What Exactly Is a Climate Action Plan? A Look at Concord’s Plan…
Originally appeared in the Hingham Anchor (2/3/21) and Hingham Journal (3/9/21)

We recently commended the Selectmen’s decision to seek approval and resources at Town Meeting for development of a Climate Action Plan (CAP) for Hingham. We provided a brief, generic definition of a CAP. But what might Hingham’s plan actually look like once it is developed?

Concord, MA is a “peer” town for Hingham, comparable in overall population, percent with a college degree, median household income and median value of owner occupied housing. Both utilize the town meeting model of self-governance and were coincidentally founded on the same day, in the same year, 1635. Both are stewards of important water resources – Concord cherishes Walden Pond and its 16 mile long tributary of the Merrimack, the Concord River; Hingham enjoys a beautiful natural harbor and precious tidal areas. Both own their own municipal lighting plants; both share a rich heritage as iconic, pre-Revolutionary New England towns.

In June 2020, Concord published Sustainable Concord, its “Climate and Resiliency Plan” (you can peruse the plan at this link: https://concordma.gov/2503/Climate-Action-and-Resilience-Plan). While Hingham’s plan will reflect its own unique identity, characteristics, challenges and resources, it will undoubtedly have similarities in areas of primary focus and approach. So let’s take a moment to explore Concord’s climate action plan.

Concord focused its plan on five primary areas of concern and specified for each a key, long-term goal in the form of a “vision statement” which expresses the desired end state:

1. BUILT AREA (municipal/other buildings, dwellings, roads, parking areas, other infrastructure)

Goal: Concord’s buildings and solid waste system minimize GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions and are resilient to a changing climate.

2. ENERGY (Concord owns its electric utility – CMLP)

Goal: Concord’s electricity is 100% carbon-free, reliable and affordable.

3. MOBILITY (the transportation sector)

Goal: Everyone has access to zero-carbon transportation options to commute and get around Concord.

4. NATURAL RESOURCES (forests, water, tree canopy, etc.)

Goal: Concord’s natural resources are enhanced and supported to provide resilience benefits to the community and to maximize biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

5. PREPAREDNESS (a “sustainability”-related category that cuts across all departments and functions)

Goal: Concord’s critical infrastructure is designed to reduce emissions and is prepared for projected climate impacts.

The plan articulates several enabling goals formulated to achieve the vision for each of the five primary areas of focus. For example, to actualize its vision for ENERGY, Concord includes the following four specific goals:

• Redesign electricity rates to support energy conservation, peak load management, electrification, and renewable energy generation.

• Provide incentives for businesses and homeowners to invest in renewable energy.

• Shift CMLP’s electricity supply to 100% carbon-free sources by 2030.

• Deploy utility-scale energy storage.

Concord’s plan then breaks out each of these goals in turn into more detailed action steps. Their energy-related goals have special relevance for our town, since Hingham also owns and runs its own electric utility.

To guide implementation of the plan, the Concord Selectmen made an unequivocal commitment to preserving the historic character of the town. They also adopted key Sustainability Principles, such as “Reduce dependence on fossil fuels, underground metals, and minerals” and “Reduce encroachment upon nature”.

Most important, the plan subsumes all its goals under one overarching objective: reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050. (This objective reflects the position of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at the time Concord decided on its target; the IPCC’s goal is now 100%.) Concord’s plan is informed by abundant data, which is used to identify the primary sources of Concord’s emissions and rank order them for potential positive impact of reduction in emissions:

• Burning oil and gas to power, heat and cool buildings

• Burning gasoline and diesel to power internal combustion engine vehicles

• Emitting methane from decomposing waste in the town’s landfill

• Fossil fuel-powered treatment of the town’s wastewater

• Pumping water to homes and businesses

Concord’s plan also specifies who will deliver the results. The primary players are:

The Climate Action Advisory Board, which is tasked with providing strategic direction on how Concord can achieve its mitigation and adaptation goals. The Board is comprised of members of the community with expertise in climate, energy, sustainability, and adaptation.

TheMunicipal Team, which includes municipal staff experts from departments and divisions including the school department, water and sewer division, facilities management, public works, fire, police, natural resources, electric utility, communications, planning, and town management.

For each of the five main areas of focus, and their associated goals, the plan specifies “champions” – town entities or departments that own principal responsibility for each of these areas, as well as “key partners” – town, community and business entities that will collaborate with the champions to achieve each goal. Concord town administration includes a Director of Sustainability who promotes awareness in each municipal department of how it can better integrate long term sustainability into its function on an ongoing basis.

Finally, Concord tried to be realistic. It structured its plan as a flexible roadmap for its initial five year planning horizon. It made provisions for periodic updates and adjustments as it implements the plan, measures results and assesses progress. It anticipates significant additional installments in the decades ahead. E.g., it may well decide to try to accelerate progress toward carbon neutrality as federal and state programs are implemented.
Now that we better understand what a climate action plan entails, in future posts, we’ll explore why Hingham needs to develop its own plan, some of the benefits we can expect, and some of the challenges and opportunities we’ll face. Meanwhile, take a minute and visit Concord’s website to review what they have done. We’re sure you will come away all the more convinced to vote YES on the Selectmen’s climate plan warrant articles in April.

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The Transformation of the Energy Sector – Why Hingham Needs a Climate Action Plan
Originally appeared in the Hingham Anchor (3/14/21)

You probably have a smart phone. Take it out. It has many times more computing power and storage space than the personal computer you may have had only 15 years ago, not to mention a fantastic camera, robust Wi-Fi connectivity, an advanced GPS capability and countless ingenious apps. You are holding in your hand the very embodiment of Moore’s Law. In 1965, computer engineer Gordon Moore observed that the number of transistors on a silicon chip was doubling every two years at half the cost. This is exponential change, disruptive change, transformational change. It seems miraculous but it’s real. Just look at your smartphone. Or your flat screen TV.

Today, the energy sector is similarly transforming due to exponential growth in clean, renewable electric energy from the sun and the wind. A climate action plan will help Hingham residents harness and navigate these transformational changes. Because the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow, some of that renewable energy must be stored in lithium ion batteries, which are also steadily becoming more efficient. Rapidly improving generation and storage efficiencies together with increasing economies of scale are driving costs down and accelerating adoption of solar and wind at an exponential rate, transforming the energy sector. Consider:

• In 2016 – the U.S. had 1 million solar installations (it took 40 years to get there)

• In 2019 – 3 years later, the U.S. had exceeded 2 million solar installations – double!

• In 2023 – 4 years later, the U.S. is projected to hit 4 million solar installations – double again!

  This is an exponential rate of change.

• By 2022, Massachusetts will be procuring 1.6 billion watts (or 1.6 “gigawatts”) of electricity from new offshore wind installations. The developers have referred to the waters off Massachusetts as the “Saudi Arabia of offshore wind ”. Massachusetts will increasingly be producing its own clean energy, replacing dirty coal and gas.

• Massachusetts recently joined California in requiring all new passenger cars be electric-powered as of January 1, 2036. Ford, GM and others are moving aggressively to all-EV product lines. GM will use 100% renewable energy in its U.S. manufacturing facilities by 2030. Car makers are not climate saints. They are capitalists. They are skating to where they think the puck is going to be.

• In 2020, the Hingham Municipal Lighting Plant (HMLP) got more than half of its energy supply from non-carbon emitting sources – a new first! About 29% of the total is nuclear power, with the remaining 26% from wind, hydro, solar, and landfill gas. This is a great accomplishment and evidence of HMLP’s commitment to move to 100% clean sourcing while preserving reliability and affordability.

• My latest HMLP bill tells me I am currently paying almost 17 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) for electricity. Think tank ReThinkX predicts that the average cost per kilowatt hour (kWh) in 2035 for the US market will be around 3.5 cents – almost 5 times less.

For any one region of the country, with its unique patterns of sunshine and wind, there is an investment “sweet spot” – all the energy needed, at a cost lower than fossil fuels, from an optimal mix of solar and wind generated electricity, used immediately or stored in batteries. We are now schussing down the renewables cost curve toward those sweet spots. Costs will continue to decline as proliferating solar and wind installations drive economies of scale. Once you invest in that capacity, you’re essentially done, cost-wise; now the energy from the sun and wind is virtually free. Because capacity will be scaled to generate adequate power to get us through the days of less sun and wind, peak generating periods will give us far more renewable energy than we need. The marginal cost of that extra energy is – zero! Free electricity to use however we want. The possibilities are endless.

In the next 15 years, that gasoline-powered car in your driveway will become as obsolete as the antique cars you see in Hingham’s 4th of July parade. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life, you will be driving an electric car with a battery charged by renewable energy from the solar panels on your roof or from the transformed electrical grid. Your house will be heated and cooled with air source heat pumps because why would you pay more for dirty, dangerous fossil fuels?

What does this exponential rate of change in the energy sector mean for how we govern ourselves in this beautiful old New England town? For one thing, it means that the risk associated with decisions that have longer range planning horizons – 10, 15 years or more – will steadily increase. In yesterday’s linear energy world, designing a new school had relatively low risk of obsolescence – improvements in energy efficiency and cost would occur at a predictable rate and the building would probably wear out before the fossil fuel-based heating system became truly obsolete. So how do we now manage decision risk in a rapidly transforming energy world of exponential change and increasingly cheap electricity? How do we ensure we are capitalizing on the extraordinary opportunities that will arise out of this transformation?

The first and most critical step is to develop a comprehensive climate action plan (CAP). The CAP will enable us to better understand what is coming and will integrate that awareness into every dimension of town governance. It will specify priorities, opportunities, goals, and key players. It will guide collaboration among town departments, businesses, civic organization and individual citizens. It will be our collective roadmap for navigating climate change and reaping the benefits of the renewables-driven transformation of the energy sector.

That transformation is the key enabler of perhaps the single most effective strategy for getting Hingham to net zero – electrification. We’ll explore electrification in our next post. Meanwhile – plan to vote YES on the Selectmen’s climate warrant articles at Town Meeting. Support a climate action plan for Hingham!