After 18 years as Somerville’s mayor, Joe Curtatone started a new job in January: president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council. Conveniently, the nonprofit trade association is based at the Greentown Labs incubator space just outside of Somerville’s Union Square.
Curtatone says that a big part of his job is supporting companies working on renewable energy technology and advocating for policy changes that can help them get that technology into the market. Curtatone will be in Reno, Nev., Friday to speak at the US Conference of Mayors about the role that cities can play “in the transition to this clean energy future.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. What did you need to learn when you took on this role?
A. I’ve been getting up to speed on every factor and variable in the ecosystem — what the new innovations are and how startups may struggle in different levels of maturation as they are bringing new technologies to market.
If we’re not in this ecosystem, we see that a wind farm is launching, or solar projects are being built, and we feel like we’re all set. So not only is it getting up to speed on new innovations that are going to be transformative, but what the challenges are to scaling those innovations. What are the policy or regulatory barriers?
Q. Even before you officially started in January, you went to COP26, the United Nations’ climate change conference in Scotland. What did you observe there?
A. One of the things that was loud at COP26 was the importance of cities. We are the greatest emitters of greenhouse gases. Cities will drive the new economy and solutions. But cities have not been engaged, and until we do that, we will not be ready to execute. We held an event [in May] at Greentown Labs focused on how cities can leverage the innovation sector to accomplish climate action goals.
In states and municipalities, procurement rules may prohibit a municipality from building a microgrid, or new transmission lines [to deliver renewable power]. We have so much work that isn’t the glamorous stuff, but making the clean energy choice the easy, sustainable choice for the consumer. We have to get that clean energy to the household — and address the equity challenges [of getting it to households regardless of class or neighborhood].
Q. How can cities have an impact on reducing emissions?
A. Buildings are the obvious thing. Buildings contribute around 40 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. We’re already seeing net-zero construction enter the office market, in [Somerville’s] Assembly Row and Boston. At the local level, we can set the highest LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] standards with our zoning rules. The MBTA’s Green Line extension is a great project. We in Somerville and other cities have been making it a goal to establish sustainable mode shifts — shifting from passenger and commercial vehicle trips to walking, biking, clean transportation. We need to make sure we have a variety of options for people to make that mode shift. We need to bring electric buses [onto the streets]; the state needs to accelerate that. We need to build on the bike networks that already exist, but take it out to the entire metropolitan Boston region.
How do we continue to help renters and homeowners do their part and enable home heating and cooling conversions? The Mass Save heat pump rebate program was excellent. But we need to lead with equity. Not everyone owns their home. For renters, we need to be sure that they get access to energy from a sustainable and clean energy source.
Electric vehicles are going to be important. We need to make the choice of owning or leasing an EV an easy, affordable choice. But electric vehicles aren’t going to solve it alone — shifting to EVs isn’t a solution in the most congested traffic region in the US.
Q. What are some policy issues that are on top of your agenda in 2022?
A. With the climate bill at the State House, we have been vocal about what’s good and what’s not good. Governor [Charlie] Baker is leading on this one, but we’ll miss an opportunity if we’re not willing to fully fund what the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center’s work is and should be. MassCEC is a gem.
On opportunities like wind [power development], we’re behind New York and New Jersey.
We’ve been very vocal on the Minimum Offer Price Rule [used by the grid operator ISO New England at its power auctions]. MOPR is the minimum amount that a power company can offer as a starting bid [in the auction for generating capacity]. We need to scale up clean energy technology and innovation, and innovators need to know that Massachusetts and the Northeast will support their goals and act as true partners, bringing alternatives into communities. ISO New England extended the minimum offer price rule [through 2024], which makes it harder for renewables to gain access to the market. That was the latest in a series of decisions that send the wrong message. It kicks the can down the road. It favors fossil fuels and makes it hard for investors and big projects to plan.
The impacts of the climate crisis are cumulative. We need to bring innovation to market as fast as possible — we can’t wait two years to jump-start our transition to clean energy. One of the utilities made a reference that it was giving renewables an unfair advantage. Well, yeah, the solutions for the climate crisis aren’t complicated. We want to get off fossil fuels. The longer regulatory hurdles and bureaucracies delay that, the more negative impacts, and the more delay of benefits to our communities.
Q. Whenever you talk about bringing new renewable energy into the mix, you always get pushback from businesses and business groups that it will raise prices.
A. That’s a false narrative. We see [people] leaning on that narrative. We’re seeing it play out in Ukraine, with problematic regimes [like Russia profiting from the sale of fossil fuels]. We need to gain energy independence. Just on wind technology alone we can do so much. Wind in Massachusetts is like Texas before the oil boom.
Q. I’m surprised to hear you say you hadn’t heard of NECEC before they reached out to try to recruit you.
A. Like many organizations, they should’ve bragged about themselves a little more. They have a legacy of accomplishments, and we are in partnership with every state in the Northeast, as well as eastern Canada. We need to speak with one narrative and one voice. There’s a lot happening, and a lot of noise, but nothing being said in terms of a humanist message. We are focused on a rapid and just transition to a clean energy future and a diverse climate economy. The NECEC should be the facilitator and the convener.
Q. Personally, have you made any changes in your own lifestyle and habits since you took on this role?
A. We are going to trade in one of our two cars for an EV — the Cadillac Lyriq all-wheel drive. Hopefully, that will happen by the fall. At my house in Somerville, my wife and I [have been looking at renewable energy upgrades]. We have just begun the process. We need to make it easier to understand how to power your home with renewable energy and installing heat pumps. We’re doing that assessment — looking at heat pumps and solar panels. We want to get off natural gas and fossil fuels. It’s a bit cumbersome; we need to make it easier to do.