City councillor Dennis Carlone, seen in 2016, put in an order about 100 percent renewable electricity for city property in 2015 – and a reminder this month. (Photo: Ceilidh Yurenka)

The city is putting $300,000 into getting all of its electricity from renewable sources – a move the City Council supported unanimously Monday. It was a repeat of the unanimous support for the same concept more than four years ago, councillor Dennis Carlone noted with election-season vigor.

“We were told then a consultant was going to be hired. I’m glad we’re doing this, [but] I don’t know why $300,000 couldn’t have been spent earlier. Everything seems to take five years,” Carlone told City Manager Louis A. DePasquale.

He was referring to an order he filed that appears on the Feb. 2, 2015, council agenda asking then city manager Richard C. Rossi and staff to explore “entering into an agreement to obtain up to 100 percent renewable power for all municipal electricity needs.” His Oct. 7 order nudging the office for a response was because “there has been no response in over four years.”

Nor will the free cash approved for transfer bring results speedily enough to satisfy the environmentally minded on the council, who noted that such green issues are listed annually among the council’s goals. The $300,000 covers a year of consulting work that the City Manager’s Office expects to lead toward next steps, which will likely demand more consultant support.

“News to me”

Staff from city departments including community development, public works, finance, law and purchasing have been meeting regularly to talk because “to procure 100 percent renewable electricity supply is quite complicated,” councillors were told by Ellen Katz, fiscal director for the city’s Department of Public Works. For instance, it’s more expensive to buy renewable energy locally and “if we go outside of the New England electric grid, we might be able to get more bang for our buck.”

The city has also been “working closely” with other major property owners in the city that are making progress on renewable energy, Katz said, but if Cambridge becomes part of a nonmunicipal coalition, that would need special legislation for which “there may not be a clear pathway in state law.”

“We have really thought this through carefully and done a lot of research and got to the point where we feel like we’re asking the right questions now,” Katz said.

Still, under questioning from vice mayor Jan Devereux, it became clear from Katz’s testimony that the city hasn’t checked in with either the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional agency, or with other Massachusetts cities.

Carlone issued another in a long, occasional series of suggestions from councillors to city staff that progress reports would be helpful, even annual ones. “If all this work has been going on, it’s news to me,” Carlone said.

Faster than a year, maybe

It struck councillor Quinton Zondervan that a potential four years and eight months of work had brought the city only to the point of hiring a consultant who would work for a year to then “move toward” bidding and procurement.

“Is there any possibility that it could happen sooner?” Zondervan asked of full renewable electricity procurement.

“Absolutely,” Katz said.

The city has discussed a target year of 2023 or 2026 for going 100 percent renewable on electricity and believed a consultant could advise more specifically, Katz said. Meanwhile, six U.S. cities already get 100 percent of all their energy from renewable sources, not just electricity, Zondervan told her.

That was not DePasquale’s understanding – at least within Massachusetts.

“There is no city doing this. We are far ahead of any municipality that we know of in the state,” DePasquale said. “Believe me, we’ve got some really strong experts in the city who eat, sleep and drink this, but this is really not our area … We are in truly uncharted waters, so we have to go slow, in sometimes slow is too slow. I understand that. But this is not something that we’re familiar with.”

“I don’t want to get into what was promised three and a half years ago,” DePasquale said, referring to the order from four and a half years ago. “I apologize that it took too long. It was recently brought to my attention is something we needed to get done.”


This post was updated Nov. 3, 2019, to remove a reference to a Canadian energy supplier.