Green Communities,” representing 2.9 million residents. (Department of Energy Resources)

Of Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns, 110 are now “Green Communities,” representing 2.9 million residents. (Department of Energy Resources)

The GCA provides financial incentives to cities and towns to help them reduce their energy consumption through stricter building codes, the use of fuel-efficient vehicles, and zoning that eases the completion of renewable-energy projects. Today, there are 110 “Green Communities” in the state, representing 2.9 million residents and about 45 percent of the state’s population.

While the aura of being certified as a green community may help municipalities market themselves to prospective employers and homebuyers, the certification also provides serious financial benefits. Each year, the state awards between $7 million and $8 million in designation grants and competitive grants, according to Meg Lusardi, a director with the state’s Green Communities Division, which launched in May 2009.

In the most recent round of competitive grants that ended in June, the state’s Department of Energy Resources awarded $3.7 million to 20 communities. Awards were capped at $250,000 for each community. Funding for these grants came from Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) auctions, a cooperative effort among nine Northeast states, including Massachusetts and Rhode Island, that includes a cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions.

Green communities

Municipalities seeking Green Community designation must meet the following criteria:

Provide “as-of-right siting” in designated locations for renewable-energy generation, research and development, or manufacturing facilities. As-of-right siting streamlines the completion of renewable-energy projects by eliminating unreasonable regulation and the need for a special permit, variance, amendment or other discretionary approval. However, these developments must still conform to local zoning bylaws, as well as state and federal laws.

Adopt an expedited application and permit process that ensures all local decisions relevant to the siting and construction of new renewable-energy facilities sited within the designated as-of-right districts can be issued within a year.

Establish an energy-use baseline measurement and develop a plan to reduce energy use by 20 percent within five years. This includes recording an inventory of the municipality’s current energy usage, including the school district, over the course of a fiscal or calendar year.

Buy only fuel-efficient cars. A municipality’s chief executive officer and school superintendent must each sign off on letters stating they have adopted a fuel-efficient vehicle policy. For 2-wheel drives cars, the combined city and highway mileage must be 29 mpg or better, while 4-wheel drive vehicles must get 24 mpg. Police cruisers, fire engines and heavy-duty vehicles more than 8,500 pounds are exempt. The state updates fuel-efficiency standards on a regular basis and municipalities are required to keep pace as these standards become more stringent.

Minimize life-cycle energy costs in new construction by adopting the Board of Building Regulations and Standards Stretch Code. This amendment to the state’s building code requires an approximate 20 percent increase in energy efficiency for new residential and commercial buildings. The code provides flexibility on how improvements are to be achieved, leaving decisions up to the developer. It also applies to additions and renovations that would normally trigger building code requirements.

After earning designation as a Green Community, municipalities receive a base grant that consists of at least $125,000 from the state, plus an adder based on population and per-capita income. The final amount can be higher for municipalities that provide as-of-right siting for renewable-energy generation facilities. After they spend their initial designation grant on a state-approved project, designated Green Communities can then apply for competitive grants to pay for additional energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects.

Reduced energy bills

Since 2010, many cash-starved cities and towns have received sizable grants that help defray the cost of projects that promise to reduce future energy bills. Case in point: the town of Palmer, which received two grants totaling more than $393,000 after earning its GCA designation in May 2010. This money enabled the town to replace an ancient HVAC system at Town Hall, install an energy management system and install timers on vending machines.

“With the grant associated with becoming a certified Green Community, we saw an opportunity to get a lump sum payment toward some really expensive improvements within our town buildings,” said Linda Leduc, Palmer’s town planner and economic development director. “These grants allowed us to complete several projects that we would not have been able to afford on our own.”

David Colton, town administrator in Easton, was quick to jump on the opportunity to become a Green Community and improve his town’s energy efficiency.

“Easton was already a very green town,” he said. “There has been a lot of effort over the years to preserve open space and people here care about the environment, so it was a natural fit.”

Easton was designated as a Green Community in January 2011, and received a designation grant of $168,000 in March 2011. In June, Easton earned a competitive grant that provided an additional $250,000. Of that amount, the town earmarked $207,745 to cover the cost of installing energy-efficient LED streetlights.

Eventually, the town wants to replace 1,308 streetlights with LED fixtures, representing 90 percent of all streetlights in town. The Green Communities grant allowed Easton to replace 570 bulbs in 2013. This will reduce annual streetlight consumption by 22 percent, saving the town $39,600 annually at today’s electricity rates. Once all the streetlights have been replaced, the town projects a 46 percent reduction in its streetlight energy usage, generating $84,000 in annual savings.

Easton also allocated $42,000 to install insulated doors in its four municipal garages. This project will reduce the town’s energy costs by an estimated $7,223 annually. When combined with the LED streetlights, these two projects will help move the town toward its goal of reducing energy consumption by 20 percent within five years.

“I care about the cost of running the government and reducing energy use is one of the few costs I can control,” Colton said. “Every dollar I save on energy can help fund other programs.”

241 to go

With the obvious financial and environmental benefits associated with becoming a Green Community, one has to wonder why 241 of the state’s 351 municipalities have yet to achieve designation. In many cases, it’s a matter of finding the resources necessary to complete the designation process. Many thinly staffed towns simply don’t have human resources allocated to these projects and must rely on volunteers to pick up the slack.

“Earning the Green Community designation does require some effort and sometimes there is a capacity issue,” Lusardi said. “You have to respect your town’s culture and how things work in your community. The one common thing I have seen is that most towns need a champion — a person or a team of people willing to lead the effort.”

As Massachusetts’ reputation for energy efficiency has spread, other states have looked to emulate the Green Communications Act. New York and Maryland have initiated similar programs, and Lusardi said her department has met with officials from Rhode Island, Colorado and Wisconsin who want to learn from Massachusetts.

“What I love about this program is that it benefits everyone,” said Palmer’s Leduc. “This includes residents who now live in more energy-efficient homes, employees who are working in a more comfortable environment, and governments that are reducing energy costs for their taxpayers.”