Opinion: To The Town Manager – Do Something To Accelerate Climate Action In Amherst. And Do it Fast

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Local and Green, November 2022

The following column also appeared in The Amherst Bulletin.

Darcy Dumont

The warnings about climate change tipping points are coming at us fast and furiously, demanding our attention. The message: Do something. And do it fast. Frustrated with the lack of action, young climate activists have even taken to throwing soup and mashed potatoes at famous paintings

How are we doing here in Amherst? Town Manager Paul Bockelman recently submitted his self-evaluation on accomplishing his yearly climate action goals for 2022. Since the town adopted a goal of reaching 25% greenhouse gas emission reduction (from 2017 levels) by 2025, the time pressure is on. Accomplishing the yearly goals on time is important to meeting that 2025 goal. 

The town has dedicated $500,000 of ARPA funds for sustainability Initiatives. It prioritizes three actions identified in the town’s Climate Action, Adaptation and Resilience Plan (CAARP) – a residential heat pump program, a plan to transition the town’s vehicle fleet to electric, and a community dashboard to show how we’re doing and identify opportunities for more action. Let’s get the rest of the CAARP actions prioritized for implementation for each of the next three fiscal years leading up to 2025

The FY23 capital budget included $200,000 for sustainability, doubling the amount for the previous year. Let’s have an accounting of where these funds will be used for implementing climate action to meet our 2025 goals. And let’s double that amount again for FY24 to replace town-owned vehicles with electric vehicles, to purchase charging stations, to provide energy efficiency retrofits for municipal buildings, to support our upcoming multi municipality community choice electricity aggregation (CCA), if needed, and to implement other climate related actions.

In 2022, the town purchased hybrid and electric cars – and a hybrid ambulance – and additional EV charging stations. Let’s make sure we also look at new technologies, including the new bi-directional charging capacity as used in the Nissan Leaf and Ford F150. 

I commend the town on creating a Solar Bylaw Working Group to develop a solar zoning bylaw. Let’s put more emphasis and planning into finding innovative means to own our local solar projects, as is intended both by the Zero Energy Bylaw and our Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) plan.

I also commend the town on developing a town-wide solar assessment, but I question why we have had two solar assessments by different consultants when a dedicated staff person would provide more reliability and consistency, especially when we will be doing a lot more solar siting.

The town has gotten a start with the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program to implement an outreach plan to engage tenants and to educate business owners about financing opportunities. Let’s make this a top priority action for the town since we are 50% renters.

I am cautiously optimistic (fingers crossed) that the Town Manager is supporting the proposal for the town to transition to town-contracted waste hauling, including universal curbside compost pick up, by moving forward with a Department of Environmental Protection grant. Assuming council support, let’s make sure it gets done by the proposal’s implementation date of January 2024.  

I was also happy to hear that the town has engaged in ongoing conversations with Eversource about energy efficiency incentives for various projects – including a significant (nearly $2 million) rebate for achieving an Energy Use Intensity of 25 or less and using ground source heat pumps in the new elementary school.

The Town Manager reported that the town is using a ‘climate lens’ when we review all capital purchases and to educate staff, boards and committees. Let’s make the policies transparent and have an accounting of how the new processes have affected purchasing – and do the same for budgeting, construction, repair, hiring and education.

A Sustainability Fellow is being recruited to conduct a building inventory in the summer of 2023 and timeline for transitioning buildings/equipment from fossil fuels. That’s a good thing.

The implementation of our multi-municipality community choice electricity aggregation was put forward in our CAARP as by far the most effective emissions reducer of all of the proposed actions. It has been moving forward, albeit on a very slow track. Though we have no control over how fast the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities will approve the CCA application, we do have control over getting the application in. Let’s fast track town department work and counsel approvals to get this critically important work done by the first months of 2023.

Meeting our 2025 goal requires that we accelerate climate action. To do so requires very little funding but does require at least doubling our professional level staffing. Doubling our staffing would save the town money, both by creating the capacity to find, apply for, and implement more grants, and by negating the need to continually hire consultants when professional staff could do the job better and with more consistency. 

Thus far, primarily because staffing is limited in relation to the amount of work necessary, climate action is on a slow track in Amherst. Goals need to be completed in the target year, not pushed off to the next year. Let’s put climate action on the fast track, starting now. 

Darcy DuMont is a founding member of Zero Waste Amherst, Local Energy Advocates of Western MA and the Amherst Climate Justice Alliance. As a Town Councilor, she sponsored the legislation creating the Amherst Energy and Climate Action Committee

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