Holyoke City Council turns down $275K grant for green energy planning 

  • The Holyoke City Council meets virtually on Tuesday, May 7, 2020. After nearly an hour of heated debate, six councilors voted to reject a $275,000 grant to facilitate planning of a clean-energy transition away from fossil fuels. SCREENSHOT/HOLYOKE MEDIA

  • Holyoke City Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/7/2020 3:46:22 PM
Modified: 5/7/2020 3:46:11 PM

HOLYOKE — After nearly an hour of heated debate Tuesday evening, six members of the City Council voted to reject a $275,000 grant to help Holyoke transition away from fossil fuels.

The Barr Foundation announced in December that the city would be a recipient of the grant, which would have paid for project management and technical consulting for developing a plan to transition the city’s buildings and energy grid to renewable energy. But the City Council voted 7-6 on the grant, denying the body the nine votes it needed.

“I believe that this grant is an attempt to basically introduce a political agenda — the politics of the Green New Deal — into Holyoke,” At-Large Councilor Howard Greaney said during the meeting. Greaney voted against the grant together with Ward 2 Councilor Terence Murphy, Ward 3’s David Bartley, Ward 5’s Linda Vacon, and At-Large Councilors Michael Sullivan and James Leahy.

The grant had previously been the subject of disagreement over the role that the grassroots organization Neighbor to Neighbor would play in the project. Neighbor to Neighbor, which organizes against environmental and racial injustice, was set to receive their own separate, $125,000 grant to do outreach to city residents, allowing the group to help shape what an energy transition would look like. In a phone interview Thursday, Neighbor to Neighbor Organizing Director Elvis Méndez said he was disappointed with the outcome.

“We’re living through the middle of a public health crisis that was exacerbated in part because of a lack of planning and preparation,” he said. “For city councilors to reject funds that would go toward planning and preparation for what is probably the existential crisis of our time, the climate crisis, just seems tremendously shortsighted.”

Much of the controversy revolved around a protest that Neighbor to Neighbor held in October 2018 at the Suffolk Street headquarters of Holyoke Gas & Electric, or HG&E — the city’s municipal utility. HG&E also was slated to be a partner in the grant project. 

The protest was in response to a natural gas pipeline expansion that HG&E was planning at the time with Columbia Gas to address a lack of natural gas capacity in the city — a situation that has halted new gas hookups in Holyoke. 

The protest came a month after Columbia Gas pipelines exploded in the Merrimack Valley, killing one person and forcing 30,000 residents to evacuate their homes. This February, in connection with the explosions, Columbia Gas pleaded guilty to violating the federal safety laws and agreed to sell its gas distribution business in the state as a result.

“I think the residents of Holyoke have been proven right,” Méndez said of the protest, given Columbia Gas’ later criminal liability as well as the future danger of climate change. “To use (the protest) to deny this type of funding for future planning and climate preparedness is poor form and regrettable.”

For some councilors, though, the protest was too much. In February, the Council's Finance Committee had already recommended, by a 3-2 vote, to reject the grant. 

But the full City Council sent the grant back to the Finance Committee, asking the city’s director of planning and economic development, Marcos Marrero, to contact the Barr Foundation about the possibility of removing mention of Neighbor to Neighbor from the grant. The Barr Foundation ultimately said it would not amend the contract, and asked the council to vote the grant up or down.

Marrero could not be reached for comment Thursday. 

Councilor Sullivan described the foundation’s decision as a “take it or leave it” approach they wanted to see “jammed down our throat.” He claimed that Neighbor to Neighbor would have a say in what technical consultant would be hired, and that they would hire “who supports their agenda, not what’s right.”

“I’m really disappointed that the foundation took what I feel is a very heavy-handed approach,” said councilor Vacon, who echoed Sullivan in saying that Neighbor to Neighbor’s inclusion would “undermine” HG&E. “I feel it is truly and very clearly a political and agenda-driven grant.”

The grant had majority support on the council, however.

At Large Councilor Joe McGiverin, who himself took issue with the protest, noted that Neighbor to Neighbor would not be the project manager and would not be the ones looking for and providing technical assistance, as others had insinuated.

“They are tied into being a community reach out and … making sure that all members of our community are reached in terms of what the blueprint plan is going to be for our housing stock, for our commercial stock and for everybody using energy,” McGiverin said.

At Large Councilor Rebecca Lisi noted that Neighbor to Neighbor partnered with the city after the closure of the Mount Tom Station to envision a new purpose for the land that the coal-fired power plant had previously occupied.

“The $275,000 is for the city of Holyoke itself, and the Barr Foundation has chosen Neighbor to Neighbor as a partner because they actually have been working on … a just transition to green energy for many years now,” Lisi said.

Ultimately, though, those opposed to the grant had enough votes to block its acceptance. Councilor Bartley said that he hadn’t received written communication from HG&E that they supported the grant. Mcgiverin did note that he spoke with HG&E Manager James Lavelle, saying Lavelle told him the utility was “not opposed” to the grant.

Bartley expressed opposition to Neighbor to Neighbor’s role in the project. He added that the outcome of the Barr Foundation project is to reduce fossil fuel consumption to as close to zero as possible.

“That’s the goal,” Bartley said. “So the ‘G’ in the ‘Gas and Electric’ might as well go away. I just can’t in good conscience support this grant.”

Natural gas is a fossil fuel that accounted for 37.6% of the state’s CO2 emissions in 2017, according to state figures. 

In October 2018, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report that said countries must be well on their way to net-zero carbon emissions by 2030 to prevent global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the increased risk of irreversible, catastrophic change. 

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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