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Boston launches new program as part of push toward net zero emissions

Boston mayor Michelle Wu speaks at a Green New Deal announcement in Allston on March 16. Wu announced a program to decarbonize and electrify Boston’s smaller buildings in a press release on Sept. 21. ANDREW BURKE-STEVENSON/DFP FILE

A new pilot program to expand Boston’s efforts toward a greener future will provide funding to decarbonize and electrify Boston’s smaller building stock, according to a press release from Mayor Michelle Wu on Sept. 21.  

The program, called the Healthy and Green Retrofit Pilot Program, will select 10 building owners of two to four-unit occupied buildings from a lottery to receive funding. Applications for the lottery are open until Oct. 20 at 5 p.m.

Maintaining affordability and preventing tenant displacement is at the forefront of this effort, according to the City’s website. The City created eligibility requirements for income and financial assets to select candidates and mandated that tenants cannot be displaced from their units as a result of this work.

“Having affordable housing and also having net zero and reaching carbon neutrality don’t need to happen in vacuums, they can happen simultaneously,” said Kathleen Hart, communications manager for Boston’s Environment Department.

With this effort, the City continues to strive to achieve the Building Emissions Reduction and Disclosure Ordinance, which was adopted in 2013 and further amended in 2021. BERDO requires that all large buildings reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

“A zero net energy building (ZNEB) is one that is optimally efficient, and over the course of a year, generates energy onsite, using clean renewable resources, in a quantity equal to or greater than the total amount of energy consumed onsite,” according to the state government’s website.

Hart emphasized the importance of BERDO in long-term environmental goals.

“A policy like BERDO … and targeting building stock is a great way for us to improve our air quality and shift toward renewable energy, but also reduce the impacts of climate change that we’re already seeing and anticipate in the future,” Hart said.

The Boston Climate Action Network is a grassroots organization that advocates for climate justice in Boston. The organization’s advocacy director, Hessann Farooqi, said they have long focused on the environmental issues of buildings and hope to implement BERDO. 

“In the City of Boston, buildings are 70% of greenhouse gas emissions,” Farooqi said. “They are by far the most important focus that any of us should have in terms of emissions reductions.”

BCAN is a big advocate for the affordable housing aspect of the Healthy and Green Retrofit Pilot Program, Farooqi said.

“We hope to … [make] sure that we build homes that are green and healthy, but making sure that the costs don’t fall on the lowest income properties,” Farooqi said. “Most of the buildings that are here in Boston are not going anywhere, so we’ve really got to figure out how we can retrofit or renovate those buildings to bring down their emissions, and, of course, we’ve got to do this in a way that is affordable to everyone.”

The program announcement came after the Mayor’s office released details on a similar effort to reduce emissions: the Green New Deal for Boston Public Schools, a plan to renovate over 14 of Boston’s school facilities with climate-conscious infrastructure and resources.

Aside from Boston, the City of Cambridge is also working toward environmental improvement through school building renovations. 

Cambridge has their own version of BERDO, known as the Building Energy Use Disclosure Ordinance, or BEUDO. Their ordinance requires large non-residential buildings to reach net zero by 2035, and mid-size, non-residential buildings to do so by 2050, regardless of whether they are new construction or not.

Brendon Roy, director of construction for the Capital Building Projects Department in Cambridge, is the construction project manager of the Tobin Montessori & Vassal Lane Upper Schools Project. Set to be completed in September 2025, the project is the third-largest net zero school Cambridge has recently constructed.

“There are no fossil fuels … associated with this building,” Roy said. “It is 100% all electric, we have no gas feed into the building whatsoever. The electricity that we’re using to power the building is about 50%, maybe 60% generated through our solar canopy … and the rest of the energy is from the grid but we’re purchasing green power through our utilities. So, the power we’re purchasing is confirmed to be from a sustainable source.”

Cambridge was the first city in the nation to require non-residential buildings of a certain size to cut their fossil fuel emissions, according to a City of Cambridge press release. 

“I think Cambridge is … ahead of the curve,” Roy said. “A lot of it has to do with the money. Cambridge is a very financially-sound municipality, and so we have the funds to do this, a lot of other places don’t.”

Roy said maintenance may need more careful attention in net zero school buildings, however.

“It’s not like your grandparents’ school or my grandparents’ school where it might’ve just been a nice easy fan or a boiler, they’re very much complex systems that require someone looking at them every day to make sure everything’s in the norm,” Roy said.

Roy explained that net zero buildings obtain a lot of their energy from geothermal wells, which are pipes drilled between 500 and 1,000 feet into the ground that use the internal temperature of the earth to turn cold water into warm water to help heat the building.

“It’s expensive to change the temperature of water,” Roy said. “By putting it in the ground, it heats up the water … There’s a huge energy savings that’s exponentially greater than if we had to heat the water going from 40 degrees to 100 degrees.”

Farooqi highlighted the importance of efforts toward sustainability in the face of the climate crisis.

“We feel the effects of this crisis so deeply,” Farooqi said. “Even though this issue affects everyone, not everyone’s starting from the same place. The people who have the least social, political and economic power get hit by the effects of this crisis first and worst.”

Farooqi said he believes anyone can get involved in making a difference in climate change, no matter who you are.

“There is such a powerful role for every single one of us to be involved with this,” Farooqi said. “Everyone’s got to find some opening to push for sustainability, to push for climate justice in your own community and for the institutions that you’re a part of. Every skill set absolutely can lend itself to the climate jobs that we need to see.”

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One Comment

  1. Very informative and well written article.