Mark, Blais talk infrastructure funding, green energy in Whately

  • State Sen. Paul Mark and state Rep. Natalie Blais stopped by Whately Town Hall Friday morning to connect with residents as Mark continues his “ReMarks and Refreshments” series. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • State Sen. Paul Mark and state Rep. Natalie Blais stopped by Whately Town Hall Friday morning to connect with residents as Mark continues his “ReMarks and Refreshments” series. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer
Published: 7/17/2023 12:06:32 PM
Modified: 7/17/2023 12:06:02 PM

WHATELY — With a statewide push for renewable energy and electric vehicles, how will the Massachusetts Legislature approach modernizing the grid that would be supplying all this power?

The answer, at this point, is unclear, but state Sen. Paul Mark emphasized in a wide-ranging meeting with residents that these are the types of questions he and his colleagues will need to be thinking about in the coming years.

Mark and state Rep. Natalie Blais stopped by Town Hall Friday morning to chat with residents as Mark continues his “ReMarks and Refreshments” series, which will bring him to all 57 cities and towns he represents as part of the Berkshire, Hampden, Franklin and Hampshire District throughout his term.

While discussing a variety of topics, Mark, Blais, town officials and residents focused on rural community funding and the state’s green initiatives, including legislators’ and the governor’s position on large-scale solar arrays.

“A couple of years ago, the position in Boston appeared to be that there’s all this land without buildings on it in western Massachusetts and, ‘Who needs a hayfield?’” said resident Donna Wiley. “Personally, I’d like us to see something that encourages every flat-roof structure and every parking lot to do what UMass did 10 years ago, 15 years ago.”

Mark recalled a conference he attended where he heard someone from the nuclear energy industry say that “any new building that is built without solar on top of it is a sin.” Expanding on that, he said the state could mostly likely “save costs in the long run” with more solar arrays and that the State House currently has two bills filed that would encourage more solar systems on municipal buildings.

In a similar vein, Mark said the state’s green bank, which launched in June and is the country’s first one established within a state’s housing finance agency, is a chance for the state to lead the nation toward new green initiatives. The Massachusetts Community Climate Bank is starting off with $50 million from the Department of Environmental Protection and will also focus on affordable housing developments, according to Gov. Maura Healey.

“It is going to start by focusing on the decarbonization of buildings and that can include solar siting on rooftops, on parking garages, parking lots and new developments,” Mark explained. “In that respect, I think there’s a lot of potential for this administration to be a leader.”

Darius Modestow, superintendent of the Frontier Regional and Union 38 school districts, added that the state should be looking at incentives or other programs to encourage schools to install solar arrays on flat-roofed buildings. Frontier Regional School is in the early stages of planning a roof replacement and is considering solar panels.

“It makes complete sense to put it on all municipal buildings and schools especially,” Modestow said. “The money’s just going to come back to the taxpayer in savings.”

While renewable energy is the goal, Blais said the state’s energy grid needs to be modernized to handle all these new electrical connections and the power they generate or need to function.

“One of the issues we’ve had with our green energy transition is the fact that our grid can’t handle it,” Blais said, noting these types of upgrades will be urgently needed “for what we all want, which is more green energy and less reliance on fossil fuels.

“I do want to note that we passed two climate bills last session alone,” Blais added. “There’s a real sense of urgency, I think, in the Legislature, and the governor feels that, too.”

Closing out Friday’s conversation was what Selectboard Chair Fred Baron called the “oldie, but goodie” western Massachusetts request: more infrastructure funding.

“We simply can’t afford to repair infrastructure, whether it’s buildings, whether it’s bridges, roads and our favorite word — culverts,” Baron said. “It costs as much to repair or build a bridge here as it does in Newton.”

As towns let some infrastructure wear down due to a lack of money for replacements and repairs, Baron said it feeds into a cycle where “infrastructure deteriorates and the population goes down,” which in turn skews the state’s population-based funding formulas.

“This is nothing new, but it’s at the core of so many of these things,” Baron said.

While it’s a long-term challenge, Mark said the state has been making progress, which can be seen with the increased rural school funding included in this year’s budget and Chapter 90 increases. Additionally, he said the creation of a director of rural affairs position — with former state Sen. Anne Gobi appointed as the first one — means there is a direct line from western Massachusetts and other rural communities around the state to the governor’s office.

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.


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