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Mass. to give $50m for storm, flood protection

Governor Deval Patrick will commit more than $50 million on Tuesday to help Massachusetts communities and utilities prepare for and protect themselves from the increasing number of destructive storms and rising sea levels blamed on climate change.

Most of the money, about $40 million, will be distributed as grants to help cities and towns install backup power systems using clean technologies, such as advanced batteries that store energy from solar panels. An additional $10 million will pay for seawalls and similar improvements along the coast, where storm surges and rising sea levels have flooded communities, severely eroded beaches, and caused extensive property damage.

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Several studies have predicted that many Boston neighborhoods could be at risk of severe flooding if nothing is done to stop the ocean’s encroachment into developed areas. Bruce Carlisle, director of the state Office of Coastal Zone Management, said sea levels have risen about a foot over the past century, but at an accelerating rate in recent years. Some scientists project sea levels could rise more than 6 feet by 2100.

“Tomorrow’s flood plain is going to be beyond our current flood plain,” Carlisle said.

This is the first time the state has awarded these funds, which are partially financed by payments that retail electricity suppliers must make if they fail to procure enough power from renewable sources such as wind and solar. Power plants that burn fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas are considered among the major producers of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

The program is the latest move from an administration that has spent the last seven years implementing some of the most stringent renewable energy and environmental laws in the country. Those include a mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent below 1990 levels by the end of this decade.

Climate change has gained increasing urgency in recent years following a series of destructive storms. Patrick administration officials noted in particular Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Tropical Storm Irene, the October snowstorm in 2011, and powerful winter storms, such as the nor’easter this month.

“If Sandy had come a little further north or the timing on that had been a bit different, the impacts would have been dramatic,” said Richard K. Sullivan Jr., the state secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs. “We can’t just go into every single storm and just kind of cross our fingers.”

As part of the initiative, the state plans to assess roads, bridges, and other parts of the transportation system that might be vulnerable to severe weather. In addition, Sullivan said, the state will develop regulatory incentives to spur more investment by utilities into technologies that can reduce power outages and improve communication and service to customers.

The spate of severe storms has challenged utilities, which have grappled with widespread power outages lasting more than a week in some areas.

The state’s largest utilities, National Grid and NStar, said they already have made some changes. NStar, for example, has installed “self-healing” switch technology that locates power interruptions and automatically reroutes power around the problem to limit the extent of the outage. “A crew can then respond to fix the outage, but the total number of customers affected is significantly decreased,” said Caroline Pretyman a spokeswoman for Northeast Utilities, NStar’s parent company.

National Grid employs a tool designed with help from MIT that uses data from past storms to predict potential damage. Mapping software also provides more real-time information about the location of crews and power outages.

“Electricity and natural gas companies have always provided the energy backbone for this country,” said Jake Navarro, a spokesman for National Grid, “and that backbone now needs to respond to a changing climate that will bring more extreme and frequent weather events.”

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.
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