As one of the warmest winters in memory nears an end, the Town of East Hampton’s energy sustainability committee looks toward a looming deadline: the town’s goal to meet 100-percent renewable energy consumption, communitywide in all sectors, by 2030.
Coincidentally, or not, the current scientific consensus is that humanity has about 10 years remaining to prevent irreversible damage from climate change. The United Nations Emissions Gap Report 2019, issued in November, concluded that global carbon emissions, which continue to rise, must fall 7.6 percent per year from now until 2030 to limit warming to around 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels.
That same month, a National Geographic report warned that a “global tipping point” could render inevitable a global temperature rise of nine degrees Fahrenheit, sea level rise of 20 to 30 feet, “the complete loss of the world’s coral reefs and the Amazon forest, and large parts of the planet uninhabitable.” A “global emergency response is required” to remain under the 2.7-degree threshold, the report concluded.
In East Hampton, Lena Tabori has assumed the role of chairwoman of the energy sustainability committee. “As a town, we have established goals to meet 100-percent renewable in all sectors by 2030,” she said recently by email. “The committee is charged with making recommendations to the town in order to meet those goals.” By the committee’s next meeting, on Monday, “it will be incumbent on us to focus, with the best information we have, on what we need to prioritize to get there.”
“In order for us to make serious progress,” Ms. Tabori said last week, “every one of us has got to be focused on something that is critical to the 2030 goals.”
A strategy began to take shape at the committee’s Feb. 24 meeting, its first with Ms. Tabori as chairwoman, with a discussion of big-picture mitigation measures: Transitioning electricity generation to renewable sources, planting trees and expanding wetlands to absorb carbon emissions, and identifying every possible method of encouraging clean energy in electricity generation, transportation, and heating and cooling. There are few roadmaps, Ms. Tabori told the committee, and East Hampton must simultaneously learn from and serve as a model for other communities committed to reducing carbon emissions.
More specific initiatives include exploring the feasibility of replacing diesel fuel with biodiesel — made from vegetable oils, animal fats, or recycled restaurant grease — in the town’s vehicle fleet as well as in heating, and the replacement of diesel school buses with electric models.
The town has purchased around 35 new vehicles per year over the past few years; among its 257-vehicle fleet are 4 electric and 7 hybrid models. The committee will present to the town board its recommendation that it commit to purchasing electric vehicles whenever possible, and low-emissions options when it is not.
Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, the town board’s liaison to the energy sustainability committee, relayed that news to board members at their March 3 meeting. “I certainly support switching the fleet to electric where feasible,” Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said, noting that not every vehicle type has an electric model. Electric vehicle-charging infrastructure must also be expanded, he said.
The energy sustainability committee’s sharpened focus on 2030 comes amid more change. Following Kathleen Kirkwood’s recent resignation as chairwoman of the town’s recycling and litter committee, that committee has disbanded, and its mission merged with that of the energy sustainability committee. At the time of Ms. Kirkwood’s resignation, “the energy committee was starting to get interested, and have folks with expertise, in litter and other areas they wanted to explore,” Ms. Overby told the board. “It was a good time to combine the two committees.”
“Up until now,” Ms. Tabori said last week, “we’ve focused on transportation, electricity, and heating and cooling,” but the urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions extends beyond those sectors. “We have come to a place where there’s emissions coming from more than the immediate fossil fuel source.” For example, she said, “we’re getting methane leakage from landfills.”
She likened that unforeseen consequence to hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for natural gas. While natural gas releases less carbon dioxide than coal or oil when burned, fracking produces a sharp increase in emissions of methane, a far greater heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide. “People were thinking about it as a bridge to renewables,” Ms. Tabori said of fracking for natural gas, “not something that was going to produce a lot of leakage of methane.”
Along with the challenges of reducing methane emissions from landfills and expanding wetlands and forests, “greenhouse gas emissions from food waste, the potential of recycling plastics into asphalt to pave roads — these areas of interest added to our basic focus on transportation, electricity, and heating and cooling, and are in perfect alignment with our 2030 goals,” Ms. Tabori said. “I’m going to see what we need to do in the food waste department, and how to bring food composting into the community.”
The town board appointed Biddle Duke and Brad Brooks to the committee last month, bringing its membership to 18. “I had my first meeting this past Monday and didn’t have room at the table for the existing members,” Ms. Tabori said by email. “Three of them sat in the audience. And everyone had something valuable to contribute, which, in part, caused us to make our way through half an agenda.”
The committee’s meetings, at 4 p.m. on the third Monday of every month in the meeting room at Town Hall, are open to the public.
“I suspect that many people are going to be aggravated by me,” Ms. Tabori predicted of her leadership, “but others will be empowered as we deliver one resolution after the other to the town.”