UMass Amherst announces plan to be carbon-neutral by 2032

By Sarah Marshall

Today, on the 53rd Earth Day, UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy announced the campus’s commitment to becoming a carbon-neutral campus, using only 100% renewable energy, in approximately 10 years. Describing himself as an eternal optimist, the Chancellor said he is convinced that the University can take meaningful steps to help prevent a climate crisis.

The flagship campus is not only the largest emitter of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Amherst, but the largest contributor of any public entity in the Commonwealth, accounting for about 20% of GHG emissions from public facilities.

The Chancellor and others described the University’s action this morning in the Student Center Ballroom. The program, called UMass Carbon Zero, has been in development for two years and was driven by student demand. Carbon Zero builds on earlier University accomplishments in green energy and sustainability, as well as its considerable academic, engineering, and policy expertise. Three UMass buildings, for example, already use geothermal systems for heating and cooling, including the police station on East Pleasant Street and Crotty Hall on North Pleasant Street. This blog has previously reported on the solar canopies at several UMass parking lots.

The two largest components of the plan to eliminate GHG are (1) replacing the steam-based heating system, which uses fossil fuels, with a low-temperature hot water system powered by green energy produced on campus or purchased, and (2) using geothermal heat storage and extraction – at 500 to 800 feet below ground – to prevent energy losses. Other components include increasing the energy efficiency of the campus’s 300 or so buildings, improving the campus’s ability to track energy use, and expanding solar generation.

Crotty Hall uses a geothermal system.

A pilot project will undertake these infrastructure changes in a collection of 40 buildings at the southwestern part of campus to demonstrate proof of concept and refine plans for converting the remaining buildings to these new systems in several waves of construction and renovation. This is a task of enormous complexity and cost.

Benefits are expected to be significant, not only in decreased energy use and operational costs and increased thermal comfort. The changes will also position the University at the forefront of efforts to meet the Commonwealth’s climate change goals and serve as an inspiration and source of experience, research, and graduates who can fan out to other sectors of society and drive change. The University aims to lead by example.

UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy

I asked Chancellor Subbaswamy what this announcement means for Amherst, and he stated that not only will UMass’s plan have a huge impact on GHG emissions in town, but its efforts can inspire and instruct other local institutions, in part by announcing a target date for carbon neutrality. However, as a very large, public institution, UMass will need to secure funding from a range of sources that perhaps colleges with deeper pockets do not require.

The Carbon Zero project includes not only a physical transformation of campus but engagement across campus, involving students, staff, and faculty, in an interdisciplinary program called the Living Lab. Envisioned as distinguishing UMass among other universities also aiming for sustainability, the Living Lab intends to develop internships, training opportunities, new courses, and outreach activities to promote climate change mitigation.

UMass already offers more than 500 courses pertaining to sustainability, and aims to involve all departments, from Fine Arts to Public Health and Social Sciences to campus operations. A major goal is to develop a “carbon-literate” work force that will be the next generation of scientists and policy makers.

It is my hope that, as Carbon Zero gets underway at UMass, our own Town-sponsored efforts to mitigate GHG emissions can benefit from the expertise and experience located just up the street.

Net-zero energy schools are old news in Kentucky

By Sara Ross

Hello reader,

I’m writing to you as a parent of kids in the Amherst schools, a “townie” who returned (proud member of the class of 1993), an inhabitant of a net-zero home for the past decade, and as someone whose day job is to make change so that the transformational power of our public schools is fully activated in our race to address the climate emergency.

I’m not an engineer or an architect; but I have spent countless hours learning from the best in those professions as they work to make schools safer, healthier places for kids today and in the future. In a skate-to-where-the-puck-is-going-to-be way, that means ensuring that schools are equipped to pursue their core mission – to educate our children – on a planet characterized by rapidly changing climate. This affects the buildings and grounds where they learn, the buses they ride, the food they eat, and the learning agenda.

King Open in Cambridge, Mass is a net-zero school. Photo credit: Sara Ross

Given that background, it may not surprise you to hear that I have been excited to participate in and support the important work of our Elementary School Building Committee and the Net-Zero Subcommittee (as a resident, not a member).

My goal is to translate the jargon, share with you some of what I’ve learned from working on these issues with leaders from across the country, and to infect you with the same confidence and excitement I have for this project!

Here goes.

What is a net-zero energy building?

Simply put, it is a building that produces at least as much renewable (clean!) energy as it consumes on-site.

Net-zero buildings of all types are cropping up across the country, but schools lead the way as the most prolific among the building types achieving net-zero status. The first net-zero energy school was built over a decade ago in Kentucky.

How do you make a net-zero energy building?

There is no magic here, but there are a few core elements that are important to get right. Put simply, the formula is:

Step 1. Put the building in the right place. 

Step 2. Design a simple form and build it well. 

Step 3. Reduce the amount of the energy needed to operate the building and make sure it runs on electricity alone (no more burning fossil fuels!). 

Step 4. Engage the occupants on how to be energy-smart.

At this point, you can calculate how much energy the building requires. The standard way to measure this is energy use intensity (EUI). If you are new to EUI, you are not alone! Just think of it as the building equivalent of miles per gallon (except in the case of EUI, lower is better).

Energy use intensity is expressed as how many units of energy (kBtu) are needed to operate the building for a year. In order to compare buildings of different sizes, we normalize the measure by the square footage of the building. A typical school building in Massachusetts uses around 60 kBtu per square foot of building space per year. Our target for the new elementary school is to do steps 1-4 so well that we only use 25 kBtu per square foot of building space per year.

And that leads us to . . .

Step 5. Install enough solar energy on the site (most cost-effectively done on the roof) to meet the energy bill that remains after we’ve done our very best on the earlier steps.

Et voilà!

An EUI of 25 is a good goal. Other schools in Massachusetts have achieved this target. It’s also the target that our utility, Eversource, requires us to achieve in order to earn their financial support through the MassSave program.

Why are net-zero buildings important?

First, they are budget-friendly. Net-zero buildings cost less to operate and protect our budgets from the wild swings in the price of heating oil or natural gas that have been a financial hardship for many families this winter. Second, net-zero buildings are a joy to inhabit. They are full of natural light. They are devoid of the hot and cold zones that characterize many old, leaky buildings. They are mechanically ventilated to ensure a consistent supply of fresh air. With well-insulated walls and high-performance windows, they are delightfully quiet. Lastly, with buildings responsible for 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the Commonwealth, net-zero buildings are an important part of achieving our town, state and national climate goals, all of which target a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero by 2050.

Net zero schools enjoy all those benefits and more. In fact, our non-profit joined with other national leaders in making the case that schools are, in fact, the most important buildings to make net-zero

In the world of schools, net-zero energy is not a new concept, and has been widely embraced across the country and political spectrum. With evidence that net-zero schools do not necessarily cost more to build than conventional schools, the only thing standing in the way of all new schools being net-zero is awareness and a very human desire to keep doing things the way we have always done them.  

There is no doubt in my mind that Amherst can build a net-zero energy school that reduces the cost of operating our school buildings, creates a healthy and safe place for generations of Amherst’s young people to learn, and does our part to address the climate crisis. Don’t believe me? Just ask the residents of Bowling Green in Kentucky. 

Let’s declare a moratorium on moratoriums

Editors’ note: On Monday night, the Town Council did not support a moratorium on large-scale solar arrays. The vote was eight in favor, five opposed, failing to meet the required two-thirds.

By Bob Rakoff

Another year, another moratorium.

The Town Council will vote this evening on a proposed moratorium on large-scale solar arrays. While other folks have written about the pros and cons of this particular proposal, I am interested in the increasing advocacy of moratoriums in local political debates. Why now? Why so popular? Do they promote good decision-making in pursuit of the public good?

Photo by Will Porada on Unsplash

Moratoriums have a long history in Amherst politics, but their recent popularity stems from the 2018 election for Town Council. In that election, candidate Darcy DuMont featured a moratorium on downtown development at the center of her campaign. There weren’t a lot of details attached to her proposal for a six-month moratorium to allow for writing up new zoning regulations. In my view, the proposal was largely a campaign slogan masquerading as a serious policy, intended to appeal to people who disliked the scale and appearance of new downtown buildings. The proposal was eventually voted down by the Town Council.

When is a moratorium an appropriate response to a perceived problem? The key is whether there is an emergency that demands slamming on the brakes of business as usual. A recent example is the national moratorium on rental evictions during the first years of the Covid pandemic. Putting millions of unemployed, low-income people out into the streets during a public health crisis is just about a textbook case of an emergency that calls for immediate action.

It can be difficult to justify a local moratorium as a response to an emergency. Back in the 1970s, the State of Massachusetts imposed a moratorium on new hook-ups to the local sewer system until a new solid waste facility was completed. There was grumbling about this, but little dispute about the seriousness of the problem. Once the new treatment plant was completed, life returned to normal.

Sewage treatment plant. Photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer, Portland (Maine) Press Herald

On the other hand, when the Amherst Board of Selectmen pushed for a moratorium on new building permits in 1985, there was significant pushback in local political discussion and in the courts. The Selectmen (as they were still known back then), noting that there were more than 2,000 possible new housing units in the permitting pipeline — a 25 percent increase in our housing stock — feared that such an increase would overwhelm schools as well as physical infrastructure. The Planning Board and Town Meeting went along, and a moratorium was declared. While the ban on building permits was being litigated in the courts, the Planning Board and its staff used the hiatus to craft a phased growth zoning bylaw to regulate the approval of subdivision plans and the issuance of building permits. (I was the Planning Board chair in 1987, when Town Meeting passed the bylaw.)

Was that moratorium appropriate? While the fears of crowded schools and overtaxed sewers were genuine, the courts found that these concerns did not amount to a real emergency. A better permitting system did emerge from the moratorium period, including the first pieces of an affordable housing policy for Amherst. So, not a real emergency, but not a total mistake either. And, by the way, those looming 2,000 new housing units did not materialize for a very long time.

One problem with the recent zoning-related moratorium proposals is that they have the potential to escalate the problems they are seeking to fix. This is because state zoning laws, which control what local communities can and cannot do, allow developers to freeze local zoning as soon as they submit preliminary plans for subdivisions, commercial buildings, and other structures governed by local zoning codes. We have already seen this with the pending proposal on solar arrays: potential developers have already filed their plans and will not be subject to future changes.

Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

And would the potential problem of large-scale solar developments rise to the level of an emergency? Amherst does have some regulations on the books, so we are not unprepared. And, of course, proponents of solar arrays would argue that the real emergency is not loss of open land or forests but climate change itself!

While calls for moratoriums raise public interest in local issues and provide a symbolic lift to folks who have a special grievance, they are a blunt instrument of policy making. It would be far better for the Town Council to direct the Planning Board and Department to bring them specific responses to specific, perceived problems.

Let’s declare a moratorium on moratoriums.

[Editor’s notes. You can read previous posts about solar energy in Amherst and the proposed moratorium by clicking on the Climate change mitigation category in our menu. Town Council will vote on the proposed moratorium this evening during the regular Council meeting. You can find links to the virtual meeting, agenda, and materials here.]

Town-wide solar assessment should precede solar zoning bylaw

By Laura Draucker

In December, the Energy and Climate Action Committee (ECAC, of which I am the chair) submitted a letter to Town Council recommending that, before the Council enacts a solar zoning bylaw, it support the town in conducting a solar assessment and planning process. I summarize our letter in this post.

Burning fossil fuels to power vehicles, create the materials and products we use every day, and heat and power our homes and buildings contributes to nearly 90 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Climate change has already contributed to devastation across the globe and must be curtailed to avoid unimaginable impacts to livelihoods and the environment.

Photo by Bill Mead on Unsplash

To address this, the Commonwealth has enacted several laws and policies designed to move the state toward net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. Interim goals for 2025 and 2030 should be established by July of this year. In addition, the Town of Amherst has made its own commitments to reducing GHG emissions, also aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050 with interim goals of 25 and 50 percent reductions by 2025 and 2030, respectively.  These goals are what is required to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Last year, ECAC supported the town in developing the “Climate Action, Adaptation, and Resiliency Plan” (CAARP), which lays out specific actions we need to implement to meet our goals.

A key component of Massachusetts’s “2050 Roadmap” is expanding wind and solar power to provide the energy previously provided by fossil fuels. Even with the necessary improvements to energy efficiency, electricity demand is expected to more than double due to widespread electrification of buildings and transportation services. That electricity must be from clean, renewable resources to meet our goals, and doubling the clean electricity supply will require solar and wind generation to increase more than ten times from 2025 through 2050. Offshore wind power is slated to provide the majority of new generation capacity, but an estimated 20-23 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity will also be needed. As of the end of 2020, Massachusetts had about 3.4 GW of total solar capacity installed.

Credit Patch.com

Thus, a staggering amount of new solar capacity must be developed. The state estimates that, even with maximal rooftop deployment, ground-mounted solar on approximately 60,000 acres of state land will be needed over the next 30 years.  While ECAC believes we need a process where we can come together as a community and determine what the Town of Amherst’s share should be, it is likely to amount to several hundred acres.

Forests in Massachusetts currently sequester the equivalent of about 7 percent of state GHG emissions. The Roadmap concludes that, even with losses of forests to development of housing and clean energy resources, forests will continue to grow and increase GHG sequestration.

Locally, we should ensure that our natural resources are protected while we develop solar capacity, and we feel a solar resource assessment is needed. An assessment would address questions such as:

  • How much rooftop, parking lot canopy, brownfield, and ground-mounted solar is available in Amherst to meet the Town’s and Commonwealth’s goals for 2025, 2030, and 2050?
  • How much land is available that currently qualifies for Massachusetts SMART program incentives? (That stands for Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target.) What are the current uses of that land, and who are the owners?
  • How much Amherst land will be needed for solar facilities to meet 2050 goals beyond the amount allowed under our current land-use policies?
  • What may be the impact of the town’s efforts on the state’s climate change goals?
  • What may be our goals for solar capacity?
  • What are the pros and cons of siting alternatives to create that capacity?
  • What are residents’ perspectives and preferences?
  • What may be local benefits of solar financing and ownership options?
  • How can we engage with developers and the Community Choice Aggregation program?

A toolkit that communities can use to engage in a solar planning process should soon be available from the UMass Clean Energy Extension. The information developed by such a planning process can help the Town develop a solar bylaw that:

  • Recognizes the importance and likely need for ground-mounted solar;
  • Guides solar development in favorable locations and balances community values with the need for renewable energy;
  • Incentivizes suitable solar developments through expedited review and permitting;
  • Identifies and requires best practices for natural resource management on parcels hosting solar developments; and
  • Is consistent with existing local and state laws and climate action commitments.

ECAC is ready to help.

This post has not been authorized by ECAC.

Two views on solar moratorium

First, by Gerry Weiss

On Nov. 8, Lynn Griesemer and Pat DeAngelis of the Town Council introduced a zoning amendment proposing a temporary moratorium on the permitting and approval of large-scale ground-mounted (LSGM) solar photovoltaic installations.

Their reasoning was that Amherst needs to create a bylaw governing those LSGM
installations and, until that bylaw is law, the permitting of such installations could have negative effects on the environment. The Council voted to send the proposal to the Planning Board and the Community Resources Committee.

On Jan. 12, the CRC held a public hearing on the matter, with a presentation by the petitioners, who included newly elected Town Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier, a former member of the Conservation Commission. Public sentiment at that hearing was lopsidedly in favor of a moratorium.

Photo by Irina Iriser on Unsplash

Many people believe that Amherst needs a Solar Installation Bylaw, so the Planning Board and Planning Department will undertake that task. The State of Massachusetts has been promoting such bylaws for the past seven years, and several communities in the state have created them for their towns and cities. So, it makes sense for us to hold off permitting these large-scale installations until a bylaw is created. The CRC hearing on Jan. 12 went late into the night, so deliberation before a vote will take place today.

Rather than go into the details myself of what a moratorium will and will not do, I direct you to Devlin Gauthier’s excellent presentation on the matter.

The most-often-cited reason not to have a moratorium is that our planet is burning up (I agree) and to possibly (are there plans that haven’t been submitted?) postpone a new LSGM installation by even a few months would put Amherst and the planet further behind in our quest to achieve a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

The State of Massachusetts gave guidance for solar installation bylaws in 2014. Amherst is behind the curve on this initiative, but that does not mean we should rush headlong into clear-cutting hundreds of acres of forest without any guidelines. A large solar installation on a former forest is not a win-win.

While an LSGM will likely result in a net gain in carbon sequestration, there will be losses. Forests sequester carbon, turn CO2 into oxygen, filter pollutants out of the air and protect our water supply. Given the extremely short-term gains possible versus the likely costly errors without a bylaw to guide the process, it’s hard to understand why the idea of a moratorium is controversial.

Gerry Weiss has lived in Amherst for 41 years, served on the Select Board, the Charter Commission, The Disability Access Advisory Board and is the current President of Craig’s Doors, having served on the their Board of Directors for the past 11 years.

Second, by Johanna Neumann

Last month, the Planning Board voted (5-2) not to recommend a 18-month moratorium on ground-mount solar arrays larger than an acre to the Town Council.

In my view, the majority of board members felt that the provisions of Amherst’s current bylaw that guides the siting of solar projects and other energy facilities are adequate for the time being. They also felt a discomfort with using moratoriums to dictate public policy outside of an emergency. And they were confident that Amherst residents want our town to continue to play a leadership role in the transition to clean energy. 

Photo by Gene Gallin on Unsplash

Amherst already has a bylaw that guides the siting of energy projects like solar arrays. While this bylaw could be made more specific, it has allowed for the successful construction of ground-mount solar arrays like the one behind Atkins Market in South Amherst, the panels going up now on the old landfill, and the proposed solar array at Hickory Ridge.

The bylaw includes language for setbacks, management plans, and more. The existence of the bylaw has not resulted in major problems with the solar systems installed to date, and so I and other Planning Board members felt that a moratorium isn’t necessary to prevent problems with potential solar installations in the future.

Some of us also felt that governing by moratorium is too reactionary. In the past few years, there have been two proposed moratoriums in town: one to freeze downtown development and the other to freeze solar arrays. Amherst has rules and regulations in place that were thoughtfully developed, and I, at least, feel that moratoriums should be considered a “nuclear option” and used only when absolutely necessary.

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

Lastly, I and other Planning Board members see the need for continued growth in clean energy. The Massachusetts 2050 Roadmap to Decarbonization calls for ​​in-state solar capacity to accelerate from the roughly 400 megawatts (MW) installed per year over the past six years to more than 600 MW installed each year by 2030. An 18-month moratorium on any ground-mount solar project larger than an acre in Amherst would freeze clean energy’s growth right at the time when we need it to take off.

We can do two things at once. We can and must keep growing solar to reduce our climate pollution and we can be conscientious about how, where and when that solar goes. 

Town staff are exploring how to go about funding and structuring a comprehensive solar study, and the Planning Board has initiated conversations around a solar-specific bylaw. I am confident that by working together, we can continue to make progress towards Amherst’s goal of powering itself with 100 percent renewable energy in a way that satisfies most residents.

Johanna Neumann has lived in Amherst since 2011. She has been an advocate and organizer around environmental issues for 20 years and is currently the senior director of Environment America’s campaign for 100 percent renewable energy. She is in her first term as a member of Amherst’s Planning Board. This statement has not been approved by the board.

Solar on landfills and parking lots

By Elisa Campbell

The climate crisis requires us to work quickly to reduce fossil fuel use. We need to create policies and incentives to encourage rapid development of solar where we most want it. We can’t spend months, let alone years, obtaining the “perfect” versus other possibilities.

Many of us prefer that solar projects be put on already disturbed land and over parking lots. Are we willing to support state subsidies for commercial rooftop and parking lot solar arrays? Are we willing to pay more for electricity to cover the true costs of building the facilities (with subsidies for low-income ratepayers)? We have to take action to make change happen and solve the problems that we who have benefited from industrialization have caused.

Massachusetts has been pursuing putting solar photovoltaics on closed landfills. Amherst is currently doing this on the closed landfill north of Belchertown Road.

credit Elisa Campbell

According to Stephanie Ciccarello, the Town’s Sustainability Coordinator, town government will be an “off-taker” for the power produced by this project – we will get credit for the power generated there. That’s expected to be 4 megawatts, which covers about two-thirds of the Town’s energy use for buildings, lights, etc. In addition, the company building (and owning) the project will pay the Town $78,000 a year for 20 years as rent for the land (some of that will be in the form of a Payment in Lieu of Taxes or PILOT).

Many of us wish a project like this could have happened earlier. It didn’t for three basic reasons: opposition by neighbors to the previously proposed site, discovery of an endangered species on that site, and the complexity of siting and arranging for permits, etc.

The first proposal, in 2015, included siting collectors on both discontinued landfills (north and south of Belchertown Road). There was strenuous opposition by some of the homeowners abutting the southern landfill, including claims the landfill was not safe for solar arrays (untrue) and court challenges. The argument that held up was the discovery of an endangered bird species – the Grasshopper Sparrow – using the grassland on top of the old landfill as a nesting site. So the proposal was changed to put collectors on the northern landfill, and create a conservation easement for the Sparrow on the southern landfill (a fence will be installed to protect the birds from dogs, etc.).

Any project needs funding and to meet many criteria. The site has to be carefully studied to be sure it is suitable. The Department of Public Utilities and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection have to issue permits, and the local utility company – in this case, Eversource – has to agree to purchase the power. Someone must come up with the large dollar amount to do all this preparatory environmental and legal work, to buy the materials, actually install the panels, and pay all the costs of connecting to the grid. All this before any money comes in.

One selected developer had financial problems during the years of permitting and the Town had to select another. In order to make it work financially, the developer needs to find a customer able and willing to commit to paying for the electricity that will be generated – to be an off-taker. The developer can’t build the project unless all the power is committed (they won’t get a loan without evidence it can be paid back); in our situation, the Town is able to commit for all 4 megawatts the facility will generate.

Everything I said about the permits and costs of siting photovoltaics on a closed landfill applies equally to putting them on canopies over a parking lot. But more so: the steel pillars needed to hold the canopies are a major expense, for example. Also, since an existing parking lot surface will be torn up to install the electrical cables, concrete footings for the pillars, etc. it is best to do it on a parking lot that was due to be resurfaced, not one with a new surface. The overall result is that creating a solar site on a canopy over a parking lot costs twice as much as creating one on open land.

We have several examples of canopies over parking lots in Amherst, courtesy of the University of Massachusetts. According to Ezra Small, Campus Sustainability Manager, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts created grant and incentive programs for state agencies to create solar projects on their properties, and the University has received significant grant funds over the course of the past five years or so of canopy development on campus.

Solar canopies over parking lots were in earlier stages of market development in 2015, so the first project on campus, near the Robsham Memorial Visitors Center on Massachusetts Avenue, was a pilot project. UMass put up its own capital funds, combined with a Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources Leading by Example grant of $268,000 to fund the project, but since then has partnered with commercial developers on much larger canopy projects: the developer comes up with the capital, UMass enters into a Site License Agreement with them for the parking lots, and like the Town with the landfill project, has a 20-year agreement to purchase the power. There are now five parking lots generating over 10 million kilowatt hours per year of renewable electricity, the equivalent of the amount used by 1,430 Massachusetts homes or about 30 percent of homes in Amherst.

The projects have definitely been a success: without taking on the capital expense of installing the solar canopies, UMass has a fixed rate for electricity expenses for 20 years, has less need for snowplowing, and shows its commitment, on campus, to solar power.

You probably have noticed that the two private colleges in Amherst have not done projects over their own parking lots. Hampshire College does supply its own energy from the large ground-mount array along Bay Road.

Nor have commercial properties in Amherst or nearby Hadley installed arrays over parking lots. River Valley Co-op, working with Co-op Power, put collectors on the roof and over the parking lot on their new building in Easthampton.

The state offers significant tax incentives for solar canopies, but not enough to make up for the additional costs. Additional complications include important infrastructure or easements under parking lots (such as for sewage, water, or gas lines) or multiple owners. Similarly, the roofs of large commercial buildings often have utilities (as for air conditioning) on them and were generally not built with adequate support for solar panels.

For more information on green energy projects in Amherst, see our previous post.

Thinking globally, acting locally: How to respond to climate crisis

By Elisa Campbell

Things we can agree on:

  • The climate crisis is real, and getting worse. 
  • If we want to keep the planet life-sustaining for the species that live on it, including ourselves, we have to stop using fossil fuels  and absorb at least some of the CO2 that has already been put into the atmosphere. 
  • Most of the regions of the world that are currently most affected by the climate crisis have contributed almost nothing to creating the problem.  
  • Fossil fuel industries have fought every proposal to reduce fossil fuel use and have contributed to world-wide delays in taking action.
  • There is no energy source that is impact-free, but we prefer to use methods that create the fewest impacts on the ecosystem and vulnerable humans. 

A recent meeting of the Energy and Climate Action Committee considered the issues confronting Amherst and heard information that may guide us as we wrestle with proposed ground-mounted solar projects.

Steve Roof, a member of the committee and a professor of Earth and Environmental Science at Hampshire College, gave a presentation focusing on electricity generation. State planning documents and Amherst’s own plans lay out the following goals:

  • Phase out 90% or more of all fossil fuel use by 2050.
  • Greatly improve the energy efficiency of existing buildings and set high energy efficiency standards for new buildings. 
  • By 2030 reduce gross emissions by 45% below the 1990 level.
  • Electrify everything possible, because electricity can be generated by non-fossil means.
  • We will also need to dramatically increase intra- and inter-state transfer – high-tension wires and power corridors. 
  • To accommodate current and future electrical demand, we will need to massively expand wind and solar generation.

To meet these goals, Massachusetts will need to build about 1,000 large offshore wind turbines like Vineyard Wind and import large amounts of hydro power from Quebec, which now seems unlikely, given the vote against the siting of the transmission lines in Maine last month. 

Statewide, we will need to expand solar by factor of 10: we need 20 to 23 GW of solar capacity; we now have 3.4 GW. The state reports found that even with maximum rooftop installation, we will need 60,000 acres of land-mounted solar arrays in 30 years. However, ground-mounted solar development will be excluded from or discouraged on:

  • Wetland resource areas
  • Historic places on the Massachusetts Registry
  • Protected open space
  • Areas listed as Core Habitat by Mass Wildlife
  • Areas listed as Priority Habitat by Mass Wildlife 
  • Critical Natural Landscapes that connect habitats or buffer wetlands, etc. 

Roof then looked at what might be considered Amherst’s “share” of the burden for growth in electrical generation, using population size as the determinant. Since Amherst’s population is about 0.56% of the state’s population, that percentage of the total 60,000 acres suggests the town might use` 335 acres. Amherst’s total acreage is 17,765, of which 30% is permanently protected from development. That 335 acres  is 1.9% of our total acreage – less than 2%.

Roof did not suggest where on Amherst land the solar facilities could go. He did point out that one acre of ground-mounted solar reduces C02 emission by about 133 metric tons per year by displacing fossil fuel generated electricity – which is about 100 times greater than the carbon sequestered by an acre of forest.

His suggested a possible “road map” for the town:

  • Greatly improve energy efficiency of existing buildings, including rental properties.
  • Assist with electrification of transportation (electrify vehicle fleets and help increase availability of EV charging stations).
  • Continue to protect natural and working lands in Amherst.
  • Accept expansion of solar power development on about 2% of the land in Amherst.
  • Tolerate increased intra- and interstate electric power transmission corridors in the region.

The committee discussed the need for a solar study to identify where solar projects are technically possible in Amherst. Laura Draucker said it’s important to have such a study before bylaws are passed. Dwayne Berger described what a consultant might accomplish in such a study. The committee agreed they want time on the Town Council’s agenda for a presentation by Roof. Roof suggested that he and Berger do the presentation and ask for a solar study. “We need to shock people into an awareness of what we need to do to reach carbon neutrality,” he said.

While we can all agree that we prefer solar arrays on roofs or above parking lots to ground-mounted arrays, they will not create enough solar generation capacity. And there are complications and costs associated with those projects; that will require another article. 

Ah, the quiet…Argh, the noise!

By Nick Grabbe

I was sitting on my patio listening to the sweet sound of trees swaying in the breeze and children playing outside Wildwood School, when suddenly my ears were assaulted by a piercing noise. It sounded almost as loud as a helicopter landing nearby, or maybe a pneumatic drill digging up the street in front of my house.

But I knew what it really was. In November, it had to be a leaf-blower, disturbing the peace of yet another neighborhood. An employee of a landscaping company was using this gas-powered noise-maker to herd leaves into a pile at a neighbor’s house.

credit DIYallday.com

The new Town Council could combat climate change and support quiet neighborhoods by banning or restricting the use of these “monsters,” as New York Times columnist Margaret Renkl calls them. She also calls gas-powered leaf-blowers “mechanical locusts,” but adds that this may be unfair to locusts. (To see a petition to the Town Council on leaf-blowers and other loud gadgets, click on Comments below.)

Amherst would join 100 other towns that have taken action. Gas-powered leaf-blowers will become illegal in Washington, D.C. in January and in all of California in 2024. They are already banned in Santa Monica.

Landscaping companies would complain, and their workers would be inconvenienced, but it is the operators of these machines who are most affected by their noise and gas fumes. And there are now products, available locally, that can blow leaves into piles without generating pollution and with significantly less racket.

The pandemic forced many people to stay home during the day, and they became more aware of these ultra-loud gadgets. Most backpack gas-powered leaf-blowers make noise at between 95 and 115 decibels for the operator, dispersing to 64 to 78 decibels fifty feet away. Anything over 55 decibels is harmful, according to the World Health Organization, and can cause hearing loss and high blood pressure.

Because decibel calculation is logarithmic, 70 decibels is twice as loud as 60. And gas-powered leaf blowers emit low-frequency noise that can penetrate through walls and hearing protection. Some new electric leaf-blowers can be just as powerful and come in at 59 to 65 decibels. (Rakes produce neither noise nor pollution, are significantly cheaper, and provide a mild workout.)

Gas-powered leaf-blowers are terrible for the environment. Using one for an hour creates as much pollution as driving a Camry 1,100 miles, according to the California Air Resources Board. Running one for a half-hour is the equivalent of driving a 6,200-pound Ford F-150 truck for 3,900 miles, according to the Edmunds car-rating company. (Cars themselves are becoming increasingly electric.)

Gas-powered leaf-blowers use a technology called “two-stroke engines” that is outmoded and has been phased out in other industries. A third of the fuel used is spewed into the air, Renkl writes. All gas-powered lawn care products used an estimated 3 billion gallons of fossil fuel in 2018, according to the Department of Transportation.

In addition to noise and gas fumes, leaf-blowers kick up dust that can contain pollen, animal feces, heavy metals and chemicals from pesticides, Renkl writes. This can be hazardous to people with asthma or other respiratory problems. Some landscapers even use blowers not to move leaves but to clear away dust from pavement.

Sales of electric leaf-blowers increased by 75 percent from 2015 to 2020, and the Makita company has announced it will stop making ones powered by gasoline. The number of landscaping companies using electric blowers is increasing.

Electric leaf-blowers weigh less than gas-powered ones. They don’t require as much maintenance, with no need for replacing filters, changing spark plugs or storing gasoline. Electric blowers, both corded and cordless, are available at Boyden & Perron in Amherst and Home Depot in Hadley. Cordless leaf-blowers can be as powerful as gas-powered ones, though they need to be frequently recharged, according to Consumer Reports. Corded leaf-blowers have limited range.

Home maintenance expert Bob Vila recommends a cordless model made by Makita that costs $199 and generates 166 miles per hour of blowing. He also recommends a Greenworks backpack model costing $349.

Amherst DPW’s division of trees and grounds uses 11 gas-powered leaf-blowers on the 80 acres of parks and facilities it maintains, says director Alan Snow. “I’ve been watching electric equipment and it has come a long way the last couple years,” he says. “Until they come down in price or funding becomes available, for now we are stuck with gas.” He’s all-electric at his home and says, “I believe it is the way to go when one can afford it.”

Cambridge (the only place in Massachusetts that gave a smaller percentage of its 2016 vote to Trump than Amherst) has banned leaf-blowers generating more than 65 decibels of noise. They cannot deposit dust or leaves on adjacent property, and cannot be used on Sundays or in the evening. Only one can be used at a time, and they can only operate between March 15 and June 15 and between Sept. 15 and Dec. 31.

Newton, Arlington and Brookline have similar regulations. In Newton, commercial operators using leaf-blowers have to register with the city, and in Arlington they can’t be used for more than 30 minutes and can’t send leaves or dust outside property lines.

Burlington, Vt., which like Amherst is host to a state university, has enacted similar restrictions. Cities and towns in Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey and New York have acted to restrict use of gas-powered leaf blowers. Twenty cities in California have taken action in advance of the statewide ban.

So, how about it, Amherst Town Council? What’s the point of requiring zero-energy public buildings and fining nuisance houses while tolerating the pollution and noise of gas-powered leaf-blowers?

Two energy experts endorse Jones Library renovation project

This first statement is from Todd Holland, an Amherst resident with four decades of construction experience who served on the Jones Library Sustainability Committee.

I want to be sure our new library is a financially responsible investment, a step toward sustainability, and a key to honoring our carbon commitment.

Choosing building materials is one of the largest variables in the carbon equation.  The baseline design used concrete and steel.  But the massive energy inputs required to make and move those materials would have created a huge carbon footprint, one that even a highly efficient building would take decades to erase. 

With wood timber construction, the embodied carbon will be less than one-third of the baseline.  While far-out solutions to climate change imagine massive machines to capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it underground, this project will take advantage of an existing solution: trees.  Trees pull carbon from our atmosphere, and building with wood sequesters that carbon, potentially for centuries. 

I know this because my house and garage were built from timbers salvaged from structures built in the 1800’s.  The carbon in those timbers was pulled from the atmosphere some 200 years ago and is still sequestered today. 

If the library went with the earlier design, it would take 30+ years to offset the embodied carbon with operational savings.  The lifetime carbon savings would be 4,500 metric tons.  That’s not insignificant, but the project before the voters will do far better. 

The proposed Jones Library will save 7,500 metric tons of carbon over its lifetime.  Its impressive energy efficiency will enable its low-carbon construction – and the relatively tiny footprint of demolition – to be offset in just over eight years.  And from then on it will pay a carbon dividend, year after year. 

This second statement is from Sara Draper, director of the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College, a net-zero energy building.

I am glad so many people in Amherst are thinking critically about building sustainability and about how the town should spend its energy and carbon “budget” to best fulfill our climate goals. The energy efficient, low-carbon Jones Library project is exactly where we should be spending those resources.

As a historic preservationist by training and a sustainable design advocate by trade, I was glad to be a part of the Jones Library Sustainability Committee. My litmus test for the Jones Library project was threefold: Does the proposed design improve the energy efficiency of the building without compromising the historic portion? Do the energy efficiency improvements of the new addition outweigh the carbon “cost” of demolition? And does the design help the Town of Amherst meet its sustainability goals? The answer to all these questions is yes.

By replacing the existing (leaky, inefficient) addition with a new high-performance structure, the overall energy efficiency of the Jones Library will improve by 60 percent. The new Library will have an EUI (Energy Use Intensity, a measure of energy use per square foot) of just 29 kBtu/sf/year, compared to the average 71.6 kBtu/sf/year for libraries nationwide. If we wanted to see comparable energy use improvements in the existing building, we’d need to undertake major work, like covering the existing stone walls with exterior insulation. This would drastically compromise the historic integrity of the original Library building, an outcome no one wants.

While these efficiency improvements are attractive, the Sustainability Committee wanted to make sure that the overall carbon impact of the project was positive — in other words, that the demolition and construction project would save more carbon than it emitted. The Sustainability Report put together by Finegold Alexander Architects shows that the overall carbon impact of the new Library would amount to
10,800 tonnes CO 2 eq over a projected 60-year span; this includes the carbon emissions associated with demolition and construction, and the carbon emitted during building operation (heating, cooling, electricity use, etc.). If left as it is, the current Jones Library will emit 18,300 tonnes CO 2 eq over that same
60 years — without the improvements in service and community space the proposed project will bring.

Critics of the project say that the “greenest” thing is to do nothing, to leave the building as it is. But we can’t do nothing. The Library heating and ventilation systems are at the end of their useful life and need to be replaced. Without substantial energy efficiency work to the current structure, the only feasible option would be to replace them with another gas boiler system, a course of action that directly contradicts the town’s goal to reduce fossil fuel use. We indeed cannot “kick the can down the road.”
The project will reduce the town’s dependence on fossil fuels, lower the energy costs of the Library, and better provide for the needs of all the town’s residents. That in itself would be enough for me, but I am excited that this project can also provide a valuable example of sustainable historic preservation, an essential component of successful climate action over the next 50 years.

At this point in the climate crisis, there is nothing worse than a missed opportunity. We need to reduce our energy use and associated operational carbon NOW. We need to lead the way in showing how to reduce the embodied carbon of our buildings. The Jones Library renovation and expansion project is the way to do that for the Town of Amherst, today.

Climate change: What is our town doing?

By Sarah Marshall

Climate change: what can our town do?

Several local efforts to increase renewable power generation, conserve energy, and/or reduce or offset greenhouse gas emissions are under way. Some are recent and some are several years old, but all will soon bear fruit. Here is a roundup.

A landfill solar project will shortly begin construction at the closed landfill adjacent to the transfer station off Belchertown Road. Owned by Cypress Creek Renewables and built by Signal Energy, the system is expected to begin generating power (3.9 MW) next summer.  The Town, which will continue to own the land, will receive $78,000 per year over 30 years for leasing the land and in payments in lieu of taxes.  In addition, while the power will go on the grid, the Town will “offtake” all the generated electricity and pay a reduced rate.  This will cover most of the electricity demand of our municipal (but not school) buildings.

Photo by American Public Power Association on Unsplash

[Side note: A hitch in the planning (which began in 2012) meant that Town Council had to establish a conservation restriction on the other closed landfill, across the road, to compensate for loss of habitat for the grasshopper sparrow.  This restriction, voted in July of 2021, will be held by the Kestrel Land Trust. Plans for that southern part of the closed landfill now include not only Amherst’s first dog park but also 6-foot-wide trails around the conserved land.]

Commercial, industrial, and non-profit property owners such as houses of worship, as well as owners of multifamily housing of at least five units, will soon be able to participate in a greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction program called Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE). The Council authorized the Town to participate in PACE in August of this year. This state-wide program allows qualifying property owners to submit plans for energy improvements that result in net energy savings and reductions in GHG emissions and, should their plans be approved, receive loans for these improvements, to be paid off over time via the local property taxation system.  The Town will add what is called a “betterment” to the property tax bill, so that the obligation to repay the loan transfers to the new owner if the property is sold.  Owners of property that is not currently taxed (e.g., a church) will only be able to participate if the Town can generate a property tax bill for them.

The PACE website, https://www.massdevelopment.com/pace, contains the details about what sorts of improvements may qualify. For example, windows or insulation may qualify, but appliances such as refrigerators do not. Importantly, the owner’s proposal must demonstrate that the savings in energy costs exceed the cost of the improvements over the lifetime of the improvements.  Interested? For questions about the Town’s role, contact Stephanie Ciccarello, the sustainability coordinator, at ciccarellos@amherstma.gov.  For questions about the PACE program, consult the website and/or contact Julie Cowan at jcowan@massdevelopment.com.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Amherst is making slow but steady progress on its plan to aggregate its town-wide electricity demand with that of Pelham and Northampton. The aim is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through energy efficiency and the development of local, renewable distributed energy resources. Back in November, 2017, Town Meeting directed the Town to consider participating in the state’s Community Choice Aggregation, with the goal of evaluating the pros and cons of such a program (you can see the ensuing task force’s report here).  After receiving the task force’s report, Town Council authorized the Town Manager to pursue Community Choice Aggregation.  Stephanie Ciccarello reports that once the chief executives of each town sign a contract with the chosen consultant – expected within the next two months – that firm will begin developing the specific aggregation plan. Residents will be invited into a public participation process. Meanwhile, an advisory group has been developing a Joint Powers Entity with funding secured by State Sen. Jo Comerford and State Rep. Mindy Domb.  The JPE, which should be established soon, will house the CCA program.

CAARP

Last (but not least by any means), the Energy and Climate Action Committee, established by Town Council in 2019, issued its Climate Action, Adaptation, and Resilience Plan in June of this year (click here to access the graphics-heavy file).  It presents strategies to aid in achieving the goal of reducing GHG emissions in Amherst by 25% by 2025, compared to 2016 levels. I found two graphics (on p. 13) describing the 2016 baseline to be particularly noteworthy: the first indicates that 74% of emissions came from stationary energy sources, and within this sector, only 37% came from non-college, non-UMass sources. Moreover, only 1% of stationary emissions came from the municipal buildings covered by our recent zero-energy bylaw.

Reductions in GHG emissions can be made nevertheless in both the non-campus stationary emissions sector (primarily emissions associated with buildings) and the (non-campus) transportation sector. All of the programs described above will help. But given that most of the non-campus emissions stem from the actions of individuals and businesses, much of the Town’s role will be to educate, encourage, and facilitate participation in existing programs or adoption of best practices in construction.

CAARP

I am sure readers can think of other local efforts to respond to the urgent demands of climate change, but I find these municipal efforts encouraging.