Staff Writer

Published: 12/18/2019 11:33:49 PM

HOLYOKE — As scientists warn of the increasingly dire need to stop using fossil fuels to avoid the worst of climate change, municipalities are grappling with a big question: What does that transition away from fossil fuels look like.

For Holyoke, planning that transition just got a financial boost.

The city was recently named the recipient of a $275,000 grant from the Barr Foundation to facilitate planning of a transition away from fossil fuels. The money will allow Holyoke to develop plans to completely transition buildings in the city, as well as its energy grid, to renewable energy.

The funding will pay for project management, technical consulting and capacity building, as well as technical support to the municipally owned Holyoke Gas and Electric company. An additional $125,000 was awarded to the organization Neighbor to Neighbor, which will be doing resident engagement as part of the process. And the Conservation Law Foundation is also joining the coalition, helping with stakeholder engagement and designing energy policies.

“On Earth Day this year, I spoke of the need for bold, collective action at the local level to confront our climate crisis and build a green economy,” Mayor Alex Morse said in a statement. “Over the past few months we’ve been building partnerships to launch an initiative that will allow Holyoke to lead the way in a world remade and powered by renewable energy, while serving as a model for cities around the country.”

Holyoke Director of Planning and Economic Development Marcos Marerro said the grant will help the city understand how to transition its energy grid to clean sources, as well as transforming all the buildings in the city — city-owned and private.

“Our intent is for both electric and heating to go down to zero carbon emissions,” Marerro said.

Marrero said part of that work involves understanding the incentive structure for people to afford to deploy new technology in their homes. For the most part, buildings in the city get their electricity from Holyoke Gas and Electric. But while many houses also receive gas for heating from HG&E, others use oil or wood for heating.

“It’s a really interesting problem, it’s a very complex problem,” Marrero said.

In addition to the funding the city is receiving, HG&E is receiving no-cost technical assistance from the Rocky Mountain Institute, an organization that works to transform energy use.

Elvis Mendez, the organizing director of Neighbor to Neighbor, said his organization is partnering with the city to engage residents in the energy transition process. He praised the city’s commitment to going “beyond the normal resident input relationship” and centering the leadership of city residents.

“We’re really excited about that,” Mendez said. “It speaks to a transformative politics.”

Mendez said his organization will be going door to door, holding local meetings and engaging residents in a variety of other ways, allowing them to participate in the process and shape what it looks like. He said that process will mean that residents are designing the city’s energy future, as well as learning, together.

“We’re looking to do a lot of different things,” he said. “We’re wanting to help increase, grow our community environmental literacy, to have a better understanding of the environmental crisis and the moment we’re in.”

The planning work is expected to begin early in 2020 with the creation of a governance structure for the project, preparation for public engagement and the aggregating of technical data.

Boston’s Barr Foundation provides financial support for initiatives in the areas of education, the arts and climate change.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at