“Green Buildings” FAQ

On Earth Day 2020, we launched a petition drive as part of our “Green Buildings, Not Greenhouse Gases” campaign. The petition is aimed at accelerating the pace of energy retrofits of large, existing buildings citywide. Because the current applicable city law, BERDO, is not strong enough to ensure that these retrofits happen, the petition asks the City to amend BERDO with strict building emissions standards and to ensure that they are implemented and enforced.   

Since the petition launch, we have been receiving some great questions from our members and the general public. Read on: your question may be answered here. 

What is the big idea behind your “Green Buildings” campaign?

The ultimate purpose is to reduce the carbon emissions that cause climate change. The latest update to Boston’s Climate Action Plan includes steps to reduce carbon emissions in three main sectors: buildings, transportation, and energy supply. 

Why did BCAN decide to focus on buildings

Over 70% of citywide greenhouse gases come from buildings. While it is important to reduce carbon pollution from all sources, BCAN wanted to concentrate on the sector with the most emissions.

Why existing buildings?

An estimated 85% of the buildings that will exist in Boston in 2050 are already built today. (That said, it is also important to keep new buildings from adding to the emissions problem. The Boston Clean Energy Coalition, of which BCAN is a member, is leading a separate campaign to ensure the adoption of net zero standards for new buildings.)

Why large ones?

Boston’s largest buildings—less than 3% of the total number–account for about half of total citywide emissions. 

Which buildings are we talking about?

Specifically,

  • nonresidential buildings that are 35,000 square feet or larger,
  • residential buildings that are 35,000 square feet or larger, or have 35 or more units, and
  • any parcel with multiple buildings that sum to 100,000 square feet or 100 units.

This group of 2,200 buildings encompasses many types: hospitals, laboratories, universities, office buildings, hotels, multi-family housing, and more. Some are owned by the City, but many are privately owned. 

What is BERDO?

BERDO, the Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance, is a City law passed in 2013. It requires owners of large buildings (as defined above) to report annual energy and water usage to the City. It also requires the City to make the data public. Every five years, owners are required to do something additional about their energy usage: either take an energy action or get an energy assessment.  

What happens if building owners don’t comply?

The penalties specified under BERDO are light. The Air Pollution Control Commission, which is part of the City’s Environment Department, is authorized to fine non-compliant owners or tenants. However, the fines are capped at $3,000 per building annually, and applying them is cumbersome because it involves taking non-compliers to court. In actuality, the City has not been enforcing BERDO. BCAN believes the City needs to allocate more staff resources to the implementation of this law.  

Why do you say that existing requirements are not strong enough?

Every five years, owners of large buildings are required either to take an energy action or get an energy assessment.

To fulfill the “action” option, owners may prove their buildings are already energy-efficient by earning certain certifications, or demonstrate that they have achieved a 15% reduction in energy use. However, the worsening pace of the climate crisis necessitates a higher rate of reduction.

The “assessment” option, while a valuable start, does not alone seem like sufficient progress for a five-year period. 

What kind of changes would building owners need to make in order to make a difference?

There are many ways to reduce a building’s carbon footprint: insulation and air-sealing; more efficient heating, cooling, and lighting; producing or purchasing “green” electricity; occupant behavior changes; and more. What will work best is different for different buildings. 

Massachusetts’ cities and towns cannot specify how buildings must be built. They must adopt one of two building codes passed by the state. This is why Boston will update BERDO with a carbon emissions standard, setting limits that will probably vary by building size and type. It will be up to owners to decide how to meet the standard. That said, the City will offer guidance to owners and builders about ways to cut carbon emissions.     

How will this measure move forward at City Hall?

The Environment Department is leading a technical analysis that will use input from experts and citizens to decide on a new carbon emissions standard. By 2021, the new standard will be proposed to the City Council, who will be asked to pass it as an amendment to BERDO, replacing the old action/assessment requirement.   

How does my signing the petition help?

In its latest Climate Action Plan, the City has committed to a new carbon emissions standard for existing buildings. However, government plans can lose steam without support and demand from citizens. By signing the petition, you provide evidence that Bostonians want owners to fix their large buildings in order to protect our climate. 

Have another question that isn’t answered here? We’d love to hear from you. Email Andy, our coordinator, at andy@bostoncan.org.

Fossil Fuel, Health, and Inequality

Researchers at Harvard University have found a link between long-term exposure to air pollution and death from COVID-19. According to The Boston Globe, these experts compared different neighborhoods in the United States and found that those with higher concentrations of small particles in the air also had higher rates of death from the coronavirus. Statistics were used to show that pollution itself had an effect over and above that of other factors, such as socioeconomic status. However, it is well known that residents of polluted neighborhoods tend to be people of color and to have lower incomes.  

Although disparities related to COVID-19 seem especially shocking and unfair, it is not news that fossil fuel is associated with health risks, nor that those risks are borne unequally. Burning carbon-based fuel releases two types of pollutants, particles and greenhouse gases. Breathing particulate pollution had been known to cause many health problems long before COVID-19 was around. With particles, the risk is greatest for the people living closest to the source. On the other hand, greenhouse gases released anywhere affect climate everywhere, but effects on local communities differ with geography and infrastructure. With both types of pollution, it is the people with the fewest resources and the greatest social barriers that live in the most dangerous areas and pay with their health or their lives. For a great example of the connections between infrastructure, climate change, health, income, and race, read NPR’s article on urban heat islands.

The takeaways for climate policy are, again, not new, but critically important:

  1. Reduce our dependence on carbon-based fuels as fast as possible, and
  2. Do so in a way that shifts more benefit and less risk to historically vulnerable groups.

We Need You! – Help Community Choice Energy Clear its Last Hurdle

Calling all supporters of CCE!  We need you to show up on August 20th at 2pm, when the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) hears public testimony about Boston’s CCE plan. DPU approval is the last regulatory step before Boston can go ahead and implement CCE, so the hearing is a critical turning point. 

Many of you have already helped CCE reach this point. You’ve made phone calls, buttonholed the Mayor at City events, testified before the City Council, and given out information at gatherings in Boston neighborhoods. But if you are new to the cause, you’re not too late. We need as many Boston residents as possible to tell the DPU that we need CCE and want it to start soon.

The hearing takes place at the Department of Public Utilities. Show up by 1:45p outside South Station. There will be a group of BCAN’ers there, and we will go in together. Bring photo ID, as you may need it to get into the building.

There are lots of reasons why CCE is important for Boston. Here are a few of the key reasons:

  • A way to help fight climate change
  • A way to help meet both Boston’s and Massachusetts’ greenhouse gas reduction goals
  • More green energy for Boston residents at affordable prices 
  • More stable electric rates
  • A trustworthy alternative to predatory for-profit energy suppliers
  • More renewable infrastructure and more green jobs in Massachusetts
  • Less pollution from local power plants, and lower rates of asthma

Still have questions? E-mail Andy@bostoncan.org or call 617-971-8568. We look forward to seeing you at the hearing!

Refuting Common Objections to Community Choice Energy for Boston

In advance of the City Council hearing today at City Hall, BostonCAN has compiled a list of responses to the common objections we hear from the Office of Energy Environment and Open Spaces (EEOS) about why they should delay implementing Community Choice Energy.

Community Choice Energy (CCE) could cost more than basic supply, which would put an unacceptable burden on ratepayers.

The cost of renewable energy is steadily dropping and will continue to drop as economies of scale are achieved. Already many community choice aggregations (CCAs) have been successful in getting better rates. In a study by the Applied Economics Clinic in Nov. 2017, the residential rates procured by local aggregations saved 19% on average below the Eversource rate. By delaying the implementation of CCE, the Office of Environment, Energy, and Open Space (EEOS) is costing ratepayers by not getting residents and businesses a better option.

There will be fluctuations in the market, but if the City finds that all the bids it receives for CCE are higher than Basic Service it can delay entry into the market until a better opportunity arises. Over the course of a contract the price will likely stay below Basic Service since many forces mitigate against significant declines in Basic Service rates. If at the time of contract renewal the bids would be significantly above Basic Service, the city can choose not to renew. In addition, individual ratepayers can always opt out.

But it happened in Chicago. In fact, Chicago’s aggregation had to be stopped when basic service prices became cheaper than their aggregation’s. What if that happens here?

In Illinois, rates for basic service had been kept high by a temporary state regulation for several years. Then that regulation expired, so basic service became much cheaper and was able to underbid aggregation contracts. In Massachusetts, there are no temporary regulations on basic service rates that are set to expire.

What about Melrose, MA? When their first contract was up, none of the new bids was competitive with basic supply.

Melrose had to pause its aggregation due to a spike in capacity charges in National Grid territory. Boston’s default electricity supplier is Eversource, who has not had the problem with capacity charges that National Grid has. Melrose plans to petition DPU to re-start its aggregation once the capacity charge issue has abated.

The Request for Information (RFI) invited vendors to share historical pricing data for municipal aggregations. Since none of the respondents did so, the cost of CCE to Boston ratepayers cannot be estimated.

Vendors were probably the wrong people to ask for historical pricing information. It is understandable that they might consider this information proprietary. Typically, vendors provide prospective pricing information in response to a Request for Proposals (RFP).

CCE will cost too much to administer. Between start-up activities and on-going maintenance, EEOS simply does not have enough staff.

Most municipalities with CCE programs hire a consultant who handles most administrative details of the program. The best way to ascertain administrative cost is to issue an RFP and see what competing consultants would charge.

Additionally, however, the city needs to weigh the cost of providing a CCE program with the cost of not providing one. The slower we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the more the city will have to spend on adaptation and on responding to emergencies.

Boston is so big it has to move cautiously when considering CCE and can’t follow the same template that smaller towns followed.

Boston has more than 600,000 residents. It can follow the example of the Southeast Regional Planning and Economic Development District (SRPEDD), which also has a population of more than 600,000, and has had a joint municipal aggregation since early 2015. SRPEDD followed the standard aggregation pattern of using a consultant to create an aggregation plan and administer the program.

EEOS needs time to study the trade-offs of making CCE an opt-in vs. an opt-out program.

This is not the way the law works—the path to set up a municipal aggregation is a clear and well- understood process. Setting up an “opt-in,” and entering the market as an individual competitive supplier muddies the waters and is not what the city council authorized the mayor’s office to do.

According to a city report showing GHG emissions through 2015, Boston is on track with its GHG reductions, based on a per capita decrease.

Boston’s commitment to reduce GHG emissions from 2005 levels was never based on per capita emissions, nor are the commitments in the Paris Accord. Global warming depends on CO2 levels in the atmosphere and not on how many people live on the planet. So tying GHG reductions to population doesn’t make sense. Moreover, in 2017 Mayor Walsh pledged to reduce GHG emissions to zero by 2050, changed from the previous goal of an 80% reduction and zero emissions can’t be adjusted per capita. In order to get to the new 2050 goal, the 2020 goal not only has to be met, but exceeded.

BostonCAN on Earth Day

BostonCAN celebrated Earth Day in Dorchester this weekend, handing out fliers for Community Choice Energy and talking with local residents and activists.  We had lots of people pose in front of Rosie the Riveter to make a statement to the City of Boston to speed up its climate action efforts.

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National Grid Suing City to Allow Continued Pollution

Natural gas utility National Grid has chosen to sue the City of Boston. The purpose of the suit to protect National Grid from having to conform to the gas leak ordinance passed by the City Council and signed by the Mayor in 2016.  The ordinance was passed in the wake of a multi-year campaign kicked off by BostonCAN in 2013.  You can see a video of our gas leaks street theater here.

“Unfortunately, utilities have filed suit to prevent the implementation of our gas leaks ordinance. National Grid has filed suit,” said O’Malley to Jamaica Plain News. “It is incredibly disappointing because it is something that was worked on and got to the heart of fixing the 4,000 to 5,000 gas leaks in the city. Instead of working to address these public health and safety issues the utility company has chosen to prevent its implementation by filing suit.”

The decision by the utility is short-sighted and clearly driven by “business over community welfare” thinking.

CCE Op-Ed in Commonwealth Magazine

Darlene Lombos, the Executive Director of Community Labor United, wrote an editorial piece for Commonwealth Magazine last month about Community Choice Energy and the need for the Mayor’s office to take swift action implementing it for Boston.

As the largest metro area in the state, Boston must play a leading role in meeting our climate goals as a state, while also reducing emissions and increasing resiliency in the city. Through CCE, Boston can expect to increase its clean energy portfolio by at least 5 percent, helping to reach its goal of a 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

You can read the whole article here.

BostonCAN on the News

BNN News interviewed members of BostonCAN as part of a larger piece on climate readiness in Boston in the wake of two recent “Once in a Generation” storms that caused so much flooding.

Storm Prompts Call for Climate Action from Chris Lovett on Vimeo.

BNN interviewed Boston University professor Nathan Phillips, who discussed the need for Community Choice Energy to be acted on more urgently as a critical part of the climate plan for the City of Boston.

Rising Seas Rally in the News

BCAN’s Rising Seas Rally made a splash.

We got picked up by multiple news outlets.  The Boston Globe interviewed our campaign coordinator Andy Bean:

Bean said he hopes the city this year implements the Community Choice Energy plan that Boston’s City Council approved in October 2017, which would increase the amount of renewable energy residents and businesses use without raising costs.

The city has a Climate Action Plan, which aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020 and be carbon neutral by 2050, but Bean said it is overdue for an update.

We were also in the North End Waterfront neighborhood news and Universal Hub.  Attendees were also interviewed by Boston Neighborhood Network News.

Upcoming CCE City Council Hearing

Boston City Councilors Michelle Wu and Matt O’Malley recently filed a new order to monitor the progress of the implementation of CCE for the City of Boston.  The direct result of the order will be a new hearing:

THEREFORE BE IT ORDERED:
That the appropriate committee of the Boston City Council hold a hearing to discuss the implementation of Community Choice Energy in Boston, and representatives from the Office of Environment, Energy and Open Space and other interested parties and members of the public be invited to testify.

We don’t know when the hearing will take place, but BostonCAN and its allies will need to show up in full force again to let our officials know that we expect them to take quick and resolute action to implement this energy policy as part of their climate mitigation plans.

We’ll keep you posted on when the hearing happens, so check back here in the coming days.