A worker assesses the solar panels on the roof of Dowling Hall on Aug. 20, 2014. (Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily)

Through collaborative efforts, local communities prepare for greener future

Though climate change is a global issue, local municipalities in the Boston area, along with dozens of other communities in Massachusetts, have been working together to take several adaptive, mitigative and proactive steps toward renewable energy usage.

One such effort near Tufts is Somerville’s Be SEEN (Somerville Energy Efficient Now) program. According to Christine Andrews, the housing and environment programs coordinator in Somerville, Be SEEN is an initiative that focuses on getting residents to be the first ones to install renewable energy systems in their neighborhoods.

The idea behind it [is] that people will take action because they are perceived by the peers as being green conscious,” Andrews said.

Andrews said that Somerville aims to be completely carbon neutral by 2050, meaning that the city will produce enough renewable energy to offset carbon emissions.

“While it is impossible to be totally net zero, our city is hoping to offset the energy that we cannot save or produce in city bounds with other sources,” she said.

Additionally, according to Andrews, Somerville is participating in an initiative with the National Grid in which the company will give the city grants if it completes more home energy assessments.

“It is a state program where an advisor comes out to a home and does a home safety check at no cost,” Andrews said. “They then give instant saving measures in the form of a report. This report opens people up to low cost incentives, discounted insulation and rebates on heating systems.”

A large part of the assessment is seeing if individuals’ homes are ready for solar energy. According to Andrews, Solarize Somerville, which ended registration in December, connected homeowners with a solar vendor to facilitate installation of panels. It was part of the statewide Solarize Mass program from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and the Department of Energy Resources.

Medford had also participated in the same program in 2013, according to Alicia Hunt, the director of energy and environment in Medford.

“So the way Solarize works is each [solar] company applies and we pick one to give a group discount on our residents,” she said. “When we did it, we chose Sunbug Solar. [Sunbug] got residents to install 222 kilowatts of solar, and Tufts actually installed 99 kilowatts on the array that is on the parking garage of Dowling [Hall].”

Hunt is also working toward replacing all of the streetlights in Medford with LEDs.

“Turns out we would save a lot of money by buying out the lights,” she said. “It takes a while to make the payback because you reduce the energy by only about 60 percent, but because we are paying these huge rental fees, this project will pay for itself in four-and-a-half years.”

Both Medford and Somerville are using existing state legislation to get cheaper solar energy to their residents, according to Oliver Sellers-Garcia, the director of sustainability and environment in Somerville.

“[The legislation] allows for municipalities to actually be the agents that procure the electric supply for all of the accounts inside of the municipal orders,” Sellers-Garcia said. “What we can do is step in and buy electricity on behalf of residents in Somerville at a lower cost and use that cost differential to buy more renewable energy certificates.”

However, the process of installing solar panels in Somerville can be tedious, especially because many Somerville homes are owned either by multiple households or by landlords who do not reside in them.

“90 percent of our homes in Somerville are multi family,” Andrews said. “That has historically been a huge barrier. And over two-thirds of people rent, which means that they may not even be looking into solar. Additionally, lots of residents are unable to put solar on their home because they have skylights, dormers or because it is an older roof.”

In MedfordHunt said she is facing similar problems.

“When you deal with a city, it takes many many months, and it gets very complicated. And in the length of time I keep trying to get solar on our buildings, our roofs keep getting older, and you should not put solar on roofs that need to be replaced in a few years,” she said.

Hunt said that Tufts students can also play a role in working toward energy efficiency by encouraging the university to install more solar panels and buy green certificates.

“At the moment, if you are living in a dorm, the most you can do is convince your school to buy green energy certificates. But if you pay an electric bill, you can buy these certificates too,” she said. “For every megawatt of clean electricity [that you produce], the state will issue a certificate stating that you have made that amount of electricity, and you can sell that to utility companies who are required to buy them.”

Currently, Medford and Somerville are also working on releasing vulnerability assessments to better plan for the increasingly intense impacts of climate change in the future, according to Sellers-Garcia.

“For cities that are thinking about climate change, it is a pretty standard thing to start off your planning process by looking at your climate projections for your area and how that is going to impact the people in those areas,” Sellers-Garcia said.

Sellers-Garcia said these assessments allow Somerville to see where the biggest risks are and allocate time and resources accordingly.

In MedfordHunt noted that a Tufts graduate student in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, Ryan Bailey, has been working toward assembling the city’s vulnerability assessment.

Hunt also pointed to the Boston Metro Mayors Coalition, a group of about 14 mayors that collaborate on common issues, as another example of a way to address climate change at the local and regional scales. The coalition has only begun to address climate issues recently.

“Two years ago, [the Coalition] decided that they needed to be looking at climate change as a region and the impact of climate change on the area,” Hunt said. “So they formed the metro mayors climate change preparedness task force.”

Sellers-Garcia said that the when the task force meets, it also meets with representatives from the MBTA, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the Department of Homeland Security and other state and federal agencies, providing for a much more interagency approach.

According to Hunt, this task force meets every two months, and it focuses on the needs of the Boston metropolitan area.

“Climate change is not looking at us as individual cities,” she said. “We share borders and water boundaries with these guys, so there is no point in us doing completely independent, separate studies of different things when we are going to see the same impacts.”

For example, Hunt said that rather than commissioning a new study, the committee allowed Cambridge to share data regarding possible flooding risks with Medford, since Cambridge had already looked into how sea level rise would affect the Mystic River.

Sellers-Garcia agreed that collaboration between neighboring cities has been mutually beneficial.

“Boston has built off what Cambridge has done. We are perfectly primed to take advantage of all of the data and analysis that they did, which they shared with us so we can do our work at a much lower cost. Medford is piggybacking on us, and we are on them,” he said.

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