Zero energy: Great goal, hasty action

Nick Grabbe


Town Meeting voted to rush through an important new policy last Wednesday despite a Select Board warning of a “potential for deep consequences,” a plea for caution echoed by three other boards.

My support for bold action on climate change, and my own low-energy lifestyle, make me no less concerned about how this issue was decided. I think it illustrates a fundamental flaw of the Town Meeting system.

The proposal was to require that all new town buildings generate as much energy as they use. This zero-energy mandate will affect not only big projects like a new fire station and public works building, but also additions costing more than $1 million, perhaps including the ones at the North Amherst Library.

Select Board member Andy Steinberg moved to delay a decision until next spring, so that the full ramifications could be studied. His motion failed, 112-73-2, and Town Meeting then quickly approved the new requirement.

I agree that we must act locally to address the threat of climate change. But with the construction of new buildings still years away, there was no need to rush (except maybe the understandable urge to reject the President’s climate policies). It probably felt good for Town Meeting to vote for zero energy, but with the actual impact in the future, why the urgency?

If climate activists wanted a bigger, immediate impact, there are other things they could have proposed. Municipal buildings account for a tiny fraction of the energy consumed in Amherst, and the campuses have made major strides in efficiency. Most of Amherst’s carbon footprint comes from residences and vehicles. How about a property tax credit for the cost of replacing old refrigerators, which are the biggest residential energy wasters? Or a requirement that rental units have Energy Star appliances? Or help in insulating houses? Or free parking downtown for hybrid and/or electric vehicles? How about a solar-powered, Town-supported charging station for electric vehicles?

I worry about the perfect being the enemy of the good here. The current fire station and public works buildings are energy hogs.  What if the new requirements delay their replacement and mean a longer life for these carbon-spewing buildings?  Town officials have had difficulty finding a site for these a new buildings, and now the search will be narrowed to ones that are favorable to renewable energy.

But the bigger issue is how Amherst makes big policy decisions. Faced with a complicated issue with a major financial impact, Town Meeting decided it in less than 45 minutes, ignoring multiple requests for a complete study of the details. Town Meeting defied not only the Select Board but also the Planning Board, its own Finance Committee, and the panel looking at plans for a new fire station and public works building. (The Jones Library expansion project would be exempt from this requirement because it is not owned by the town.)

Even if the charter proposal passes on March 27, there will still be an annual Town Meeting next spring. If Town Meeting had voted for a full vetting of the  zero-energy requirement, it could have passed it then. Or there could have been a special Town Meeting in February. Between now and then, there won’t be any major action on the fire station or public works building plans.

A town council will be able to consider complex proposals like this one over weeks and months, seeking out all the relevant information and asking all the important questions. Town Meeting decided it in 45 minutes.

This is the last in a series of blog posts detailing problems with Town Meeting. We have previously addressed the inadequate number of candidates and voters, Town Meeting’s inability set its own agenda, its impact on Amherst’s high taxes, and its lack of understanding of complex proposals.

Here are some other problems:

  • Members are not required to disclose conflicts of interest, and can vote on articles that affect them financially.
  • Members are not bound by the state’s Open Meeting Law, and can engage in private online discussions away from public scrutiny.
  • Town Meeting, convening only twice a year, is not nimble enough to react quickly to crises and opportunities.
  • Preparation for Town Meeting takes lots of staff time, and that demand will increase with the new advisory committee that was approved Wednesday.
  • There is little communication between members and residents, and a third of members decline to receive emails from residents.
  • The Town Meeting schedule requires the town manager to propose a spending plan long before he knows how much state money Amherst will get.
  • The time investment required deters many from joining; while Town Meeting averaged 22.8 articles per session in 1971-75, it averaged 4.5 in 2011-15.
  • Town Meeting members are older, whiter and wealthier than the general population.
  • Only 70 to 75 percent of Town Meeting members actually show up for meetings.

Comments 11

  1. A few things.

    First, renovations aren’t within the scope of the bylaw.

    The term ‘rushing’ doesn’t seem accurate from my perspective. Our group has been working on the bylaw since May. It has been reviewed by many boards committees and public officials and individuals over this time, has gone through much editing and tweaking, and seems to me very far from a rushed product.

    We are pleased that TM chose to establish this bylaw – to enshrine it in law as it were – so that the goal is clearly and unambiguously established. If there’s a need to rush, it comes from the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, not from any local political considerations. The fact that it will soon be a bylaw doesn’t prohibit it from being amended. Our group isn’t going away, and we plan to keep working with the Select Board, the DPW/Fire Advisory Committee, and others to fine tune it.

    And also to support the DPW, Fire and School projects in the offing. All of these are critical needs in the community. The fact that they will now be environmentally responsible will make it easier for each to achieve support in the community, and 2/3 borrowing votes in Town Meeting or Town Council.

    At the same time, it must be said that we are very comfortable that the bylaw should always contain the Zero-Energy standard, and that we should not substitute an ‘Fairly Close to Zero Energy Standard’. All buildings that the Town will build in the future can meet the ZE standard. It’s just a matter of doing the energy modeling, design and engineering to achieve it.

    1. Chris–

      You are right, renovations aren’t included. I’m misspoke spoke to Nick on that and accept the blame for the inaccuracy in the post. But, additions are included in the new bylaw. So, for the North Amherst Library, the addition of an elevator shaft (should the article pass tonight) and the cost of the project of approximately $1 million, would make the NAL project fall under the new bylaw, requiring the project to include on-site renewable energy generation for any energy used in the new addition, including the energy used by the newly added elevator.

      1. Mandi Jo,
        That’s not correct. The words “major additions” in the bylaw refer to the architectural meaning of adding more building to a building, like the Jones Library plan, not adding things inside that weren’t there before. The North Amherst Library work will not be subject to the bylaw, even if they had to bump out a part of a wall, it’s what we would call a renovation, not an addition.
        Andra Rose

        1. Andra–

          The copy of the ZE bylaw I have does not refer to “major additions”. It states: “‘Town of Amherst Buildings and Building Additions’ shall mean all new buildings and new building additions…” There is an exception in the ZE bylaw for “Projects with a total project cost less than $1,000,000”. On Monday night, the estimate for the cost of construction of the design project outlined in Article 14 on the North Amherst Library was at least $1 million. You and I may disagree on what an “addition” is, but the Town Manager implied on Monday night that the project under Article 14 would be subject to the ZE bylaw. After all, adding a three story elevator to the building, outside of the current building envelope, to most people is an “addition” not a “renovation”. I would concur, though, that making the third floor a meeting room and opening up the basement to the public would be a “renovation” not an “addition”. So, based on the actual wording of the ZE bylaw and the statement of the Town Manager at Town Meeting implying that the NAL project would be subject to the ZE bylaw, I believe it is incorrect to state categorically that the NAL project would not be subject to the ZE bylaw.

  2. Chris,

    This statement : “And also to support the DPW, Fire and School projects in the offing. All of these are critical needs in the community. The fact that they will now be environmentally responsible will make it easier for each to achieve support in the community, and 2/3 borrowing votes in Town Meeting or Town Council.”

    I really hope you are right, but I strongly believe that you are not. There is a vocal minority in TM that does not want new buildings of any type, and this will just further support their argument because of the additional upfront cost. The operating cost reductions of the new schools did nothing to sway their decision in that vote, and the fact that we voted down a slam dunk solar array does not give me any confidence that the need to act on climate change will prevail. In fact to Nick’s point, if we had moved forward with the school project, we would be well on our way to a new building that would save significant GHG emissions from the improved energy efficiency of those buildings. Solar was not allowed to be included in the grant request , but could have easily been considered after the fact, perhaps as a partnership with the colleges.

    I am happy that TM supported the bylaw but I am very concerned about its application. But I remain positive that this will be a win-win, because if we get a new form of government we can be diligent about its application and support smart development of buildings AND renewables.

  3. I think it’s a shame that the town meeting members hadn’t cared as much about the environment our kids at Fort River and Wildwood Schools are living in every single day in poorly built schools with problems that ranged from lead in their drinking water and poorly built classrooms that are obstacles to learning to poor heat in the winter and leaky roofs when it rains and snows. I guess the climate inside the Fort River and Wildwood schools just weren’t as popular as the climate of some new building that won’t be helping any children at all. Are you listening to all of his, undecided voters? This is your town meeting in action.

  4. This article was too much focus on whatever new buildings might be built in the future, which are a drop in the bucket compared to overall Amherst energy usage. Sexy, but not as effective as other efforts. I’d be more interested in a proposal about the town buying as much of it’s energy as possible from renewable sources. A while back the Regional SC voted to buy X percent of its electricity from a solar farm (I forget what X is, I think it was 40%). You don’t need new buildings to get to ZE, you “just” need to buy all energy from water, solar, wind or bio sources. Yes, “just” means you might need to convert an oil or gas heating system to HVAC, so that can be expensive. How many old buildings are there compared to the 1 or 2 new buildings we might build in the next 10-15 years? I would have liked to have expressed this that night, but too many people looking to talk. TM does not work for decent discussion. Too many people.

  5. The regularly bad attendance at Town Meeting is truly one of the institution’s great mysteries. It is something that the Moderator could take more proactive responsibility for, by writing letters to those who don’t show up and suggesting that they step aside to let others serve. It does contribute to an impression that some members view their seat as some kind of entitlement. I’ve never understood why, given the limited, predictable seasonal scheduling of the meetings, we don’t typically have 200+ members at each session.

    Burgeoning problems: Warrant articles that have been altered from what was mailed to us. Motions to amend out of the blue, so the Moderator is caught off-guard, and boards and committees have no opportunity to review them. Despite some substantial reforms from TMCC, we still are conducting too much of the Town’s business by the seat of our pants.

    We are also in a bad stretch in TM’s history in which we lack members who have a quality I would call “explanatory power”. We had a zoning article regarding parking tonight that was very poorly explained from the front of the room, with no real attempt at advocacy from there. It didn’t get better once other members began to peck away at it.
    If one looked at video of TM from just after the turn of this century, I believe that one would observe proceedings that worked more effectively to explain warrant articles, and then to correct factual misimpressions as they arose. This was Harrison Gregg’s forte as Moderator, rather skillfully using his discretion. This Moderator seems more concerned about rigidly enforcing time limits, without intelligent regard to whether the substance has been covered or not. A warrant article should get a fair hearing, not simply a robotic balancing of “yes” and “no”. Also, we are missing people who can clarify and correct things, including a Town Manager taking a largely passive role in the proceedings. This was not what we got from the previous three Town Managers in TM. In fact, right now, all the folks currently sitting quietly at the front of the room seem intimidated and beaten down at this point. I believe that the constant atmosphere of confrontation has taken its toll.

    TM feels like a much less cooperative place than it did when I signed on around about 2001. We’ve seen in the past 8 days its appetite for confrontation, and its need to assert its dominion over all other processes in town. It’s going in the wrong direction.

  6. Achieving net-zero in new construction is not rocket science. In fact, it doesn’t always cost additional money. You can attend a tour through NESEA of the new Bristol Community College’s Health & Science building on Dec 1st. The project which includes labs with ventilation hoods (big loads) claims to have been built at no additional cost.

    Going 3/4 of the way to net zero can be more costly than going all the way there. That is because insulation is inexpensive and mechanical systems are very pricey. If you invest enough in modeling, air sealing and insulating, then you can see huge reductions in fan and mechanical distribution costs. And that is before the operating costs are even considered!

    I’m thrilled that Amherst adopted this by-law, and it is the only way that I would support the construction of new town buildings! I can’t think of a single good reason to stop short of this goal, since going part way there is likely to cost more than going to net zero. Even if the costs add 10% which was typically the case in the first net-zero buildings, that would be a good investment as the operating costs have shown to have quick payback.

  7. Very few disagree with the goal of NZE. My objection arises from the hasty, non-deliberative process.

    With a backlog of at least three major capital projects – and total costs yet to be determined – it is fiscally irresponsible to increase the cost of those projects by an additional, indeterminate amount. Those of us with means may not consider the additional cost onerous, but members of our community who already find it a financial challenge to live in Amherst may feel differently.

    If Amherst’s share of the cost for new 1) elementary school, 2) South Amherst fire station and 3) DPW headquarters totals $65M and the NZE bylaw adds 10% (which is a middle of the road estimate) then Town Meeting just mandated an additional $6.5M in spending.

    That additional $6.5M will increase to ~$9.5M over the life of a 20 year municipal bond. Is that money well spent? Probably? Maybe? Definitely? Questionable? Regardless of the answer it seems to many that the magnitude of the fiscal effect warrants a larger, longer, community wide discussion of our values.

    In 2013, Cambridge appointed a deliberative body – a Net Zero Task Force – to consider the question of a community commitment to Net Zero? They deliberated for over a year, held public hearings, solicited community input. Check out the result of their thoughtful, deliberative work:


    Proponents of energy saving technology are sometimes guilty of overstating its value and understating its cost.

    I support NESEA, but their website appears to conveniently externalize the cost the of 900KW of PV Bristol Community College needed to reach net zero. I quote from their website:

    “While the project paused for funding in 2012, the College intensified its ACUPCC commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050, initiating plans to build a site-based 3.2 megawatt solar array. ”

    That 3.2MW solar array appears to have been built and paid for separately and “[t]he resultant design is projected to use less than 20% of the new array.” If we assume the construction cost of PV is $3/watt, then the new building budget did not include the $2.7M cost of the PV (900,000 watts x $3).

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