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Henry Lee, an energy expert and senior lecturer at Harvard, introduces a panel on “net zero” energy on Wednesday at the Cambridge Main Library. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Henry Lee, an energy expert and senior lecturer at Harvard, introduces a panel on “net zero” energy on Wednesday at the Cambridge Main Library. (Photos: Marc Levy)

The warning that “these words mean many different things” launched a panel discussion on the green concept of “net zero” Wednesday, and after issuing that warning Mayor Henrietta Davis pointed the audience to a double-sided handout containing some of the many definitions.

The term missing from that sheet was the one that matters most to Cambridge right now: “net zero emissions,” which is what’s proposed in a citizens zoning proposal called the Connolly petition that inspired not only the panel discussion, but a task force and process dubbed by the mayor “net zero emissions month.”

“This was a wonderful discussion, very enlightening. However, nothing in the discussion addressed the framework we’ve proposed,” said Michael Connolly, the “first signer” and promoter of the petition written by members of the Cambridge Committee for Net Zero Buildings. “If anything, the discussion implicitly supports our proposal, because what we are doing is saying ‘Let’s strive for the principles of net zero energy, but instead of adopting that as our bottom line, let’s also introduce the concept of sourcing renewable energy over the grid.’ It was a wonderful discussion, but talking about something different.”

“This evening’s discussion focused exclusively on net zero energy buildings, which is a far more difficult standard to attain,” Connolly said.

Unknown details

Panelist Jana Silsby is project architect for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School, which the city is building on net zero principles.

Panelist Jana Silsby is project architect for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School, which the city is building on net zero principles.

It was the second night in a row that the specifics of the petition were ignored, despite the fact that it is the petition compelling hearings in the Planning Board, City Council and its Ordinance Committee, as well as the creation of a single-purpose council task force and the mayor’s panel. On Tuesday, board members said they didn’t understand net zero and chairman Hugh Russell asked Connolly not to explain changes made to the petition at the suggestion of officials in the city’s Community Development Department. When co-writer Quinton Zondervan tried to explain a term, Russell cut him off with the warning, “This is not a debate.”

Panelists agreed that Wednesday’s hour-and-a-half talk about net zero was conducted without including the net zero Connolly petition.

Jana Silsby, an associate principal at Perkins Eastman and project architect for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School that the city is building on net zero goals, confirmed that she had not read the Connolly petition.

Despite that, she’d said during the panel discussion that “I know developers I am working with that [are saying], ‘Whoo, really? Okay, I don’t know if I want to build in Cambridge, maybe I’ll just go build in Somerville.’”

Later she defended speaking on net zero despite not knowing what the petition said.

“It may just be that developers are not understanding it,” she said, “but regardless of whether its ‘emissions’ or not, what I would hate to see is for someone to be able to buy their way out of it. It’s basically like coming up to you and saying, ‘Okay, how many [renewable energy certificates] is this going to cost us?’ That’s not useful to the overall issue of sustainability.”

How it works

RECs are given as the final option in the petition, buyable on an annual basis if greenhouse-gas energy emissions rise even after a building of 25,000 square feet or larger is designed to conserve energy and be energy efficient; generate energy onsite; and bring in renewable energy from offsite sources via utilities such as Nstar. “To a lot of developers, it’s the easiest and most direct route,” Silsby said of RECs, going on to call the process to achieve net zero energy – again apparently swerving around the net zero emissions standard without thinking – “an incredible burden … we can’t get you there. I can’t guarantee your building’s going to be net zero. I can only get you so far, and then it is up to you guys to use the building the way it should be.”

She and fellow panelist Jane Carbone, senior project manager for Homeowners Rehab Inc. testified to their struggles to reach net zero energy on buildings in Cambridge – in Silsby’s case, for a building just beginning construction, but in Carbone’s case in about 150 units that were renovated with energy-efficient insulation and devices but failed to achieve net zero on their own. Inconsistent and seasonal weather that can’t provide regular solar power deserved some of the blame, she said, and tracking of energy use was complicated by renters’ reluctance to sign waivers and let HRI analyze their habits.

“I was so disappointed to see that we didn’t get there,” Carbone said. “I haven’t given up on it.”

The other panelists were Rob Diemer, an architectural engineer at In Posse LLC who is consulting on Cambridge’s MLK School project; Stephen Turner, whose eponymous business in green technologies has worked with the city on LEED-certified buildings including the new police station and future MLK School; and Eric Friedman, deputy director of the Green Communities Division at the state’s Department of Energy Resources. The moderator was Henry Lee, an energy expert and senior lecturer at Harvard.

Expert advice

In general they proposed that cities and towns educate their children, use financial incentives to encourage green construction – such as offering developers more square footage in exchange for aiming for net zero goals – and said Americans had to change how they used energy every day, such as switching to “default off” technology. “Default off,” for example, would turn room lights on only when needed, while the current standard leaves lights on until someone makes the effort to switch them off.

A willingness to see photovoltaic cells and other energy-creating materials or machinery was also necessary, Turner said, which could be difficult in a city that loves its historic facades and in a state that fought windmills off Cape Cod so vociferously.

Lee credited each panelist with “very thoughtful responses” but noted that he could “see people saying, ‘Look, we’ve been talking about energy efficiency for many years and we haven’t done as much as we should. We’ve got a climate problem that looms … and we’re all basically moving slowly.’ If I were Cambridge and I wanted to move to get a lot more renewables a lot faster and energy efficiency faster, what would be your response?”

“I would encourage Cambridge to do whatever Cambridge can do to move those two goals forward,” Diemer said to an audience filled with elected and appointed city officials. “We have to keep trying, we have to keep leading by example, we have to do everything we can.”