Is Cambridge Ready for "Net Zero" Energy Use Requirements?

Is Cambridge Ready for "Net Zero" Energy Use Requirements?

"Net Zero" zoning proposed. Conservatives opposed.

On June 19th, 2013, A group of Cambridge residents submitted a petition to the City Council to amend the zoning ordinance to insure that new large buildings and some major rehabs meet so-called “net zero” energy use criteria. This would mean that qualifying developments would use a combination of conservation, on site sustainable generation and purchase of “green” energy or renewable energy tax credits. Compliance reports are also required. On July 14th the Cambridge Chronicle published a “Right View” column by Peter Wilson in opposition of the petition. I am compelled to offer what I think of a more “Correct View”

Writing on another 90 plus degree day makes me think that this net zero energy thing might be a pretty good idea. Of course we've always had heat waves, but every week or so you can read another article reporting the hottest seasonal temperatures ever recorded somewhere. Mr. Wilson seems to think that everything is fine and that being "paternal", i.e. doing something that may actually have the desired effect, is the real evil.

That is a pretty silly argument. We do these things all the time and like the results just fine. Seatbelts, fire codes, traffic regulations, and laws against harming our fellows. As a rational society we revise these collective benefits from time to time as new information becomes available. Over the past couple of decades we have received more than enough new information on the human causes of global warming. In Cambridge we have taken some modest incremental steps to address the problem, but the results have been modest at best. Around the year 2000, Our Fair City set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by twenty percent over ten years. The result ten years later was a seventeen percent rise. That's a miss by thirty seven or forty six and a quarter percent depending on how you count it. Either way a dismal result.

Somebody has to do something sometime, right? Mr. Wilson seems to be arguing otherwise, but not very convincingly. Citing Wikipedia (which would earn my kid a fail at CRLS), he tells us that it isn't very efficient to use geothermal wells for a "detached residence". Single family homes are not covered by this proposal, as he tells us earlier. The only buildings affected by the Connolly petition are those over fifty thousand square feet that would already require a special permit from the Planning Board. (Thanks to Charlie Marquardt for pointing out that I used the old number here. The Correct number is twenty five thousand) By using this example, Mr. Wilson displays either an attempt to deceive or a lack of understanding of the topic. Either way, he does his readers a disservice. He also cites the market effect of cheap natural gas, but fails to mention that burning it produces carbon dioxide among other things, which does have an eventual cost. This is another example of the preference on the political right to privatize profits and socialize costs.

In the opening paragraph, Mr. Wilson exhibits a very poor understanding of history and the legislative process in Cambridge. The vote by Mayor Davis that he referred to was on an amendment to a recent zoning petition by MIT Investment and Management Co. to upzone MIT's property for commercial development. (MIT is already the city's biggest commercial landlord.) The Connolly petition is another issue altogether. The recent action on it by the City Council is best characterized as ministerial. The Council is required by law to refer zoning petitions to the Planning Board and the Ordinance committee of the City Council for review and hearings.

Another criticism of the Connolly petition is the suggestion that this was presented to negate the resent MIT zoning changes. This is not the case, as attorney Connolly, and the folks at Green Cambridge and the Cambridge Committee for Net Zero Buildings have been working on this for months and filed when it was ready.

It boils down to the big question. Do we do something that will make a dent in the problem or not? Somebody has to be the pioneer on this. Cambridge is a great place to start. We have a concentration of expertise, will, and a healthy commercial real estate market that would make this work. If we take good care of our little patch, we would be a model that will make it easier for other places to do the same. That way all of the little patches can be taken better care of. Passing the Connolly petition is the responsible thing to do.

Remember, this is an election year with two vacancies on the Council. This in one issue that you should consider when marking your ballot in November.

The photo at the top of the page shows one of the wind power generators on the roof of the Museum Of Science on the East Cambridge side.

PDF icon Connolly petition as filed.99.93 KB


Right on. We have to start somewhere -- the sooner the better.