Science Group Analyzes Clean Energy Alternatives to Risky Proposed East Boston Substation

Published Nov 21, 2019

BOSTON (November 21, 2019)—The Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board should not approve a current proposal from utility company Eversource to construct a new substation in East Boston until issues of need and suitability are adequately addressed, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Eversource has failed to provide up-to-date, transparent information justifying the need for a substation that will cost ratepayers close to $50 million, says the group. Additionally, its proposed site in East Boston floods presently and will be at risk of chronic inundation by 2100 due to sea level rise. A new UCS-led analysis has found that installing residential rooftop solar panels in that neighborhood could be a more appropriate option for meeting any increased electricity demand in the area, while cutting customers’ electric bills and reducing pollution, including global warming emissions.

UCS conducted the analysis in partnership with GreenRoots, a local environmental justice organization, to determine the feasibility and benefits of deploying rooftop solar-and-storage systems in the East Boston community.

“Our analysis found there’s a lot of opportunity for clean energy solutions to East Boston’s challenges,” said Paula García, bilingual energy analyst at UCS and lead author of the study. “With the climate future Boston faces if carbon emissions are not reduced, decisionmakers need to think beyond the norm when it comes to solutions. Building a substation in a flood-prone area may seem like an easy fix now, but poses the risk of much greater costs in the future.”

Eversource has not provided clear, transparent and sufficient data that supports the need for the substation, despite repeated requests by key stakeholders directly involved in this decision. Furthermore, Eversource has not provided stakeholders an infrastructure plan showing how the substation would be prepared to withstand the worst scenario of sea level rise and other worsening extreme weather conditions.

“Without this information, this proposal is incomplete,” said García. “Electricity demand in Massachusetts has been steadily decreasing thanks to the Commonwealth’s nation-leading investments in energy efficiency. So Eversource’s justification for this project looks weaker all the time.”

UCS and GreenRoots examined the potential for solar energy generation in East Boston as an alternative to the Eversource proposal. The study found that deploying rooftop solar on just a third of triple-decker buildings in the area could provide close to 10 megawatts of solar capacity—enough in Massachusetts to generate the equivalent of more than 1,500 homes’ electricity use. In addition, pairing these solar systems with just one typical battery system each could add up to more than 9 megawatt-hours of energy storage. This aggregated capacity could be an important part of addressing possible growth in electricity demand in the area.

The solar systems could also reduce global warming emissions from electricity consumption in these buildings by almost 40 percent compared to using power from fossil-fueled power plants. Coupling the solar with energy storage could reduce emissions by 70 percent.

The study also evaluated the costs of such systems, including the suite of state and federal clean energy policies that could make these options economically feasible for homeowners in East Boston. Households in triple-deckers that buy the types of solar or hybrid solar-plus-storage systems studied, UCS and GreenRoots found, could save $60 to $120 per month on their electricity bills. These savings could be especially important for low-income households, who often spend large portions of their income on energy. The systems in aggregate could cost 40 percent less than the Eversource proposal, for which ratepayers would be responsible.

“We need to be taking every opportunity to improve our grid through clean energy deployment from the ground up,” said García. “Our analysis shows a golden opportunity is at hand for Massachusetts to take tangible steps in deploying climate-resilient, clean energy infrastructure that offers direct benefits to lower-income communities and helps our state as a whole.”

The proposed substation in East Boston is an example of the critical decisions that utilities and other key actors in the energy sector are making right now that could have implications long into the future, said John Walkey, waterfront initiative coordinator for GreenRoots. “Projects such as this should go forward only if the benefits outweigh the risks. And in this case, the first risk is having no clear rationale for investing in expensive infrastructure that may actually cause our community more harm than good.”

UCS and GreenRoots recommend that the Energy Facilities Siting Board require Eversource to provide evidence that the East Boston community was properly consulted, and that their concerns and recommendations were properly addressed. This would help ensure the benefits of a clean energy future be shared equitably, by requiring transparency in utility engagements with customers and impacted stakeholders.

“Neighborhood by neighborhood, we can get there,” said Walkey. “We have an opportunity to ensure that the clean energy transition reaches everyone, and offers benefits for the people bearing the greatest burden from our state’s ‘business as usual’ approach.”