Opinion:Local and Green (#23): Every Day Is Earth Day Starting Right Now

Photo: Flckr.com. Creative Commons

Editor’s note:  A version of this column appeared previously in the Amherst Bulletin.

Darcy Dumont

Things are finally moving in the right direction! What will the new normal look like?

In a huge victory for public health and environmental justice advocates, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection last week revoked a necessary air permit for the proposed biomass plant, Palmer Renewable Energy, in Springfield.

The permit was revoked based on a lag in construction activities as well as major public health and environmental justice concerns, bringing a 12-year battle over the permitting of the plant to a happy end.

These efforts provided an opportunity for groups from Hampshire County, including Climate Action Now and Mothers Out Front, to support and follow the leadership of and build relationships with activist groups from Holyoke and Springfield. Not only did the battle come to a happy end, protecting the lungs of residents up and down the Connecticut River Valley from the damaging pollutant from burning biomass, but there is now a greater potential for environmental groups from Hampden and Hampshire counties to work together on behalf of climate change, especially in the area of environmental justice.

Climate Bill Brings New Day
In other amazing news, two weeks ago, a high-powered climate bill that the Legislature has been working on since July 2020, was finally signed by the governor. The new law covers a wide range of issues with the goal of accelerating greenhouse gas emission reductions, building a green economy and lifting up equity and environmental justice. It is hands down the most significant climate action legislation since the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, and will have ramifications for Amherst and its residents.

The new law raises the statewide goals from achieving 80% emissions reduction to “net-zero” emissions by 2050. Two interim benchmarks are a 50% emission reduction by 2030 (from 1990 levels) and 75% emission reduction by 2040. Emission reductions are required across all sectors: electricity, transportation, commercial and industrial buildings, residential buildings, industrial processes, and natural gas distribution.

Environmental justice took a major step forward with the new climate law. It targets processes for state review and approval of new development, infrastructure and energy projects in environmental justice neighborhoods and provides a seat at the table for residents in the decision-making process. The law also requires that, when looking at environmental impacts, agencies will be required to look at “cumulative impacts” of pollution in these neighborhoods.

In Massachusetts, an environmental justice neighborhood is based on either the annual median household income, the number of residents who identify as a race other than white, or the number of non-English speaking households.

On buildings, the new law puts in place a process to create an optional building code with net-zero energy efficiency standards. The Department of Energy Resources will create the new code, provide for public input and will publish the new code in about a year and a half. Municipalities will then have the opportunity to opt in.

A very important change provided by the new climate law is simply the addition of three new criteria for decisions by the Department of Public Utilities (DPU): security, equity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Since DPU regulates and oversees the electric and gas utilities, this shift in focus is major.

The new law increases the amount of renewable energy required to be part of the mix of energy sourced by our utilities (Eversource, in Amherst). Starting in 2025, they will need to increase the amount of renewable energy in the mix by 3% per year. It also requires that utilities provide an additional 2,400 megawatts of wind power. Natural gas utilities are also incentivized to participate in an innovative geothermal heat pump program.

The new law helps enable people to participate in community solar projects, sets up a new grant program to help nonprofits afford solar panels and changes state rules so that businesses or buildings with a lot of solar panels can more easily sell their excess energy back to the grid.

In addition, the DER, which oversees the solar incentives program, is required to prioritize solar installation on the roofs of low-income households, and to make programs easier to sign up for.

MassSave is required to prioritize reducing emissions rather than just providing energy efficiency services under the new law, and Massachusetts will adopt California’s energy efficiency standards for household appliances. The law sets targets for increasing the number of electric vehicles on the road, with incentives to get us there, and sets targets for EV infrastructure needed to do so.

With the new state law and potentially new federal infrastructure (read: “Green New Deal”) legislation, Massachusetts is going to need people to build and operate wind turbines, install solar panels, weatherize buildings, and do other jobs related to clean energy infrastructure. The new state law increases the annual budget for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC), which is supposed to spend $12 million more each year on clean energy workforce development.

We wait with great anticipation to see the wheels start moving on the upcoming climate action implementation and new normal. The town of Amherst will have a new climate action plan soon too. To me, though, the change is more holistic than the details of the climate law or plan. It means some exciting change in the way we think and act – living smaller by reducing our carbon footprint, appreciating what we have, expecting little, and giving what we can — as a town, as businesses, and as individuals.

Let’s make it Earth Day 365 Days a Year, starting today.

Darcy DuMont is a member of the Amherst Energy and Climate Action Committee, a founding member of Western MA Community Choice Energy, a founding member of Zero Waste Amherst, and an Amherst Town Councilor representing District 5. Views expressed are hers and not those of the Town Council.

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