by Mark Dullea
What are the virtues of Peabody? Certainly its attractive property tax rate comes to mind. A nice, City-owned golf course. Then there’s the 275-acre Brooksby Farm, a working farm with a popular farm stand. Then there’s a big regional shopping mall, and a well-established industrial/business park. Then there’s, let’s see: good access to the 2200-acre Lynn Woods, laced with all those great hiking trails; ready access to foodie haven Beverly, with all those great restaurants on Cabot and Rantoul Street; and being next-door neighbors with Salem, with its funky, witch-obsessed downtown and its architecturally striking historic 18th and 19th-century neighborhoods. And the beaches of Nahant, Lynn, and Gloucester are all just a short drive away.
What Peabody is NOT is a hotbed of action and elected leadership in the one area that is – or should be – the most important to everyone alive today around the globe: the matter of the global climate crisis. In 2021 I prepared a report on what the 40 cities and towns that comprise the core of the Boston metropolitan area have been doing in the area of climate action: how they were responding to the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement. This is the agreement that assessed the alarming effect of greenhouse gases accumulating in our planet’s atmosphere, and urged governments at all levels – including cities – to become more active collectively and individually to decarbonizes buildings and transport, and to up the pace of replacing fossil fuels with greener alternatives. BOSTON Magazine published a synopsized version of my work in April of 2021.
In my original and longer report, I established 20 markers, or indicators, of the types of municipal climate action I would use to evaluate the level of a community’s climate action. Each indicator represented 5 points toward a perfect score of 100. Cambridge finished in first place, checking 19 of my 20 boxes, for 95 points. Peabody managed to check only one box, thereby scoring just 5 points, and finished dead last, 40th place. We must do better.
Leading experts are calling the climate crisis an existential threat to humanity, and while many communities in The Commonwealth are responding to this threat head-on, like a lion on the hunt to feed its hungry pride, Peabody’s response might best be compared to the ostrich. Contrary to popular belief, ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand when they sense danger. What they actually do, which seems equally unproductive, is to run away from a predator until they run out of wind, and then flop to the ground and lie still, hoping not to be seen by blending in with the terrain. My bet is on the predator at this point. Peabody seems to be taking this approach. While it may quietly acknowledge that rising temperatures and ecological decline will do us all in unless serious, broad-based collective action is taken, it has preferred, up to this point in time, anyway, to just lie low and let others take the steps required to keep the planet in a survivable temperature range.
So it has not been surprising what occurred when MMWEC showed it was determined, based on a loophole in state law, to bull ahead with its ill-chosen and outdated plans for a fossil-fueled peaker plant (“the best technology of 2015!”). While there was a strong level of citizen opposition, there was none from where it really mattered – Peabody City Hall or the offices of PMLP. Both were content to sit back, to ignore the idea that better solutions to peak energy needs were being rapidly adopted around the globe, and enable the plant to be built despite overwhelming evidence of better alternatives.
However, just because Peabody has until the present day badly lagged the leaders – globally, nationally, and locally – in the area of municipal climate action, there is no reason to settle for remaining at the back of the field forever. There are many things Peabody can do, utilizing its own local assets, and beginning right now, to show that there IS concern in this city about the climate crisis. Not just rising temperatures, but everything that directly results from that: more frequent catastrophic storms; dangerously lowered public water supplies in many areas; devastating and ever-larger forest fires; overly acidified oceans; and all the rest that we hear about almost every day now. It’s clearly time for all good citizens, and their elected representatives, to stop ignoring the obvious, and to take bold climate action while we can still.
It’s not as if Peabody is sitting surrounded by climate science deniers and hard-core fossil fuel advocates. For example, just last year Beverly and Salem’s mayors were recognized at the National Mayors Climate Protection Awards, bestowed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. One of the many reasons these two received these awards is their Joint Beverly-Salem Climate Action and Resilience Plan & Program, called Resilient Together. They’ve put forth creative plans to address the climate crisis at the municipal level including using electric school buses to discharge their batteries during peak demand periods and building solar arrays on capped landfills. A much longer listing of both cities’ climate leadership and actions can be found in this article by the Salem News. Peabody has a NetZero Roadmap Plan in the works, which will address the ways Peabody can act towards climate action in similar ways as the Resilient Together plan, but ensuring its implementation is prioritized by the city and its partners will prove challenging based on the lackluster climate efforts so far.
And the timing couldn’t be better – as referenced to the “Golden Opportunity” in this article’s title. In 2022, with the passage of the federal government’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), hundreds of billions of dollars in investment tax credits (ITCs), production credits, grants, and other forms of financial assistance to climate projects became available. Cities, along with nonprofit organizations, who were earlier unable to capitalize on ITCs, can now receive comparable financial compensation under the Act’s Direct Payments feature. Combine the IRA with 2021’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), with its own climate-related dollars available, and you are talking more than serious money. Is Peabody really going to allow all of this to go elsewhere? Even with the NetZero Roadmap in its final drafting phase, there’s a risk that Peabody will miss out on these funds without swift plan implementation.
The orderly way for a city to go about becoming a grown-up about climate action would be to first appoint a broad-based citizens Task Force or Climate Advisory Committee; second, to carry out a detailed, city-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory; and third, to create a comprehensive Climate Action Plan. The draft NetZero Roadmap Plan has done work around these three items, but there is more to be done. In the meantime, there are many things that it could start to do while steps 1, 2, and 3 are being pursued. If you’d like an idea of the almost endless range of possible city climate actions that could be pursued, have a look at my website – www.climateplanning.city. There you’ll find climate actions and Climate Action Plans by cities around the world, some going back as far as the 1990s. You’ll learn of the practices, policies, strategies, emerging technologies, and funding and financing assistance that are available to cities, and which are enabling them to reduce their carbon footprints and to help keep fossil fuels where they belong – in the ground. Based on some of these ideas, and on Peabody’s own local assets, here are just a few ways to begin moving up into the of the ranks climate action leaders:
- The City guided by the City Council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, is now involved in its 3rd look at joining the Commonwealth’s Green Communities Program. Of the 351 cities and towns in the state, nearly 300 have recognized the benefits of the program and taken the steps to become a certified Green Community – many as long as 12 years ago. It should be a no-brainer, a baby-step on the road to serious climate action. Since its inception in 2010, Green Communities has distributed more than $153 Million to Massachusetts city and town governments. Due to its ponderously slow evaluation of the program, and its current non-participation, not a penny of those funds has been received by Peabody. When joining the program was being considered for the 2nd time in 2011, in order to participate as a city with its own electric utility, the City would have had to enter into a trust with PMLP and charge residents a fee of $3- about the price of a cup of coffee at Dunkin Donuts. PMLP did not want to do this, and the Green Communities effort died. It was brought up again at the Council Ad Hoc Committee back in April, 2022, but it was felt that more study was needed. The application is now “nearly complete” and should be voted on by the council this summer- should be. It’s possible that all the world’s glaciers will have melted away before any official decision is made by Peabody to actually adopt the Green Communities Program.
- Peabody is one of the very few cities I know of that that owns and runs its own farm – 2 farms, actually – Brooksby and Tillie’s. Regenerative soil management is considered a climate-positive farming method, as it retains more carbon in the soil than does tilled soil. If Brooksby doesn’t currently use regenerative methods, adopting them would help it to become a better sink for greenhouse gases. Both farms may be able to incorporate agrivoltaics. Agrivoltaics is the combining of traditional fruit and vegetable farming with solar farming. Dual use of the same piece of land. Think of it! Not just a single seasonal crop, but one seasonal (food) and one year-round – clean power. There are many popular food crops that have been found to grow even better with some shading from solar panels. Many others do 80 to 90% as well. And – less water is needed due to plants and soil being partially shaded from daylong hot sun. Some of the pioneering work being done in the field of agrivoltaics is at our own UMass-Amherst. Let’s invite one of their team of researchers to town and see how we can replicate their results here.
- Down at the end of my street (Longview Way in South Peabody) there’s a body of water that connects to the City of Peabody’s Coolidge Water Treatment Facility. This water surface area could be looked at for a possible floatovoltaics set-up. Floatovoltaics means floating solar panels on foam rafts. The panels cast some amount of shade onto the water’s surface, cooling it a bit, so that less algae grows there. This shading, combined with the water surface area covered by the foam rafts, reduces water losses caused by evaporation. Worried about locating a solar plant on a public water supply? One of the world’s largest floatovoltaic plants is located on the reservoir providing London’s water supply with great success.
- Peabody has a lot of flat, relatively unutilized roof surfaces, such as the North Shore Mall, the Centennial Industrial/Office Park, and elsewhere. The City and PMLP need to bring solar to these rooftops around the city. Many of these same buildings have large parking lots that could also be utilized for renewable energy in the form of carport arrays. Simon Properties, the owners of the North Shore Mall, has many wide-ranging sustainability goals in areas of waste, water, and clean energy. The City and Simon Properties could work cooperatively in these and other climate-related areas to amplify these efforts.
- The new Peabody High School in the works should be designed to be an energy-efficiency, green energy showcase. It is large enough to be its own microgrid, creating and storing on-site all of the energy it requires. In that way, the building itself could become a teacher to all the students attending it. Let’s work so this building is certified LEED Platinum. Power it with renewable energy, utilize high efficiency lighting and heat pumps. Let’s model what all new buildings should be striving for in the place where our students can take it all in.
- Let’s consider “rewilding” our unused green spaces– planting enough different types of trees and other plant life so that it becomes a diverse urban forest, sucking up carbon and other GHGs as it grows to maturity. Some cities have been able to monetize their forested lands by selling carbon offsets or credits, another perk beyond protecting future generations from the threats of climate collapse.
- Let the city begin a separate collection of organic waste from all sectors – from homes, businesses, the Mall, schools – wherever it occurs. It then build an anaerobic digester, a device that will convert that organic waste into biogas plus various liquid and solid byproducts used to replace synthetic fertilizers (a major source of C02) in agriculture. The biogas produced from the digester can be used to heat city buildings. It could also be used to replace the methane (so-called natural gas) that MMWEC and the PMLP is so determined to burn in this city in its peaker plants. Two companies that look like they are doing marvelous things with biogas to produce greener electricity are Bloom Energy and Mainspring Energy.
- Small-scale carbon capture has been coming down in price recently, and this trend is expected to continue. Glenwood Management, which owns apartment buildings in New York City, recently retrofitted its first property with carbon capture equipment from CarbonQuest. The CarbonQuest CC equipment traps and sequesters carbon from the building’s gas boiler exhaust. The CO2 is then converted from a gas to liquid form, stored temporarily on-site, then picked up by a tanker truck and delivered to a nearby concrete factory, where it is then injected into new concrete blocks. This both makes the blocks stronger, and also sequesters the carbon indefinitely. While moving away from fossil fuels is necessary, using carbon capture technologies in the meantime is a fantastic way to prevent that carbon from entering the atmosphere.
- A year ago, the Peabody City Council opted into the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program developed by the US Department of Energy, and administered by the individual states which have adopted it, like Massachusetts. To summarize, private investors put up the money which enables owners of commercial and multi-family residential buildings to install new energy-efficient HVAC equipment, as well as to add renewable energy systems to these properties. Cities themselves don’t have to spend a penny. While Peabody has opted in to the PACE program, no one seems to know much about it or who is promoting it in Peabody. The City Council directed me to the Assessor’s Office and the Department of Community Development and Planning. Those offices said they were aware of PACE, but each also stated that they had no official role in making sure that it is successfully operated in the city. The Peabody Chamber of Commerce was also of little help. While PACE is technically a state program, managed overall by Mass Development, the cities where it has been most successful are those in which the city itself plays an active role in promoting it, making its widespread use a key strategy in its Climate Action Plan funding and financing section. The PACE program is underutilized in Peabody because we do not have municipal leadership promoting it.
- The City’s elected political establishment, and the board that runs PMLP, need to do more than simply abide by the Commonwealth’s minimum standards. Peabody’s citizens need to encourage, or better yet, demand that the City’s officials do their best in confronting the climate challenge, rather than hoping that a minimum effort will be enough to get by. The Mayor should join hundreds of his counterparts across the country by joining an organization like Climate Mayors. The Peabody City Council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy needs to hold frequent and regular meetings. At a minimum, this Ad Hoc Committee must first of all come out strongly for getting a Climate Action Planning process off the ground, including the hiring of a full-time Climate Coordinator, not just assigning additional duties in this all-important area to current City staff members who already have full-time jobs. Next, the City, via the office of the Mayor and the City Council, in order to show publicly and unequivocally that it really intends to become involved in climate matters, needs to enact a Declaration of Climate Emergency. There are plentiful resources to support the city in these efforts including C40 Cities and ICLEI.
These are just a sample of a plethora of climate actions already proven in other municipalities that Peabody could be taking charge in. In summary, Peabody, while clearly late out of the starting gate, is well-positioned to cease playing the part of the ostrich, and instead to come on late but strong like the great racehorse Seabiscuit. Seabiscuit, for those who don’t already know the story, was a racehorse that during its career literally went from Worst (one of the worst, anyway) to First. Despite being a direct descendant of the great winning horse Man O’War, Seabiscuit was both undersized and uncooperative with his earliest trainers, going nowhere on the racing circuit but after a change of trainers, Seabiscuit went on to become one of the greatest racehorses of its era – of any era – even defeating the great War Admiral in the most famous 2-horse race ever held- by four lengths! Seabiscuit was often content, during a race’s earlier stages, to run in the middle or even in the rear of the pack. Then, with a dramatic late-in-the-race kick, he would move to the outside, pass one horse after another, and win the race going away. It’s time for Peabody, as a City, to shed its ostrich image, and, like Seabiscuit, to move from the back of the pack up to the front among the municipal climate action leaders. It doesn’t have to win the race, but let’s make sure it is at least running.