Special to The Swellesley Report by Howard Xu, Wellesley High School ’23
Concern about climate change is everywhere—you hear it on TV, read about it in the news, and seen it on the signs of the Fridays for Future group here in Wellesley as you pass by town hall. Fortunately, the federal government is finally pouring the necessary investment into addressing climate issues with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act over the summer. As a local high schooler, I was curious about what was going on in Wellesley to tackle our emissions.
I quickly learned that Wellesley gets electricity from our town-owned Wellesley Municipal Light Plant, the WMLP, which buys bulk electricity and distributes it to residences. This makes it unlike most other Massachusetts communities, which get their electricity from large
investor-owned utilities such as Eversource and National Grid. Among many other benefits, the WMLP provides residents with electricity rates 50% below the state average. To my delight, another benefit is that it was quite easy for me to find out what was going on in the
Wellesley energy ecosystem.
Already, the WMLP is in the process of decarbonizing Wellesley’s electricity supply. Our town currently has a decarbonization goal of 2050, which is in line with the overall goal for Massachusetts. Lisa Wolf, the WMLP’s Sustainability Coordinator, told me that Wellesley’s
electricity supply is 58.6% carbon-free. For reference, that positions our town among the leaders in decarbonization. Wolf did acknowledge that around “30% or 35% of our total supply is from nuclear,” which is considered carbon-free but not renewable. Still, Wellesley is significantly greener than the average municipal provider in Massachusetts, where only 2.43% of electricity comes from renewable sources. That’s compared to 23% of the WMLP’s electricity portfolio. That’s compared to 23% of the WMLP’s electricity portfolio. Additionally, the WMLP has helped cover the cost of the rooftop solar installation on the Boston Sports Institute, which has already begun producing electricity.
As for what the WMLP is working on right now, Assistant Manager Francisco Frias explained that they are focusing on a couple local initiatives. The first is installing one or more 5- megawatt batteries to be online around the middle of 2024. These will help stabilize
our electrical system during peak usage hours and then recharge when electricity consumption is low during the night. Moreover, they will allow the WMLP to “power up critical loads such as the fire department, the Department of Public Works, and the MLP building” in the event of a major blackout. Furthermore, the WMLP “will be installing solar at the Library, the new Hunnewell school and the new Hardy School” to complement the array that they’ve installed on the high school. Of course, Frias also recognized that they will “have to be diligent in securing good power contracts,” and according to Wolf, they are already considering “long-term contracts for offshore wind and large solar fields.”
However, Wolf also emphasized that part of the burden of decarbonization lies on residents. She predicted that the biggest challenge would remain “educating individuals about the importance of change.” She urged residents to “add more renewable devices to their homes, like heat pumps, or batteries, or electric vehicle chargers, spread the word about how to do this with friends, neighbors and family, and voice their support for WMLP to set a decarbonization goal earlier than 2050.” Given that indoor heating and transportation are responsible for well over half of Massachusetts’ emissions, a switch to heat pumps and electric vehicles will eventually be necessary to hit net-zero carbon emissions. If possible, Wolf also recommended “shifting electricity use from times of high use to low use,” which would help the WMLP avoid reliance on inefficient gas peaker plants. Finally, she suggested enrolling in the town’s WECARE electrical program if you initially opted out. The program gives residents the option to buy 100% renewable electricity or contribute towards local sustainability efforts such as solar installations or creating incentives for green appliances.
The path towards decarbonization won’t be easy. When I asked Andy Stone, a staff member at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, about the future of the US grid, he was confident “that [the necessary shift] will happen” but
“uncertain about whether it will happen in time.”
Joanna Troy, the Director of Energy Policy and Planning for Massachusetts, had similar feelings about the state grid. Overall, she described
herself as a “cynical optimist.” She explained that while “it can get done, it’s going to be real hard, really hard, and there’s a chance we won’t get it done”.
Robert Kievra, a representative for National Grid (the investor-owned utility which provides electricity for most of central Massachusetts) agreed that “none of [the necessary changes] will be easy,” as National Grid understands that “it’s critical [for the company] that we provide a solution that is affordable for all our customers.
Still, when I ask how the MLP’s Wolf feels about the challenges that the Wellesley organization faces, she replies: “very optimistic”.
“Renewable energy in a variety of forms—wind, solar, hydro, geothermal—is becoming competitive with natural gas, the cheapest of the fossil fuels.” Wolf says. She also cites the fact that “some towns are adopting much more aggressive decarbonization schedules, such as Shrewsbury (2032) and Concord and Belmont (2030), and I think WMLP might be able to accelerate its goal as well”.
Perhaps, the answer to our national climate plight is to face the challenge citizen by citizen, town by town. In Wellesley, at least, we are in good hands.