Chief Austin Blackmon on Boston’s Universal Effort to Become a Net-Zero City
The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) has now twice named Boston themost energy-efficient city in the United States.
According to the ACEEE 2015 City Energy Efficiency Scorecard, Boston’s success can be attributed to city-wide energy policies and initiatives that our local government is largely responsible for orchestrating.
Central to planning and executing these programs is the City of Boston’s chief of environment, energy and open space, Austin Blackmon. We spoke with Blackmon to find out which initiatives have had the most impact, how important the community has been in reaching specific energy goals, and what’s next in the process to becoming a net-zero city.
What do you see as the greatest differentiator between Boston and other cities like New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco that has allowed us to be ranked as the top energy-efficient city?
Austin Blackmon: Boston’s targets for a clean energy system are embedded in our Greenovate Climate Action Plan and greenhouse gas emission reduction targets — 25 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. To achieve these targets, we’ve taken several innovative approaches that helped our ranking for the ACEEE City Energy Efficiency Scorecard. One area to highlight is the establishment of strong relationships and open streams of communications with our utilities, which is critical to pushing forward smart energy initiatives. The groundwork for this started long before I came on board but remains a priority because it allows for collaborative outreach to major building owners and citywide stakeholders on energy efficiency.
The only area for improvement recommended in the City Energy Efficiency Scorecard is “improving zoning and development policies to encourage more compact communities well connected to transit.” How do you and the City plan to address this recommended area of need, and what initiatives may already be addressing this?
AB: We see many areas for improvement; we’re not at 100 percent yet! But you’re right. Living in a historic city, we recognize the need to not only adapt but evolve to the changing times. We’re facing that challenge head on with Go Boston 2030, a citywide mobility visioning and planning process to lay out a bold transportation future for the city which will expand on the goals and focus areas set in the Greenovate Climate Action Plan. An example of one of those areas is Boston’s Complete Streets, which aims to improve the quality of life in Boston by creating streets that are both great public spaces and sustainable transportation networks.
When you took office in January 2015, what aspects of Boston’s policy and programs on energy and sustainability impressed you the most, and where have you focused your efforts during your tenure?
AB: Everything. My first day on the job was earlier this year when Mayor Walsh released theClimate Action Plan Update to prepare Boston for the impacts of climate change and taking climate action. There’s nearly 100 strategies outlined in the plan that focus on neighborhoods, large buildings and institutions, transportation, climate preparedness, and our goal of reaching 80 percent reductions in carbon emissions by 2050. Through the Mayor’s continued leadership, significant measures have been taken since then and include relaunching our community engagement program, Greenovate Boston, receiving $350,000 in funding to ignite a climate preparedness initiative, releasing the first year of energy metrics for large buildings within the city, and exploring our ability to expand and invest in self-financed building improvements through energy performance contracting with Renew Boston Trust. As the Mayor and I look towards 2016, we plan to hit the ground running and expand on that success.
Boston made rapid progress in reducing 2005 greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020. To what do you attribute this fast-paced improvement, and what is going to have the greatest impact on reaching those goals in the next five years?
AB: We’re currently at 17 percent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions since 2005 levels, and cleaning up our local electric grid was a major contributor to that. But the community has stepped up big to help as well. For example, since the launch of the Mayor’s Carbon Cup — an initiative that recognizes the commitments of large organizations to higher emissions reductions than outlined in the Climate Action Plan — seven participants have committed to 35 percent reductions by 2020. In order for the City of Boston to reach its citywide climate goals, we need more members of the community taking similar strides to reduce their emissions in big ways. That means spreading the message beyond the usual-suspect crowd to reach new audiences within the city. That’s the work we’re doing through Greenovate Boston, a community-driven movement to get all Bostonians involved in reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.
How do you describe the community’s willingness to contribute to the City’s energy and sustainability efforts?
AB: I would not only say that our community members are willing to contribute, but in many ways they are leading the way. As I mentioned before, the community plays a key role in helping to achieve our climate goals. For example, through suggestions and participation in our pilot composting program, Project Oscar, we’ve expanded to four new locations, including City Hall.
Boston’s development boom has played a major role in helping the City reach its goals of becoming more energy-efficient and transit-oriented. How optimistic does this make you feel about Boston’s future as a sustainable city?
AB: There are certain challenges that come with being an older city that continues to see growth — especially in the face of climate change — but I’m very optimistic. Another planning initiative that we have underway is Climate Ready Boston. It’s working to assess the city’s vulnerabilities and will generate critical solutions to allow Boston to prosper in the face of long-term climate change and the associated risks. Additionally, we have a city-wide energy study that identifies locations where we can do district energy and microgrids to leverage the efficiency gains from combining heat and power. So, there’s a lot going on to help make our city more resilient and prepare for a more sustainable future that keeps me optimistic.
What’s the ceiling, if there is one, for how energy efficient and sustainable Boston can be?
AB: Only time will, tell but we’ll continue to push the envelope and find new ways to improve. We have our sights set on becoming a net-zero city but we have a long way to go before that happens!
Chief Austin Blackmon participated in this interview based on his experience working on energy efficiency issues for the City of Boston. The City of Boston does not endorse or is in any way affiliated with JM Electrical.