After 11 years on the Boston City Council, Matt O’Malley has his next job lined up: The West Roxbury Democrat will head to steam plant owner Vicinity Energy as a top-level executive when his term ends in January.
O’Malley will become Vicinity’s first-ever chief sustainability officer, reporting to Bill DiCroce, chief executive of the Boston-based spinoff of Veolia North America. In that role, O’Malley will oversee Vicinity’s efforts to cut the carbon emissions caused by its steam heating and cooling networks, starting with the one in Boston and Cambridge.
“He gets the environmental angle of the building energy sector and he understands how the city works,” DiCroce said. “Sometimes, it’s hard to get people to listen to us. I think they’ll listen to Matt.”
O’Malley has long been a champion of environmental causes on the City Council, and chaired its environment committee. O’Malley played an instrumental role in developing disclosure rules for property owners to report annual energy and water use, and this summer led a push to expand those rules to mandate sharp cuts in carbon emissions at thousands of buildings in the city over the next few decades. He also partnered with now-Mayor Michelle Wu on a plan to help residents and businesses collectively buy more renewable electricity, dubbed community choice energy, and played lead roles in ordinances involving gas leaks and single-use plastic bags.
Late last year, O’Malley said he would not seek re-election; in November, community organizer Kendra Hicks won his seat representing District 6, which stretches through Jamaica Plain, Roslindale and West Roxbury.
O’Malley said he sees his job at Vicinity as a natural extension of his environmental work on the council.
“I think Boston could be the first or will be the first major city [in the US] to completely decarbonize our steam system, to allow for a clean renewable energy source that’s able to service so many millions of square feet of buildings,” O’Malley said. “This is something that is going to be a game changer for our city, and our region, ... and I hope the country.”
Vicinity produces the steam it uses to heat office towers, labs, and hospitals at its Kendall plant in Cambridge, its Kneeland Street plant near South Station, and a smaller backup site in the Back Bay. The company wants to eventually tear down the Kneeland Street plant and use electricity from the region’s grid as well as heat pumps to make steam at Kendall. Vicinity would need a third pipe across the Charles River, in addition to the two it has now, to provide the steam to Boston that would be lost when the Kneeland Street plant is retired.
It’s an ambitious vision that would sharply reduce the company’s local reliance on natural gas over time, and thus pare back its carbon footprint. But it’s a model that DiCroce hopes O’Malley could then apply in many of the cities where Vicinity has steam systems.
“He realized that ... building energy use drives a huge part of the carbon intensity of the city,” DiCroce said. “Exactly what he was trying to do when he was in office is exactly what we’re going to do in Boston and Cambridge.”