Q&A With Michael Macrae, Candidate For Light Board (Two-Year Term)

Photo: Michael Macrae is a candidate for the Light Board

Michael Macrae is running to fill one of two two-year term open seats on the first elected Light Board in the town’s history. He currently serves on the Municipal Light Board Advisory Committee along with three other members who are seeking election to the five-member board that will oversee the running of Belmont Light, the town’s municipally-owned electrical utility.

A resident with his family since 2017, Macrae matriculated at the University of Washington in Seattle where he earned his BS in Chemistry and Biochemistry afterwards obtaining a PhD from UC San Diego.

Q: What motivated you to seek election to the newly-constituted elected Light Board?

It has been a wonderful experience [being a member of the Light Board Advisory Committee] to be able to work with our locally-owned municipal light plant, Belmont Light. I’ve had the privilege of working with two general managers and a team of very dedicated, knowledgeable people who share a passion of helping our town through how we use electricity.

What brings me to the ballot is, fundamentally, low-cost electricity should be first and foremost. Another of the most essential components of a well-run light department is reliability as a lot of people depend on the power not only just to keep the lights on, power is an essential service for health and safety. And, equally important, is sustainability, how we source our power, who we buy our power from, and how much renewable energy is provided to the town. Low cost, reliability, and sustainability is really what’s my motivation for running.

A five minute video of Macrae explaining his positions can be viewed at the Belmont Media Center at this link: https://www.belmontmedia.org/watch/michael-macrae-candidate-light-board-2022

Q: Why seek a two year term rather than a full three year position?

A: One of the things that I think is really important in this election, is understanding that this is a sort of natural transition, an evolution of how Belmont Light and their governance and advisory committees work together. We have four of the current Lightboard Advisory Committee running for five seats on the Light Board, It naturally creates a need for us to create some agreement to say, “hey, let’s not all run against each other.” I want to make this as easy as possible for the four current Light Board Advisory Committee members to run.

Q: What are your goals for the Light Board?

A: On a personal basis, my motivation goes back to that triangle of reliability, low cost and sustainable. And I think one of the most effective ways we can do that is to lower the cost of electricity. Because if you lower the cost of electricity, it becomes easier and more attractive to say “I want to do an electric dryer. I want to get a smart thermostat. I want to install an EV in my garage or my driveway.” All of those things become financially more attractive the cheaper electricity gets, but those things also come with such a strong benefit because they are shifting how we use energy to cleaner energy. They’re getting emissions out of our town and they’re getting global emissions of greenhouse gases out of the air.

Q: Belmont Light is expected to move towards carbon neutrality through the Town Meeting-passed Climate Action Plan. But is there a price point on renewable sources of energy that you are unwilling to cross because it would cost consumers too much?

A: When I worked with Harvard University, one of my jobs was essentially the exact same thing that Belmont Light does – buying power. but for Harvard’s campus. And in that time, we continually increased the renewable energy use for Harvard’s campus without raising costs.

So if you do it smartly, and you do it strategically, you can have a very sustained, steady march towards cleaner power without crossing over a point at which you start to say, “Well, we’ve using lots of renewable power, but nobody can afford to use it.” Because then that disincentives somebody replacing a car with an electric vehicle or replacing an oil boiler with a heat pump.

And so we look at the benefits of the totality of everything to say, as you increase renewables, you also increase all these local benefits. And that helps clean the air in Belmont. Every time you take an oil boiler offline, our local air quality gets a little bit better, as well as reducing the global impacts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. So the answer is you need to do it smartly, you need to do it with careful consideration and planning and you need to do it in balance with the local benefits. That cheaper power can bring similar global benefits that buying renewable power brings.

Q: How will you help make sure this new board doesn’t become a bureaucratic backwater that lacks in transparency?

A: One of the exciting opportunities is that we have a highly functional team stepping into this board role. Travis [Franck], Dave [Beavers], Steve [Klionsky] and myself, we have a demonstrated proven track record of getting a lot done. We’ve launched a Time of Use pilot, we’ve successfully navigated revising the governance documents for Belmont Light, and we’ve moved through numerous big topics, and we’ve done it well. And within the organization, there’s just a lot of camaraderie. There’s a lot of high functional relationships and we can all see the goal. We communicate well, we are honest, we’re transparent. We say what we mean and we mean what we say. And I think that within the board structure this will really help us support Belmont Light.

Q: A prominent resident said Belmont Light was a “quaint antiquity,” a municipal utility in a world where large international energy firms are the dominate powers. Is the small utility a thing of the past?

A:  I sure hope not. There’s a lot going on in the world right now, a lot of it is very challenging to see in the news. And one of the impacts of that is increasing global energy prices. And so while we in Belmont Light have had stable electricity rates for years, and have indications that we should continue to have very modest changes to our power supply rates, all of our neighboring towns that have investor-owned big utilities of Massachusetts are seeing up to a 25 percent increase in their electricity costs. Because we have this wonderful gem of Belmont Light, we are able to strategically manage our power supply to keep rates low.

We have fewer changes than all of our neighbors and to keep our power as sustainable and reliable as possible. I think we’ve got some of the lowest outage rates and we have some of the cleanest electricity supply. And that is because we have a smart, locally governed community-owned light plant. So I don’t see it going anywhere soon. Municipal utilities been around for a very long time. And I’m optimistic they’ll be around for even longer than that.

Here Come [More] Sun: Solar Installation Exceeds Year Goal in Three Months

Photo: The logo and challenge of Belmont Goes Solar.

For supporters of solar power in Belmont, the past six months has been heady times as the popularity of the alternative energy source has gone through the roof.

Or, more appropriately, going ONTO the roofs of Belmont homeowners.

Since the implementation of a solar power policy for homeowners and small commercial businesses on Sept. 30, 2015 and the efforts of a newly-established volunteers group, the number of homes that have and are in the process of installing solar arrays has increased fivefold, according to Roger Colton, the co-chair of the town’s Energy Committee, told the Light Board on Monday, March 14.

The Light Board, which oversees the town’s electrical utility, is made up of the Board of Selectmen.

Capitalizing on a 30 percent federal investment tax credit, a discount from installer Direct Energy Solar, the establishment of a stable tariff that provided solar companies “a level of financial certainty” and the efforts of the two-month-old Belmont Goes Solar campaign, the number of homes with solar panels has shot up from 25 on Oct. 1, to 125 qualified and ready for solar installation, already exceeding the goal of 100 homes for 2016 in just 10 weeks.

“Demand is going up, day after day,” said Colton, who heads the Belmont Goes Solar Initiative.

Producing a map of installations, Colton, said the homes with solar power panels is literally everywhere in Belmont, and, which Colton said in the parlance of young people, “that’s ‘very cool’.” 

The Goes Solar campaign is supported by Belmont Light, the Belmont Public Schools, the Board of Selectmen, Sustainable Belmont, and the local chapter of Mothers Out Front. 

“It shows that when the community works together, programs to improve the community work,” said Colton. 

Since it reached its goal of 100 households going solar, Direct Energy Solar is donating $25,000 to the town towards a solar system on a Belmont school or a municipal building.

Due to the rapid number of residents seeking to install solar arrays, the Light Board – with a nod of approval from the town’s electrical utility, Belmont Light, and the Temporary Net Metering Working Group that created Belmont’s solar policy – has lifted the 1,000 kW ceiling on capacity as Belmont residents have already exceeded the amount.

While supportive of suspending the cap, Roy Epstein, the working group’s chair, said he wanted a date specific in the fall when to revisit establishing a new limit.

Colton encourages Belmont residents to sign-up for a free solar evaluation of their home. More than 70 percent of the homes that have signed-up for an assessment thus far, he notes, “qualified” for the installation of solar panels. 

The next opportunity for residents to meet and talk personally with Belmont Goes Solar volunteers and Direct Energy Solar staff will be Saturday, April 2 from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at a “Meet the Installer” event at the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St. The presentation will also address the particular circumstances of condo owners. 

Belmont homeowners can sign-up for a free solar assessment here