A Net Zero Win For Cambridge, Mass., Activists

Palo Alto, Calif., which surrounds Stanford University, has gone carbon neutral in its electricity sourcing. Now another home to a famous top-tier college is aiming for a goal perhaps even more challenging: net zero.

After a vigorous campaign by local activists, Cambridge City Manager Richard C. Rossi put out a call this week for volunteers to serve on a new “Getting to Net Zero” task force.

cambridge net zero

Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass. (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Going carbon neutral isn’t easy, but it is fairly straight-forward: It means sourcing power from renewable energy projects and filling out any gaps with the purchase of renewable energy certificates. So for instance, Palo Alto recently began purchasing power from a landfill gas-to-energy project 90 miles away from the city in Salinas, Calif. With prices for renewable energy generally in decline, these kinds of purchases are becoming more and more viable.

Net zero, by contrast, is about what’s happening at the building level. That puts the onus on developers, and puts a premium on tracking and reporting how buildings function. Here’s how Net Zero Cambridge described the proposal it wants the city to adopt:

Our proposal restricts the use of fossil-fuel based energy in new developments (greater than 25,000 sq. ft.) by requiring greenhouse gas mitigation plans and periodic reporting of energy usage.  To reach the net zero standard, developers may take advantage of design efficiencies, on-site generation of power, and off-site purchases of renewable energy over the grid. All of these steps have been shown to be feasible and economically viable right here in Cambridge.

The move by Cambridge to explore net-zero possibilities demonstrates the power of local activism — Net Zero Cambridge had gathered 504 signatures in a petition drive. The group also got a big crowd out the Cambridge City Council meeting this week, where the council approved City Manager Rossi’s plan.

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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