Credit: Needham Observer

In an effort to move the town’s residential and commercial buildings away from fossil fuel energy sources and toward electrification, Article 15 on tonight’s Special Town Meeting warrant recommends the town adopt the Municipal Opt-in Specialized Stretch Energy Code. This new standard for energy use would apply only to new construction.

The article is in response to a 2021 law passed by the Massachusetts Legislature, the Next Generation Roadmap for Massachusetts Climate Policy, which calls for reducing the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions by 75% by 2040 and 85% by 2050 relative to 1990 levels.

The law has spread the work of compliance across all of the state’s cities and towns and spurred the Select Board to ask Town Meeting to add a new energy code tier that would make the town’s current building code decidedly greener. 

The code does not place an outright ban on fossil fuel energy sources in new construction, but it does require builders to pre-wire a home for conversion to all-electric if the builder puts in fossil fuel heating or appliances. 

“The opt-in code focuses on new buildings, whether commercial or residential, and ultimately seeks to electrify those buildings and eliminate fossil fuels,” said Joe Prondak, the town’s building commissioner.

“What it means, basically, is more insulation, tighter air barriers and more efficient appliances.”

Electrification means replacing technologies that use fossil fuels — such as oil, coal, and natural gas — with technologies that run on electricity. It is seen as a “greener” source of energy based on the expectation that electricity from providers such as Eversource will increasingly be derived from non-fossil fuel sources such as solar, hydro and nuclear.

Currently, Eversource generates nearly two-thirds of its power from natural gas. Needham’s reliance on Eversource to provide a reliable and cost-efficient source of electric power is one of the lead concerns among those who have spoken in opposition to the warrant article. In addition to the town’s Finance Committee, those opponents include several builders in town who work mainly in residential construction.

Garrett Federow, the principal of Federow Development, said he agrees that the code should eventually be adopted, but that adopting it tonight would be moving too fast.

Federow explained that building homes powered by electricity for heating and cooling, especially the large homes that are the currently the norm in Needham, usually requires panels capable of handling a maximum current of 400 amps. While primarily used in commercial and industrial settings, 400 amp electrical panels are increasingly required for larger residential homes. He said supply chain issues have caused nine-month or longer waits for orders to be fulfilled.

“The reason I say it’s happening too fast is because Eversource is already having enough trouble as it is getting 400 amp service to houses,” he said. “It’s been a disaster since COVID and still is. It can take a year or more to get these panels.”

“I’m not opposed to this, but I feel like some of these details need to be worked out.”

The warrant item is one of the top priorities of the town’s Climate Action Plan Committee (CAPC). “This article is one of the first actions that the committee has recommended that the town take,” said CAPC chair Stephen Frail at a recent forum held by the League of Women Voters of Needham.

A study done for the CAPC found that residential and commercial buildings collectively account for 64% of Needham’s greenhouse gas emissions, which is why the committee believes the building code is a logical starting point. 

Frail responded to fears that building all-electric houses would be far more expensive by pointing to data that show the cost differential to be less than one percent.

Another argument against adopting or postponing adoption of the code is that only 22 communities in Massachusetts have done so. While those communities account for 25% of the state’s population, the new code has been operational in just four communities and only since July, so there is very little data on the impact..

Prior to voting to oppose the item, members of the town’s Finance Committee (FinCom) stressed their concerns over this lack of data and that it might be prudent to track how it plays out elsewhere before voting to adopt.

“I’d love to support it in the spring, but it’s too quick right now, “ said FinCom member John Connelly.

In response, CPAC member Joe Higgins said, “We’re behind right now in this process.” 

 Frail has been more emphatic. He points out that, even if Town Meeting approves the new code, it will not be implemented until July 2024. If the town defers a vote until Annual Town Meeting in the spring, that would put off implementation to early 2025. During that time, dozens of large new homes could come on line with no consideration required for potential electrification.

When the Select Board voted to endorse the code, chair Marianne Cooley noted that just two years ago Town Meeting  voted to declare a “climate and ecological emergency.”

“According to the scientific consensus, we should have started our decarbonization 30 years ago,” said Frail. “It’s not too late, but we don’t have additional time to wait and see how things work out. We will either decide to use the tools at our disposal to solve this climate crisis or we won’t.” 

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