Crazy Idea #3: Cogeneration & demand-response electricity pricing

Note: This is the third installment of Eight Crazy Ideas for ’08, a multi-part posting that is looking at ideas, big and small, that could improve our community in Belmont.

In the first installment, I talked about introducing a resident parking permit program to help alleviate the tension between residents and non-residents on streets that are adjacent to shopping areas and municipal lots. Crazy Idea #2 talked about the possibility of (re) introducing multi-space “smart meters” on Trapelo Road and Leonard Street to start capturing revenue for the town from park and ride commuters and other shoppers.

For Crazy Idea #3, we’re moving on from parking. A comment from B2 reader Christine about an idea other towns are trying: town-branded refuse bags to raise money and reduce waste, put me in the mind of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” One of the great things about Belmont (in my mind anyway) is that we’re a town that owns its own electric utility. Not only are our rates generally lower, but in an age of Enron-esque market manipulations, it’s nice to have a utility with a friendly face that’s answerable to our town. The other nice thing is that, as energy conservation becomes our new religion, there’s a very small feedback loop between the efforts we make as a town towards conserving energy or producing it from renewable sources and the numbers we see in our monthly electric bills. That wouldn’t be the case were we just one small town served by a giant like NStar. With that in mind, my third crazy idea is plucked right from the most recent report from our own Belmont Municipal Light Department (BMLD): power cogeneration and demand-response power pricing.

The ideas are pretty simple, actually.

With cogeneration, BMLD customers install some form of renewable energy source at their home (say, solar panels on the roof). Customers who generate enough electricity to run their electric meters backwards can sell it back to BMLD, which pays the customers for their excess power generation (in addition to providing cash rebates to those who install renewable energy sources at $2/watt). Belmont then aggregates renewable energy credits from tens or hundreds of its residential customers, rather than (or in addition to) investing in its own green power facilities.

Solar Power

With demand-response pricing, BMLD provides cash incentives to town residents to cut their demand during peak hours (say, lowering the AC during those hot summer afternoons). Reduced demand from customers means less pressure to develop new capacity, saving the town money and helping the environment, to boot. According to their most recent report, BMLD is looking for 1,000 residential and commercial customers to participate in the program by agreeing to reduce electricity use during peak hours and/or shift it to non-peak hours. Contact BMLD Manager Tim Richardson if you’re interested. There’s also this link from the BMLD Web site to a presentation on Demand Side Management and Renewable Resources.

Crazy Idea #2: Smart meters!

Note: This is the second installment of Eight Crazy Ideas for ’08, a multi-part posting that is looking at ideas, big and small, that could improve our community in Belmont.

In the first installment, I talked about introducing a resident parking permit program to help alleviate the tension between residents and non-residents on streets that are adjacent to shopping areas and municipal lots. Crazy Idea #2 returns to the parking dilemma by proposing the reintroduction of (smart) parking meters in the town’s main shopping districts: Leonard Street and along Trapelo Road.

As many of you know, meters were removed a few years back because, among other reasons, they were perceived as unsightly. That’s all well and good — and I’m certainly not going to argue that the old coin-op meters weren’t ugly or a hassle for shoppers. They were. But a couple things have changed since then that make reintroduction of meters a good idea.

What’s changed? First and foremost: the town’s finances. As the most recent Warrant Committee report warns:

The basic dilemma facing Belmont is that expenses are growing much faster than revenues. Because of Proposition 2 ½, the allowed increase in property taxes in FY2007 is $1.36 million. Cost increases required for “level services” budgets for town services are $3.76 million, and the gap is widening. By Fiscal 2008, increases in health insurance and retirement benefits alone will exceed allowable tax increases.

Add to that an estimated $121.6 million in unfunded liabilities for retiree health insurance and life insurance, $40 million or so in deferred road maintenance, a new elementary school…and the luxury of free parking in Belmont’s commercial districts is too simply too rich for our blood.

We wouldn’t be alone in this. No less a town than Wellesley, with vibrant downtown shopping districts and fully funded pensions for town employees, aggressively uses meters (and the old fashioned kind, at that) throughout its downtown shopping areas and municipal lots. Would that Belmont had the luxury to turn its nose up at a nice stream of dimes, quarters and dollars from parking meters (not to mention the increased ticket revenue from expired meters). We don’t.

The other thing that has changed, of course, is the parking meters, themselves. The old coin op meters were ugly, dumb and numerous — one to a spot. The town currently uses multi-spot meters in the municipal lots on Claflin and in Cushing Square. Newer, multi-spot meters can accept payment in change, paper bills, credit cards — even via cell phones and SMS. Smart meters can even detect when cars have left a spot, and automatically zero out the balance on the meter to prevent double dipping. Two or three of these multi spot meters could cover Leonard Street and they could be stationed along Trapelo Road in a way that wouldn’t be unsightly, and that would create a considerable, new revenue stream for the town.

Multi-space smart meter

Why not 12 hour meters for areas of Trapelo Road near #73 bus stops and the Commuter Rail, too? Folks are using these areas of town to park and ride into Cambridge or North Station as it stands. We might as well get paid for it! We all love to hate parking meters (and the parking attendants who service them), but when it comes to finding a way to fund the town’s continued operations and growth, it’s time for Belmont and the meter maid to kiss and make up!

Eight crazy ideas (that just might work) for ’08

With 2007 fast drawing to a close, is looking ahead to 2008 and wondering what the year has in store for The Town of Homes. And, with New Year’s Resolutions now at the front of everyone’s mind, we’re pondering changes, big and small, that would improve our town and our community. For the next eight days, B2 will sketch out eight ideas for 2008 — one a day — that are worth trying (or at least considering)! Some of these ideas are plans that are actively being considered by town leaders, some are ideas that have been suggested for the town in the past, but never tried. Some, of course, are pure fancy.

As with everything here, the floor is open to discussion and to suggestions. If you have an idea to improve life in the town that you’ve been dying to share, send it in and share it with the B2 community!

Idea #1: Resident Parking Permits!

At some point in my conversation last week with Selectman Firenze, the phone rang and Selectman Firenze politely excused himself to take it. On the other end of the line was a town resident calling to complain about a parking problem in his or her neighborhood. According to Selectman Firenze, calls like this come in four to five times a day — and parking headaches are the #1 issue on people’s mind — either the parking in their neighborhood is too restrictive, or not restrictive enough. Or both — too restrictive for them, as a homeowner, but not restrictive enough to prevent shoppers on Leonard Street or commuters bound for Boston from taking advantage. Selectman Firenze commented at the time that there was “no solution” to the problem, but we disagree. One obvious solution is to issue resident parking permits for the town and replace all those “Two Hour Parking” signs with “Resident Parking only” signs.

Belmont Resident Permit

A resident parking permit would solve a bunch of problems simultaneously. First and foremost: it would be a way to elegantly resolve the Not on My Curbside problem that Selectman Firenze outlined — residents want the freedom to park on the street in front of their house, but don’t take kindly to folks from Waltham, Lexington or Weston using their street as a Park and Ride into town.

Second, a resident permit program would be easier to enforce: meterless, two hour only parking zones (which are the norm in town) require multiple passes by police or parking attendants to determine who’s in violation of the limit. While parking limits are monitored pretty closely in and around the town center, my sense is that’s not the case on outlying streets where there’s less competition for space. A resident permit mounted in a pre-determined location on the automobile is easily identifiable with just a drive-by, easing enforcement and increasing the ticket revenue to the town. (Sorry commuters!)

True, any resident parking permit program would come with costs. Staff would have to be hired or re-assigned to administer the program, including verifying the address of permit applicants, tracking and reissuing permits on a yearly or bi-yearly basis, and collecting any necessary fees. This could be paid for with a modest fee to obtain the permit and, again, easier and faster enforcement of resident-only parking areas could well be a significant net plus to the town’s coffers.

A crazy idea? Not really — in fact, the City of Cambridge has used permits successfully for years. Anyone who’s navigated the tightly packed streets around Harvard Square or Porter Square can immediately see why. But Cambridge has extended permitted parking out even to the Fresh Pond Reservoir, where Belmont residents who park around the water station to walk their dog return to find a $25 fine stuck to the window. That’s good for Cambridge..but bad for us. So here’s my vote for a new Belmont Resident Parking Permit program in 2008!