There is a lot going on in Lexington on energy, environment and climate fronts. The Town has a lot of momentum and ambition to lead the energy transition. We hope to periodically update our readers on these issues and actions – the smaller ones as well as the bigger ones.

Here’s our first “energetic” update!

LexElectrify Energy Fair

A great way to see and hear what is happening in Lexington is to attend the upcoming LexElectrify Energy Fair  Saturday, October 28 from 10am – 2pm at Lexington High School (251 Waltham St., Lexington, MA). The event is a collaboration among the Town of Lexington, LexCAN, and SustainbLY, our high school sustainability group. At the Energy Fair, residents can learn what steps they can take to reduce their carbon footprint by transitioning away from fossil fuels. There will be opportunities to view demonstrations of electric home appliances, talk to local electric vehicle owners, schedule a free home energy assessment, meet heat pump and solar installers, and learn about financial incentives and support. There will be an “Electrical Panel” discussion where local experts will be talking about how to move forward with electrification in your own home. There will even be activities for the kids. 

According to Ricki Pappo, Chair of LexCAN, “Folks worry about climate change but are often unsure of how to make an impact. The Energy Fair will inform and empower residents to take simple actions in their own lives.” 

“If we all take action, that’s when we will be effective in making a difference on climate change,” added Andy Joynt, LexCAN’s Lexington Clean Heat Outreach Specialist. 

Resilient Lexington

The Town’s ambitious Climate Action & Resilience Plan (“Resilient Lexington”) to provide a path to net zero emissions continues to move forward towards formal adoption. At the October 16 Select Board Meeting, implementation discussions on Resilient Lexington began. The plan contains 10 goals across five focus areas (buildings & energy, community resilience, natural resources, transportation & mobility, and waste), and 52 actions. Implementation blueprints were developed for 12 priority and more complex actions (e.g., prioritizing and developing optimal solar installations on Town-owned sites using return-on-investment criteria). It also identifies Lead Town Departments and key partners for all actions. The Board highlighted the importance of this plan to Lexington’s future and gave its enthusiastic endorsement. Discussion centered around when formal updates of the plan and progress against goals should occur (the consensus was sooner rather than later). Members raised questions on the ability of the Town to execute on the plan, including competing demands on current staff and the potential need to add Town resources.

“The Resilient Lexington Plan is now complete and it is time to get to work,” said Maggie Peard, Lexington’s Sustainability and Resilience Office. “With our climate at stake, it’s essential that the implementation of this plan remains a top priority. That’s why we are fortunate in Lexington to have the support of the Select Board, Town leadership, staff across many departments, local organizations, and individual residents to carry out what will necessarily have to be a full team effort.”

Solar Canopies at the New Police Station

Architect’s rendering of the solar canopy at the new police station at sundown.

The process to approve the installation of solar canopies is slowly moving forward. The Town has done much work since August and the final design details will be presented to the Historic District Commission (HDC) in November, where hopefully the HDC will approve a Certificate of Appropriateness. The construction footing locations have been identified and fixed, so the Town has what it needs to complete construction later this fall. 

The addition of a very contemporary structure such as solar canopies within the Historic District has proven challenging to the Town’s design team. The canopy design is intended to present a clean and light aesthetic more appropriate to the Historic District than some pre-engineered canopy solutions, like those seen at various Lexington schools. The intent of the design is to provide a backdrop to Fletcher Field that has been likened to a “garden structure.” The supporting materials to the HDC application are extensive and include the final site plan, impact on the Fletcher Field green area, a detailed planting plan, canopy details, the color (“light warm gray to harmonize with the trunks of trees”), seasonal and time-of-day shade visualizations, and lighting features. Details are provided on tube, girder and canopy construction (with the goal of creating something that is aesthetically pleasing and hides the solar equipment) as well as materials and equipment to be used. As a person whose energy career revolved around pipes, wires, and poles, the “design” process is a lot to digest: there are even arches at the perimeter of the solar canopy structure to provide a decorative element. 

The police station canopy project continues to provide healthy lessons learned for Lexington. Residents have clearly stated that they want new Town buildings to be net zero, but the cost of renewables in a historic district is high. Abutters participated late in the process but in the end just walked away unhappy with the Town’s decision-making processes. It is clear that sustainability measures need to be incorporated earlier rather than later in new capital project design efforts. 

On to the new high school!   

Energy Systems for the New High School

The Lexington High School project is most likely the largest capital project that most of us will see in Lexington. It also represents a unique opportunity for Lexington to integrate educational needs and the Town’s future sustainability goals. 

Earlier this month, Lexington selected SMMA as the architect/designer for the overall project. As the design evolves over the multi-year planning timeline, expect the project’s sustainability goals to be ambitious, incorporating Lexington’s Integrated Building Design & Construction Policy. 

At the latest School Building Committee meeting on October 12, SMMA was introduced and full project discussion continued, including a review of sustainability project targets and goals. Given the complexity of such a large building, developing design options, including options for the energy infrastructure, will take place over a number of years.  The sustainability targets most likely will address resilience levels, energy use (most likely a low target measured in terms of energy use per square foot per year), steps to achieve net zero, and LEED certification (at least Silver but potentially higher).  Residents can expect a high school project that is all electric; has geothermal, solar photovoltaic and battery infrastructure; and includes EV charging options, potentially including for buses. 

During the discussions, participants commented on critical issues such as ensuring financial viability of the sustainability options and incorporating sustainability lessons learned from other high school projects in the Commonwealth. Stay tuned for much more, including extensive outreach to residents of Lexington.

Tracer Lane Solar

The legal proceedings for the Tracer Lane Solar project located in Lexington but abutting Waltham continues. Four complaints against the Lexington Planning Board’s approval of the project were filed — by the Developer (Tracer Lane Realty/Harold Nahigian), the City of Cambridge, the City of Waltham, and Abutters in Waltham. The four complaints have been consolidated into one case in the Commonwealth’s Land Court Department (Case Number 23 MISC 000255 to get the details). Pre-trial conferences, filings, motions, and hearings have been held over the last three months. Discovery was targeted to be concluded by February 2024 and a trial could of course last much longer. The Land Court encouraged all the parties to discuss the possibility of settlement.

The developer intends to construct and operate a 1.0-megawatt ground-mount solar energy system on a 30-acre parcel it owns in Lexington. The Planning Board approved the project subject to fifty-three conditions. The project would include cutting down more than 1,000 mature trees. 

The developer says that its expectations (based on prior legal proceedings with Lexington) were that the Lexington property could be used as a site for a large-scale solar system, an “as-of-right use,” and  claims the impact of the Planning Board’s decision would result in a reduction of the number of solar panels that can be built, from 3,016 panels to 1,758 panels (a 42% reduction), making the project economically unfeasible. 

Cambridge, Waltham and the Abutters have many objections to the project, including concerns about erosion and threats to Cambridge’s water supply in the Hobbs Brook Reservoir. In addition, knocking down 1,000+ trees and associated vegetation on mature land would of course release carbon into the atmosphere.       

Tracer Lane provides a superb local case study to illustrate the debate occurring across the US over where and how to site renewable energy resources. Earlier this month, Mass Audubon and Harvard Forest released a new report, Growing Solar, Protecting Nature, that argues that the current siting of large, ground-mount solar development poses a clear threat to vital forests and farmlands in Massachusetts. They highlight that solar projects are currently sited in a way that does not properly account for environmental impact, concluding that Massachusetts has lost more than 5,000 acres of forest and prime farmland since 2010. They argue that by shifting from large-scale, ground-mount solar to solar projects on rooftops, parking lots, and already-developed lands, Massachusetts can meet its goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 while simultaneously protecting crucial forests and farmlands.

We can expect much more on the trilemma that we face in (1) addressing climate change, (2) developing and siting renewable projects, and (3) ensuring a reasonable cost impact of those projects on our electric bills. 

Lexington Water and Sewer Rates

Water is essential. Climate issues and transitioning away from fossil fuels garner most of the headlines but water use, quality, availability, infrastructure, and cost are also global issues. We are fortunate in Lexington to have a decent water infrastructure and resources, unlike places like California and the West which suffer from severe droughts and contentious fights over water resources (e.g., such as from the Colorado River).  

Resilient Lexington addresses a number of water, wastewater, and stormwater issues, but the big focus is on getting to net zero. The US has underinvested in its water infrastructure for decades. According to the US EPA, the US should invest well over $600 billion over the next 20 years for water distribution, treatment, and resources to maintain current services.

At the Select Board’s October 16 meeting, Town staff held a public hearing and discussion for Lexington’s proposed FY2024 water and sewer rates. The Board will vote on whether to approve these new rates in November.  In total, Lexington uses about 650,000 HCF (hundred cubic feet) of water yearly. The average Lexington user consumes 120 HCF annually. If the proposed rates are approved, the FY2024 combined water and sewer bill for the average household will total about $2,100, up 5% or $100 from FY2023. The water and sewer bill represents just 1% of the median household income in Lexington, so it is a relatively minor category of household spending. Over the last 14 years, Lexington’s average bills have increased about 3.8% per year. Nationally, water and sewer rates have increased more, about 4.2% annually over the same period. Among communities receiving both water and sewer services from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), Lexington’s average household bill sits right in the middle.

In future columns, we will explore more about water and sewer issues, including Lexington’s and the MWRA’s investment programs for this essential service. 

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2 Comments

  1. Great reporting on critical issues! I would love to offer a comment about Green Thinking (vs. green labeling). For example, it is all well and good for the Town to have a goal of ‘net zero’ in its new buildings. This cannot be done, however, by adding some solar panels after a project is designed: energy-efficiency, resource conservation, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction must be integral to the siting, programming, design, and operation of the facility. Thinking about the new high school, we will be challenged to meet the perceived need for on-site parking with the goal of energy neutrality and GHG reduction. Turns out, to save the planet we will need to make different resource decisions than those that got us to where we are today. To paraphrase a genius: we cannot do the same thing and hope for a different outcome!

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