State Sen. Michael Barrett, one of the Legislature’s luminaries when it comes to efforts to combat the impact of climate change, sees reasons for optimism.
“In the climate front, despite all the dire circumstances we are confronted with, we should have hope,” Barrett said last week in an interview. Barrett, whose district includes Bedford, pointed out that recently-signed federal legislation “seemed dead in the water. And then we have a new state climate bill that seemed destined for a gubernatorial veto but is now law.”
“Two last-minute rescues have resulted in a lot of opportunities for Massachusetts,” Barrett said. But many of those opportunities are competitive, he added.
The so-called Inflation Reduction Act, signed last month by President Joe Biden, means funding “for every conceivable activity involving green energy and emissions reduction is now available,” Barrett said, adding, “Immediately this puts a premium on grant applications and grant writing by towns and by the state.”
Bedford officials anticipated this scenario. The Energy and Sustainability Committee, backed by the grass-roots climate organization Mothers Out Front, advocated for a new position in town government, energy and sustainability manager. The position was advanced by Town Manager Sarah Stanton and the Select Board, and town meeting approved it in March.
“The federal legislation underscores the critical need for a town energy and sustainability manager, who, among other things, will be responsible for submitting grant applications to subsidize the transition to renewable energy,” said Emily Prince, who chairs the Energy and Sustainability Committee.
However, Stanton said last week that there has been little interest in the position, which was added when the fiscal year began July 1. “To date, the town has only received two applications, and neither met the minimum requirements,” she reported in an email. The position remains posted and “we will interview when a qualified candidate comes in.”
The town has had some success with earlier grants, with applications prepared by department heads and staff.
“The process has begun for certain categories,” Barrett said. “The first assignment for anyone taking on the task is to track the opening of the application period. There is time, but suddenly there is a great need to get in the mix and compete.”
Among the categories, he noted, are municipal buildings. The town’s long-range capital plan includes millions of dollars targeted for boiler upgrades in school buildings to facilitate achieving net-zero emissions.
“Because the magnitude of the federal appropriations is huge compared to all historic benchmarks, this is the moment for Bedford to lay its hands on an experienced grant writer – either through a direct hire or use of consultants,” Barrett asserted. “Plenty of discretionary funding is at stake.”
“I am encouraged by our community’s commitment to net zero and understanding of the need to have a dedicated municipal staff member to lead the effort,” Prince said.
The senator also noted that under the state law, “There are significant implications for housing construction. Bedford has to decide by town meeting whether to lock into the new specialized stretch energy code. If you care about greening the state this is an exciting possibility but also a challenging one.”
The new climate-focused code must include net-zero building performance standards. It requires all new buildings to be designed with electric service and wiring sufficient for future electrification of space and water heating as well as any combustion equipment appliance load.
According to a state-published description, “All compliance pathways under the specialized code are designed to ensure new construction that is consistent with a net-zero Massachusetts economy in 2050, primarily through deep energy efficiency, reduced heating loads, and efficient electrification.”
Under the new state law, 10 communities have been designated to participate in a pilot program that bans the use of fossil fuels in new buildings and major renovations. “The 10 communities piece is all electric for new construction. The new code comes very close but provides builders more flexibility,” Barrett explained. “It’s a big step forward – probably the most ambitious in the United States. I hope my communities choose to opt in.”
The opt-in period has been extended through 2023, with an additional year for commercial buildings, he noted.