2018-03-30 / Front Page

Cities to strive for independence from fossil fuels

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — A plan hatched by South Portland city officials to work cooperatively with their cross-river peers in Portland on a climate action plan – greenlighted in concept form at a city council workshop Tuesday, March 27 – will not come cheap. However, proponents say the project is worth every penny.

The need to create such a plan is driven, officials say, by a conviction that global climate change is real, that is is man-are, and that it is happening right now.

“What we really need to do is set forth a vision that says it’s possible to re-imagine our community as a thriving community that does not rely on fossil fuels,” said city Sustainability Coordinator Julie Rosenbach, in her pitch to the council.

“I can’t really express how proud I am to be living in South Portland, Maine,” said Preble Street resident Roberta Zuckerman, one of several who spoke in favor of the plan.

“I feel this is the responsible thing to be doing,” she said. “We’re going to need to answer the questions by our children and great-grandchildren as to what we are doing today – are we putting our heads in the sand or are we being proactive?”

Designed to mimic the 2016 Paris Climate Change Agreement _ which President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of those last July, prompting a council voted to join the Mayors’ National Climate Agenda _ the new plan would start with South Portland adopting a resolve to reduce its “greenhouse gas” emissions by 80 percent before 2050, a goal to be accomplished in large part by ensuring that 100 percent of municipal operations are powered by “green” energy by 2040. To make good on the goals set forth in that document, the new plan would start South Portland adopting a resolve to reduce its “greenhouse gas” emissions by 80 percent before 2050 by ensuring that 100 percent of municipal operations are powered by “green” energy by 2040.

“What we imagine for a climate action plan is something that takes business as usual, which we know is not sustainable, and says, let’s pair that with economic development with that,” Rosenbach said. “This is going to make our community more resilient, more viable and overall, more healthy.”

“This is a resolve of hope,” said Councilor Sue Henderson. “It really moves me very, very deeply. It’s one of the few hopeful things that has come down the pike in a long time.”

“Anyone who wants to try to take us back to the age of coal, that just makes me a little bit nutty,” Mayor Linda Cohen said, referencing Trump, and her mother, who married a coal miner and collected as a result what Cohen said was known in the industry as a “black lung pension.”

To forge a path to the stated end goal, South Portland and Portland would hire a consultant and form a joint steering committee to prepare a report that would outline the steps each community should undertake to hit the 2040 and 2050 mileposts. When the resolve comes back to the council for a formal vote April 17, it will sport a $125,000 price tag for each city.

Asked by Councilor Adrian Dowling why South Portland, at less than half the population and far below Portland in property valuation, should kick in an equal amount, Rosenbach said, “That is a good question, but I wonder why we imagine it would be different?”

“The consultant would facilitate the joint steering committee and lead a number of (public) meetings in each community,” Rosenbach said. “We would develop a vision together (with Portland) but it would result in two action plans, one for each community. So, it’s the same amount of work for both cities.”

Dowling also questioned if a 12-member committee, as planned, might result in the occasional deadlocked vote as it went about its business. Perhaps a 13th member should be added, he wondered aloud.

However, Rosenbach said the committee, for which membership has already been selected, will all be pulling in the same direction, making any discord unlikely.

“This is totally going to be a group that is going to be so happy to come together around consensus,” she said.

In addition to Rosenbach and her Portland counterpart, Troy Moon, hand-picked members of the proposed Portland/South Portland Ad-Hoc Committee for Climate Action & Adaptation Planning, all described by Rosenbach as “recognized regional leaders in energy, transportation and land use, waste reduction, and adaptation,” include:

 Portland Waterfront Coordinator Barry Needleman, Martha Sheils of the New England Environmental Finance Center, and Pete Slovinsk of the Maine Geological Survey, all of whom will focus on climate change adaptation.

 South Portland’s new economic development director, due to be hired in coming months, who will focus on adaptation and land use regulation.

 Barry Woods of ReVision Energy and Sara Zografos of the Greater Portland Council of Governments, both of whom will concentrate on land use and transportation issues.

 South Portland City Planner Tex Haeuser and Tyler Kidder of GrowSmart Maine, who will multitask land use, transportation, and energy use issues.

 Tim Schneider of Tilson Technology, Addy Smith- Reiman of Portland Society for Architecture, and an asyet to-be-named member of the Portland 2030 District, all of whom will center their attention on energy use.

 Mark Adelson of the Portland Housing Authority, who will split his time between energy and land use.

The committee is slated to return its final report and action plan by October 2019.

In addition to strategizing ways to wean city government and residents alike off fossil fuels, a process Rosenbach said “is going to require programs that go beyond incremental improvements and make transformative changes to our core energy systems,” the climate action committee also will be charged with providing technical input on the suggested strategies and prioritization of action steps, and ensuring that the plan “results in improvements in quality of life, builds prosperity and enhances community resilience.”

According to City Manager Scott Morelli, the $125,000 needed to launch the project will come from the Capital Improvement Plan for fiscal year 2019, which he plans to present to the council in coming weeks.

Much of that money will go to Portlandbased energy consulting firm GridSolar, a firm dedicated to driving as much of the electric grid as possible toward solar energy. Along with the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club, GridSolar approached Rosenbach and Moon when they first got word a joint climate action plan was in development and proposed a partnership under which it would create “parcellevel maps” of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in both cities, along with a map showing the location and capacity of key assets in the local electric grid.

“This information would allow our cities to identify effective ways to deploy distributed energy resources such as solar panels, choose areas where micro-grids might make sense and where it makes the most sense to build out electric vehicle charging infrastructure,” Rosenbach wrote in her proposal to the council. “These technologies will be vital parts of any effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ensure our communities are resilient in the face of the unavoidable impacts of climate change.”

Under questioning from Councilor Kate Lewis, Rosenbach said the project would neither undermine nor supplant a “benchmarking” project approved by the council in 2016 that will compel most commercial and apartment building owners in Mill Creek and along Broadway to report energy usage to the city starting this May.

“I’m sorry to say this, many years later we are still seeing a failure on this upriver on the state and federal level, and we have to respond to it,” said Councilor Claude Morgan, who was mayor in 2006 when the city adopted its first public commitment toward achieving some level of independence from oil and gas, and said he will wholeheartedly support the adoption of the resolve and creation of the ad hoc committee on April 17.

“But, on the flip side, maybe they should keep failing, because it does drive municipalities to some unusual actions,” he said. “And when you think of all the municipalities out there, that’s a lot of out-of-the-box thinking and a lot of innovation that maybe you would not get it we signed on nationally.”

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