Merrimack Valley tragedy offers climate change opportunity

Rebuild where necessary, but let’s go greener where possible

IN THE LAST TWO MONTHS, we have once again witnessed the human and financial impact of the world’s addiction to fossil fuels: forest fires in the Arctic; devastated communities and lives in the Carolinas and Florida; and, sadly, here at home, the loss of life and treasure from the explosions in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover.

Each is a stark reminder of the threat that our society’s over-reliance on coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels represents to our economy, our environment, and our fellow citizens.

The first order of business in the Merrimack Valley communities, of course, is to meet fundamental, basic human needs: shelter, food, hot water, and safe, reliable heat for the winter and to assist those impacted so they are made whole. But there is a second order of business as well. And it needs to happen concurrently with the first.

The significant investments required in the energy infrastructure of the impacted communities present an opportunity to re-think what energy options are available to best meet the needs of these communities, not only for this winter but for many years to come. Doing so can lead to practical, cost-effective actions that will provide a host of benefits for the residents and businesses in these communities: reduced energy costs for ratepayers; safer, more resilient homes and businesses; improved indoor air quality; and, meaningfully, less climate pollution.

While Washington retreats from the climate change battlefield, Massachusetts has been on the front lines for more than a decade. We’re making real progress in transitioning electric generation away from high polluting fossil fuels to cleaner sources. More can and must be done, but by increasing the supply of offshore wind, expanding solar energy use, and making the power grid more efficient through energy efficiency investments, we are gaining ground.

Increasingly, clean energy options are also available right in our own homes and businesses. By adopting energy efficiency measures and powering appliances, vehicles, and heating systems with modern, low polluting electricity more and more homeowners are gaining ground as well.

We can continue this progress and provide greater safety and financial savings for homeowners and businesses in the Merrimack Valley by thinking broadly and acting quickly in the use of the financial resources being dedicated to rebuilding the infrastructure of these communities.

There are two immediate windows for doing so. First, millions in emergency funds could be targeted for the replacement and repair of residential heating, cooling, and cooking appliances. This represents a terrific opportunity to support the adoption of energy efficient appliances and other viable clean energy options. By using some modest portion of these funds to provide educational material and financial incentives to their customers, Columbia Gas can insure that those residents and businesses are able to make better informed decisions about how they can save money and reduce their climate footprint.

It may take $100 million to invest in new natural gas mains in the Merrimack Valley. Improved mains that do not leak are critical, but this represents the second window for action. We should not fall into a trap of assuming that the only answer to the energy future of these communities is to rebuild and expand natural gas. Natural gas is a climate-polluting fuel. And with the oldest natural gas infrastructure in the country and analysts suggesting that more than a quarter of the lead and steel pipes that carry natural gas to our homes and businesses are leaking, we should use this opportunity to fully explore and embrace clean, safe alternatives.

Major infrastructure investments like those being proposed for these communities lock in energy usage patterns for decades to come. Yes, let’s rebuild where necessary. But let’s also invest in better weatherization of homes and businesses; on-site solar and battery storage to increase reliability and resiliency and lower costs; air-source heat pumps to provide safe, clean, cost-effective heating in the winter and more efficient cooling in the summer than window box air conditioners.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Let’s add these and other safe, modern options to the menu. Let’s seize the opportunity for meaningful investment in a cleaner, safer, less costly energy infrastructure for the residents and businesses of the Merrimack Valley. Let’s provide them with the full and lasting benefits they need and deserve.

John P. DeVillars is a member of the Acadia Center board of directors and chairman of BlueWave Solar. Daniel L. Sosland is president of Acadia Center.