Porter Square Neighbors Association:
Minutes of the June 20, 2019 meeting
Some meetings don’t really get started until they are almost over. This was one of those meetings.
Two speakers addressed the topic of responding to climate change.
- Audrey Schulman, executive director of the Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET)
- Seth Federspiel, Net Zero Energy Planner for Cambridge CCD
Ms. Schulman described her own path through the response most of us have to this prospect—depression, helplessness, fear—to action. She began by learning about and applying every possible option for reducing the energy consumption in her home, making friends and neighbors aware of what she was doing and why. When could do no more there (she reduced consumption by 50%), she convened her neighbors to throw out ideas about what they might do collectively. To no one’s surprise, all the ideas they came up with required a level of money and skills that they did not have. What they decided to do was follow Ms. Schulman’s example, which would require them to learn how to do these things and to teach others. This is the mission of HEET.
She emphasized the three P’s, steps that anyone can take:
- Vote (the political)
- Arrange for an energy audit from Mass Save (the practical)
- Join a local group (the personal)
Mr. Federspiel, presented the Net Zero Action Plan developed under the Envision Cambridge effort. The objective of this plan is to phase out greenhouse gas emissions across the city in 25 years.
The source of 80% of these emissions is natural gas used in buildings. The challenge is to harness enough energy from renewable sources to handle the peak demand periods, both daily and seasonally. An additional complication is that the considerably higher cost to homeowners of powering electrical appliances prompted MassSave to encourage the conversion to natural gas for many years. However, the improved performance of new high-efficiency electrical appliances can now more effectively compensate for the relatively higher cost of the power they require.
Because much of the information presented is provided in the report, I focused on the Q&A that followed. The report itself is available from this page of the city’s website:
Q: What does this mean for residential solar power?
A: The financial incentives from government programs to encourage conversion to solar are starting to drop. If you want to convert to solar, this is the best time to do so.
Q: Are there any programs to help residents afford energy retrofits?
A: The city of Cambridge does not offer its own programs, but does hook up with the incentive programs offered by the commonwealth.
Q: To make any sort of difference, an increase in taxes will be required to support this program.
A: The program is viewed as a model.
Q: The condition of the power grid is barely adequate; the cost of resulting outages will drive up both the emissions and costs. Eversource is only patching up what needs to be replaced. What’s the plan here?
A: Roof-top solar reduces the pressure on the power grid; the sharing of local solar power is a component of energy resilience. Power storage also reduces pressure; however, the lithion batteries currently used for this purpose eventually drive up insurance premiums.
Note: In the back-and-forth, the person asking the question made a couple of other points:
More solar reduces pressure on fossil fuel generating capacity, but the capacity the grid needs is based on maximum transmission loads. So, unless people feel like being without electricity (and heat or cooling as well as light) at night, the effect on the grid is about zero.
Conversations with insurance agents reveal that they expect fire insurance rates to rise because firefighters can get through a conventional shingled roof if they have to but a roof with a solar panel overlay is basically armored.
Q: What about heat pumps?
A: Currently technology makes cold-climate heat pumps more efficient than previous models.
Q: It’s difficult to find plumbers who can install some of this new equipment. How do plan to get the industry involved?
A: There is definitely a need to train a generation of people to install this stuff.
Federspiel encouraged those who wanted more information or involvement with this effort to consult these websites:
EARS TO THE GROUND
John Klensin identified two issues of concern about how city processes are actually working.
The first issue is the city’s chronic failure to hold developers to agreements reached with residents, often the product of long processes, to mitigate impact of their projects. Examples in Porter Square alone include the placement of the mechanicals atop and the garden behind the Porter Square Hotel; the location of transformer boxes that Eversource requires; the failure to create the pickup/dropoff area on Mass Ave in front of the 1868 Hotel to accommodate the traffic-hindering activities of taxis and ride-sharing services.
The second issue is closure of problems reported via Commonwealth Connects without providing any information as to plans for resolution. Residents who seek to track the status of issues of interest come up empty-handed frequently. Even a statement that the city has no plans to do anything about it is information. No pattern can be detected other than what some have conjectured as some sort of quota that needs to be met.
A lively and engaged conversation erupted and rapidly expanded in several directions. These are the points that emerged:
- That agreements with developers are never enforced and that developers are never held accountable feeds the doubt that the city has any genuine interest in the feedback its processes solicit from residents. Thus, can anyone really believe the lovely promises from the city concerning the implementation of the Net Zero program described earlier and the Envision Cambridge program itself?
- The culture of the Inspectional Services department and its low staffing ensure the selective, irregular enforcement that has been widely observed.
- The Commonwealth Connects application has issues of its own. An informed critique thereof by John Klensin and Councillor Craig Kelley concluded with their agreement to work jointly to address some of them.
- The effectiveness developers’ programs for dispatching the rats whose homes their projects destroy was questioned. Some wondered whether they are actually in place. That said, Inspectional Services must be invited onto a property to perform the inspection, and some residents won’t do so for fear of opening other cans of worms in the process.
- The city has an application, ViewPoint, that allows you to apply for permits and find out whether permits have been applied for and issued. You need to have an account, which you can create here:
At the very end of the meeting, when some were on their way out the door, a conversation among residents who were members of three different working groups that contributed to the Envision Cambridge program circled back to the subject of the evening. Each expressed different degrees of resignation and skepticism about the effort they had contributed to. All agreed that when it became clear to their groups that the city already had a program in mind, the attendance and participation plummeted. Residents who had participated in various task forces and working groups over the years confirmed that this had been their experience as well.
The effect was to question whether there was any real point in participating in these kinds of activities if you feel that the final report has been written before the first meeting.