Warrant Article 21’s sweeping legacy
How the by-law gave new strength to the local climate movement
December 15, 2019
On Nov. 20, Warrant Article 21 (WA21), which mandated the use of electric heating systems instead of systems powered by natural (or fracked) gas in new construction and renovations, passed Town Meeting by a resounding 207 to 3 vote. The article and its surround movement has already had broad-spanning impacts, from within the high school to throughout the Greater Boston area. Here are some of the ways.
Newton and Cambridge consider similar by-laws
As Brookline organizers look forward, cities like Newton and Cambridge are studying what they have done and are pushing for similar legislation.
Jonathan Kantar, a Newton resident and architect, brought a memo to Newton City Council proposing they follow Brookline in electrifying new buildings.
“This is part of the strategy in our climate action plan, in the state’s Green Communities Act, where they’ve made a commitment to get to 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050,” Kantar said at a City Council discussion. “As part of those initiatives, we need to electrify, so that we can take advantage of renewable energy for all of our energy related uses. You can’t do that with fossil fuel . So we have to capitalize on these strategies, and this is one of them.“
Cambridge City Councilor Quinton Zondervan has introduced an amendment to their municipal code that would take a similar approach to Brookline’s WA21. According to Zondervan, it is critical that we stop installing new fossil fuel infrastructure.
“We have to stop making climate change worse. Adding more buildings that rely on gas combustion given what we know about the dangers of climate change makes no sense at all,” Zondervan said in an email. “Fracking, which produces most of the gas we consume here in Cambridge, destroys communities and the environment and has to end. With alternative technologies to using gas being readily available and cost effective, there is no excuse for continuing down this ruinous path.”
Brookline and Cambridge share the goal of net zero carbon emissions by the year 2050, which factors into Zondervan’s rationale for the proposed amendment.
“It would let us get there faster because it would avoid the need to convert those buildings to electric later, which is expensive and will be delayed as long as possible,” Zondervan said. “It makes far more sense to build all new buildings without gas infrastructure inside so that we can make those buildings net zero as soon as the electricity supplied to them is 100 percent renewable.”
Kantar said that it is necessary for municipalities to push the envelope of electrifying legislation so that, eventually, the movement can grow to the state level.
“The feeling is that we need cities and towns to try these various methods and learn what each one does,” Kantar said. “Try them so that there begins to be a realization that there’s the political will and the community support for this kind of thing. And then, hopefully, the state will respond.”
High school to remove gas lines in renovation project
Even though the warrant article itself does not apply to public buildings, including the high school’s renovation project, the movement surrounding the legislation has inspired administrators to advocate for the electrification of both the STEM wing and the new Cypress building. Science Curriculum Coordinator Ed Wiser said that when he heard about the movement, he first thought about the future of chemistry labs which often rely on gas-powered Bunsen burners, but soon shifted his perspective on the problem.
“My first thoughts were, ‘how would we do our labs,’ because that would be a big change in what we do,” Wiser said. “But then I thought, ‘let’s challenge that assumption that we need gas to do these labs.’ So we looked into electric alternatives and found quite a few.”
Through intensive research, Wiser was able to find a University of Massachusetts Amherst website that suggested electric burners as an alternative.
“Once I learned that these Bunsen burner alternatives existed, I tried to find them, and I reached out to a new vendor and they got me a sample,” Wiser said. “I got to try it out over the summer, and it worked great, so I went ahead and told the architects to feel free to remove the gas lines from all of the chemistry and biology rooms, so there won’t be any new gas lines.”
The updated plans will remove gas lines in the upper floors of the STEM wing as well as in the new Cypress building. Gas lines will remain on the first floor for the new Culinary Arts rooms and boilers will remain for heating, but all gas for lab purposes will be replaced with electricity. Once the renovation is completed, existing gas lines in the current science hallway will be cut off.
All of the chemistry teachers got a chance to experiment with the electric burners. Chemistry teacher Shawn Rock said that although it is not a perfect substitution, the new burners should be able to replace the gas ones.
“There are going to be some things that we’ll have to do differently,” Rock said. We’re going to have to fiddle around with the way things are done, but I think, like anything else, there might be a couple hiccups the first time, but after that, it’ll work out just fine.”
According to Wiser, a leak in a chemistry lab many years ago alerted him to the dangers of having gas lines in the building, dangers that the renovation will solve.
“We had an incident with gas leaking in the building, and the building had to be evacuated. Someone had left a valve on by simple accident, and it was a big, big risk,” Wiser said. “Now are there dangers with electricity? Sure. But they’re much easier to control, and they’re not at the level of risk gas leaks are.”
The movement around the warrant article gave Wiser the idea to investigate converting to electricity, which Wiser said he would not have thought of on his own.
“The warrant article and the discussion about it definitely inspired us all to think about what those alternatives might be,” Wiser said. “It was not something that we thought of, and I think that’s the thing that’s most inspirational about the warrant article.”
Local activists build off Warrant Article 21’s momentum
Warrant Article 21 was only the first step towards something larger. Organizations like Mothers Out Front (MOF) remain vigilant and small-scale pushes in other areas continue to chip away at Brookline’s carbon emissions.
According to Kathleen Scanlon, Town Meeting Member and coordinator of Brookline’ MOF chapter, the warrant article was the easiest part, because it was essentially cost-neutral. But moving forward, she doesn’t expect to see as many easy solutions.
“It’s not costing the town any money, but the next steps will surely cost the town some more money,” Scanlon said. “WA21 is very practical once you get to understand the exemptions and the process. It actually is the low-hanging fruit for our buildings here in Brookline. The next challenge would be getting the existing housing to be converted.”
Diane Sokal, a member of Brookline’s team of MOF and proponent of WA21, said that Brookline needs to reduce energy demand, electrify everything and clean up the grid to meet the goal of zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“Sometimes, people think, ‘oh my God, I don’t know what to do. It’s such a big problem, there’s no impact I can make,’” Sokal said. “I think putting it into the context of these three steps, there are a lot of things that people can do. What we’re doing as advocates is setting up this program to help everybody see that you don’t have to be doing a house renovation to work on your carbon footprint: you can do small things.”
According to Sokal, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the extent of the problem, but even one small thing, like composting, opting up to 100 percent renewable energy or borrowing a portable induction cooktop, can have an impact and produce a snowball effect.
MOF hosts a Green House Fest that showcases green features that homeowners can add to their homes such as heat pumps or induction stoves. They also bring in homeowners to answer questions.
Scanlon also said that going forward, the climate movement will have to be a combination of town legislation and residents taking it upon themselves.
“The town may feel like the residents could be doing more, and the residents may feel like the town could be doing more,” Scanlon said. “But I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to attack it from both levels, pressuring our leaders and doing as much as we can in how much we’re consuming and what we’re composting and what we’re able to recycle and really start looking at our actions as it becomes more dire.”
According to Sokal, a communications group was created on June 5 at a sustainability and climate action summit. The group, along with the warrant article push, are key to the movements progress.
“On day one, there was a lot of pushback, and a lot of doubts from residents,” Sokal said. “And then we did a lot of listening to people and researching. So for all these next steps, we just have to figure out how we can best communicate with people so that we can all work together. I think it’ll be a snowball, where the hardest step is the first one. I think future warrant articles will already have a coalition and strong support and research behind them because we’ve started with Warrant Article 21.”