A Clean Energy Alternative to a Risky Proposed Substation in East Boston

November 21, 2019 | 11:45 am
City of Boston
Paula Garcia
Senior Bilingual Energy Analyst and Energy Justice Lead

En español

This is the third of a four-part blog series on East Boston, a Controversial Substation, and Opportunities for a Clean Energy Transition. Please click here to see blog 1, 2 or 4.

Right now, utilities and other key actors in the energy sector are making critical decisions that could have implications far into our future. These decisions will either enable a transition to local clean energy or lock us in for decades to expensive, traditional, and centralized energy models.

One such decision is playing out in East Boston, as the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) considers a proposal from Eversource to locate a substation in the densely populated Eagle Hill neighborhood.

There are clear risks associated with the East Eagle substation, though, and a lack of consistent, clear justification for the project. Equally clear is the potential for alternatives that could facilitate a clean energy transition for Eastie.

Given all that, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and GreenRoots set out to analyze a very different approach, one based on harnessing some of East Boston’s rooftop solar potential and coupling it with energy storage, with overall levels of investment similar to those proposed for the substation.

The results of our analysis illustrate some of the benefits of such a transition to clean energy at a local level, how we can make sure that this transition reaches everyone, and what we would hope to have prioritized in the final decision on the proposed substation.

The analysis

We know that East Boston has tremendous rooftop solar potential, estimated at close to 100 megawatts (MW) (enough, in Massachusetts, to meet the electricity needs of 15,000 to 20,000 households), and that innovative decentralized, or local, models elsewhere are already demonstrating the potential for meeting a range of electric grid needs with solar plus storage.

For the analysis, we reviewed the characteristics of buildings in East Boston and focused on triple-deckers. There are more than 2,000 of these three-story buildings in the neighborhood (around 40% of all buildings in East Boston), and triple-deckers provide a golden opportunity for solar because of their flat roofs.

Not every triple-decker in East Boston would be able to host solar—some would have poor roof conditions, and others are being redeveloped out of existence—so we based our analysis on putting solar on just a third (700) of these buildings. We also envisioned associated energy storage (batteries), to create hybrid solar-storage systems. We envisioned each building hosting either a 14 kilowatt (kW) solar system by itself, or in combination with a 13.2-kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery with a 2-hour duration. Here’s what we found.

Residential solar and energy storage could increase grid reliability

The roofs of just 700 East Boston triple-deckers could potentially house an aggregated solar capacity of close to 10,000 kW, enough to meet the electricity needs of 1,500 to 2,000 homes in Massachusetts. In addition, pairing these solar systems with one modest-sized battery each could add up to more than 9,000 kWh of energy storage.

This aggregated capacity could be an important part of addressing possible growth in electricity demand in the area. Eversource had originally justified the proposed substation based on its concerns about peak demand (the highest amount of electricity used at any time) surpassing 300,000 kW (300 MW), a reliability threshold set for the area by ISO New England, the regional electric grid operator. Simply updating projections about load growth, as has been previously requested by staff at the Energy Facilities Siting Board, might well keep projections below the 300 MW level (see chart). Even under the older, outdated projections, however, the aggregated 10,000 kW (10 MW) of solar capacity from our analysis, paired with batteries, could meet almost half of the projected demand over the 300 MW threshold for 2023.

Utilizing up-to-date ISO New England’s Forecast Report of Capacity, Energy, Loads, and Transmission (CELT) 2019 peak load forecasts to estimate C-EB-L peak load results in a peak load that is lower than ISO-NE’s stated reliability threshold of 300 MW starting in 2020.

Eversource would not be alone in adopting this type of approach. This residential solar-plus-storage approach is already being adopted by utilities like Green Mountain Power in Vermont and Rocky Mountain Power in Utah to address just such concerns about increases in load. In Utah, for example, residential rooftop solar coupled with 600 batteries will help Rocky Mountain Power to manage peak load on the system.

Investing in residential solar and energy storage could save ratepayers money

A solar-plus-storage approach could also be appreciably cheaper. The initial capital cost of a 14kW solar system paired with a 13.2kWh/2-hour-duration battery is close to $41,000 before federal or state incentives. If these hybrid systems were deployed in 700 triple-decker buildings, the total capital investment could be $28.5 million, or even less with incentives.

In comparison, Eversource planned 115,000-volt substation will cost ratepayers almost $50 million (including this recent change). That’s $20 million more than the cost of our solar-plus-storage alternative.

Green Mountain Power, for example, has been working in lowering its peak loads through the “bring your own device” program where a third-party supplier allows customers to buy their batteries. The program provides a bill credit to customers that allow the utility to tap into their batteries for a period of time. By the end of 2018 the program already had more than 500 customers with solar and storage systems.

Investing in solar could significantly lower consumer electricity bills

Another possible path for triple-decker households is to coordinate with their condo association and buy or lease a rooftop solar or hybrid system.

A solar-plus-storage approach could also be attractive for individual homeowners in East Boston. Our analysis found that households in triple-deckers that buy the types of solar or hybrid systems we considered could save $60 to $120 per month on their electricity bills. These savings could be especially important for low-income households, who often have high energy burdens, spending large portions of their income on energy.

Triple-decker households with solar or hybrid systems could save between $60 to $120 per month on their electricity bill

Incentives matter to support a local clean energy transition

Clean energy incentives like tax breaks and rebates encourage the deployment of clean technologies like solar energy by making them more affordable. In addition to the federal solar Income Tax Credit (ITC), Massachusetts’s incentives can dramatically reduce the payback period (the amount of time it takes to recover the cost of an investment). Those incentives include Net Metering (NEM), the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program, and the Residential Renewable Energy Credit (RREC).

State incentives can help reduce payback periods for investing in residential rooftop solar or solar-plus-storage to within range of many more homeowners

A just energy transition for all in East Boston needs to address barriers to access to clean energy

Important barriers to access to solar exist, but so do opportunities to overcoming them.

  • Upfront cost. Many low and moderate income (LMI) households wouldn’t be able to afford the upfront cost of a solar system. Innovative financial mechanisms that offer little or no upfront cost are critical to enable broader access to solar.
  • Design of the SMART program. The SMART incentive includes adders for projects targeting LMI households. Yet less than 3% of projects approved to date under the SMART program qualify as low-income. For East Boston, with its large environmental justice community and large population below the poverty line, adjusting the SMART program is crucial to making sure that the benefits of solar and other clean energy programs reach everyone.
  • Ability of low-income households to leverage tax incentives. Low-income households are usually constrained in their ability to capture the full value of tax credits due to the relative size of their tax burdens. Enabling refund options or third-party financing entities could help to overcome this obstacle.

Deploying rooftop solar and energy storage in Eastie could help reduce carbon emissions while advancing city and state climate goals

Boston’s Climate Action Plan sets the goal of being a carbon neutral city by 2050. To achieve it, the city will need to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions significantly. And buildings’ energy consumption is a major source of Boston’s carbon emissions.

Our analysis shows that, if rooftop solar were deployed for 700 triple-decker buildings in East Boston, global warming emissions from electricity consumption in these buildings could be reduced by almost 40% compared to using power from fossil-fueled power plants. Furthermore, if rooftop solar was coupled with energy storage, emissions could be reduced by 70%. This is a significant reduction, suggesting prioritizing this model could help the city to effectively advance its climate goals.

More broadly, the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) requires the state as a whole to reduce its global warming emissions at least 25% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 (below 1990 levels). This analysis helps inform the role that places like East Boston and technologies like solar and storage could have in achieving the GWSA targets.

Installing rooftop solar with energy storage can increase local resilience

This deployment of solar and storage not only can help mitigate the impacts of climate change, but play a vital role in increasing resilience by keeping the lights on and powering critical infrastructure, even when the grid is experiencing blackouts due to extreme weather conditions.

In the scenario our analysis explored, individual households could keep the power on even if the power grid goes down. An approach similarly incorporating solar and storage could be used in community buildings such as the East Boston High School, the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, other municipal properties, and churches. Such an approach could save money and improve community-level resilience by keeping power on in buildings that can serve as emergency shelters, or powering other critical infrastructure.

What’s Next for East Boston

The Energy Facilities Siting Board is scheduled to make a final decision on the East Boston substation project before the end of the year.

Our recommendation is that this decision takes into consideration these 5 critical aspects:

  1. Prioritize climate-resilient clean energy solutions that protect and support this coastal neighborhood considering the challenges of today and tomorrow
  2. Rely on up-to-date, transparent, and sufficient cost and load data in making its choice
  3. Ensure that the community was properly consulted, and their concerns properly addressed
  4. Think creatively, equitably, and ambitiously when advancing energy projects
  5. Help to advance climate and energy goals for Boston and Massachusetts

And you can help: If you’re local, join us for a community event today, November 21, at 6 p.m., in the East Boston Social Center, where we’ll share the results from this analysis. If you cannot attend, look out for our next blog for other ways to get involved!