April 28, 2020

Energy Shift Boston Update

Community Climate and Energy Resilience: Lessons During a Pandemic

A year and a half ago, Massachusetts communities experienced a protracted disaster that offers lessons for today. The Merrimack Valley Gas Disaster taught us about community vulnerability, preparedness and resilience. Our Sasaki Foundation Energy Shift Boston design grant is helping Boston both mitigate and adapt to future gas outages and climate change, and applies general principles of resilient communities that relate even to pandemics.

A resilient community shows preparedness, adaptability, and the ability to see and act on opportunities that meet short-term needs while supporting long-term goals. The explosions and fires on Sept 13, 2018, and its months-long aftermath in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover revealed a striking vulnerability—lack of household electricity information—with a simple solution enhancing rapid disaster response with the co-benefit of paving the way toward safer, more resilient and climate-friendly energy systems. Our project pilots this solution across diverse neighborhoods of District 6 in Boston.

On a fall afternoon in Lawrence, in an instant, the gas system supporting heating and cooking in over 8,300 addresses failed catastrophically, and was damaged so badly it was clear that restoring gas service would take weeks or months. However, electricity returned within 36 hours and presented an opportunity to temporarily switch to portable electric space heaters and cooktops. Yet emergency management and first responders quickly realized no one knew which households had the electric service capacity to safely use these devices. We collectively could have anticipated this need—especially as large-scale gas outages are more common than appreciated—but didn’t.

Energy Shift Boston helps municipalities proactively develop readily accessible inventories of household electric service capacity for temporary emergency electrification of cooking and space heating in the event of a gas outage. This inventory simultaneously represents a work plan for longer-term electrification of the building heating sector, which is becoming increasingly recognized as necessary to meet municipal and state climate commitments.

Our larger goal is to develop an effective process to inventory diverse housing stock for disaster-readiness that can be built out across the City of Boston and then across cities and towns in Massachusetts and beyond. 

To accomplish this, we are piloting a screening of 100 households in Boston using photographs of electric panels and householder surveys. As coronavirus has shifted how we all conduct affairs today, we have also switched from in-home, in-person visits to householder-submitted photographs and surveys. 

As disasters like in the Merrimack Valley or coronavirus unfold over days and weeks, realizations and opportunities emerge. Despite the urgency of the moment, it’s important to keep minds open to observe, capture, and act on them. Recognizing that we can prepare to effectively distribute temporary heating and cooking solutions before a gas outage was one such realization. Likewise, many today are re-thinking the allocation of street space and travel modes, as streets empty of cars. We need to prepare for what we can anticipate, but also be ready to observe, consider, and respond to what we may not.

A mix of the anticipated and unanticipated has also played out as our Energy Shift project has progressed over the last seven months. We have exceeded our planned household screening, with 107 households screened. Moreover, three unanticipated, exciting opportunities have emerged:

  • A budding partnership with the Bethel AME church, in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. Bethel AME invited us to pitch our project to potential volunteer householders, which has developed into a conversation on enhancing the Church’s disaster-readiness and potential to serve as a community resilience center, broadening the definition of sanctuary.
  • We discovered that household electric service capacity (e.g., 30, 60, 100, 200 or more amps) is often recorded but not listed in municipal Assessors databases, in Boston and the 350 other cities and towns in Massachusetts. This is especially striking given that details including household heating type, air conditioning, and even the condition of kitchens and bathrooms are publicly available. We are exploring the potential to have this simple electric service amperage information added to publicly available Assessors databases so that emergency management personnel, renters or buyers, and city planners alike may make use of this useful and crucial information.
  • Urban eastern seaboard communities like Boston contain iconic row houses, adjoined on their sides across entire blocks, like skyscrapers lain on their sides, with a quarter of their surface in contact with a stable thermal reservoir, the ground. A chance conversation between Energy Shift volunteer Mary Brady, of Mothers Out Front, and a row-house resident produced this insight and a follow-on grant proposal to the Boston University Climate Lab to investigate the potential for row houses on the BU campus, and beyond, to convert to all-electric heating, using block-scale ground source heat pump systems developed by Energy Shift organizational partner HEET, a non-profit based in Cambridge, MA.

In the accounting of lessons in the aftermath of the Merrimack Valley Gas Disaster, Massachusetts Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren wrote that management of critical infrastructure in the Merrimack Valley:

“…did not properly contemplate the possibility that a disaster like this could occur, did not have sufficient safety measures in place to prevent a disaster, and was not prepared to respond.”

Today, a direct link between energy security and coronavirus is exemplified by the fact that 100 electric-grid specialists are holed up in month-long group isolation to reduce the risk of coronavirus depleting a precious expert workforce needed to keep our centralized electric grid operating reliably.

We can’t rewrite history about shortcomings in preparing for and responding to disasters like the Merrimack Valley Gas Disaster or coronavirus, but we can learn and apply lessons from them going forward. Support from the Sasaki Foundation for Energy Shift Boston is allowing cities and towns to write a different postscript that recognizes how our investments in resilience will have helped reduce vulnerabilities and promoted safe, thriving communities.


If you would like to get in touch with the From Energy Shift to Energy Security team and learn more about their work, please reach out via email.



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