Guest columnist John Pepi: Not Quabbin-ize, but eyes on the prize

Glenn Carstens-Peters/StockSnap

Glenn Carstens-Peters/StockSnap Glenn Carstens-Peters/StockSnap

By JOHN PEPI

Published: 05-28-2024 4:22 PM

 

The story of the “lost” towns of the Quabbin Reservoir [“Don’t Quabbin-ize push for clean energy,” Gazette, May 16] is a sad one, but it does raise the question of when an individual or collective should be asked to sacrifice for the greater good.

Development of the Quabbin Reservoir met the perceived needs of the large population of eastern Massachusetts for water, including the immigrant multitudes brought here to labor in our factories, fields and infrastructure projects. Yet the case of the wholesale uprooting of four central Massachusetts towns and their permanent inundation is a poor analogy to a state-appointed Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) with authority over the approval of 100MW-plus renewable energy infrastructure projects in a new, evenhanded and expedited process.

Still, House Bill 4501 (the “Quabbinizer”?) doesn’t go far enough, inexplicably omitting many critical recommendations of the governor’s Commission on Energy Infrastructure Siting and Permitting. Had H4501 incorporated key commission recommendations, it would have:

■Assigned the siting board jurisdiction for projects over 25MW (a threshold still far too high).

■For less than 25 MW, created a consolidated permit application, including consistent, comprehensive project review criteria — to be administered in each of the state’s 351 towns.

■Set prompt time limits for local decision-making.

■Allowed project applicants to appeal to the siting board.

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■Offered state technical assistance to local boards overwhelmed by project size or complexity.

As climate movement leader Bill McKibben has stressed, “we don’t just live in a community; we also live on a planet where carbon crosses jurisdictional boundaries shortly after we spew it into the air. And so, protecting one’s backyard from any change has to be balanced against the cost it will impose on the larger whole.”

What also crosses borders is the burden of oil and gas production and processing facilities, fracking, pipelines and related petrochemical smog now shouldered by poor U.S. rural and urban communities as well as the Global South, while we twiddle our thumbs about spotted salamanders or other “immeasurable” damage to possibly 75,000 sacred acres out of the state’s 2.7 million acres of forest.

Should we rely on 351 individual towns to make decisions that will determine whether we successfully reach the commonwealth’s 2050 zero carbon target? Any more so than we should rely on 7 million Bay Staters, or Fortune 500 corporations, acting primarily on their self-interest or personal preferences to confront head-on the existential crises we now face?

Many objections raised about environmental damage and public safety threats from utility-scale projects are based on isolated incidents of solar permitting gone wrong. When the rhetoric and the dust settles, after science has weighed in, more often than not the objections of the forest protectors are reducible to: Not in my backyard; personal aesthetic preferences; or fear that change could damage property values.

If you believe that we must not sacrifice 2% or 3% of Massachusetts forests (borrow for 30-50 years?) — even though utility-scale solar is faster to install and substantially cheaper than rooftop solar — you will also be apt to argue that forests are the only proven technology we have that can sequester carbon inexpensively.

This is so far true, yet utility-scale solar is so productive of clean, cheap electrons that the net carbon sink capacity of second-growth forest pales in comparison to the electric grid carbon emissions mitigated by those same acres dedicated to utility-scale solar.

John Pepi is a member of the Easthampton mayor’s Energy Advisory Committee, a retired 35-year public sector recycling/waste management professional, and has a master’s degree in Urban and Environmental Policy from Tufts University.