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Claire Miller, lead community organizer from the Toxics Action Center, leads a discussion on natural gas operations in New England. A photo of ISO New England’s energy grid is projected behind her. MICHAEL SMITH/SCMG

By Phil Devitt, Chronicle Editor | Posted Jun. 30, 2016 at 3:06 PM

New Bedford was once the city that lit the world with whale oil, but it lost that distinction decades ago. Now it’s carving out a new name for itself, with more solar projects per capita than any city in the United States.

“It’s an interesting time in Massachusetts,” said Peter Shattuck, Massachusetts director of Acadia Center, a clean energy nonprofit. “We’re not sitting on natural gas and oil. What we do here is innovate and capitalize on new opportunities. We don’t dig things up and burn them here. We come up with the new solutions and the new policies. That’s something that will really power the Massachusetts economy going forward.”

Shattuck, speaking at the first of three discussions in the SouthCoast Community Energy Series, told an audience at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational-Technical High School last week that an increasing focus on solar and wind energy, electric vehicles and conservation could keep gas pipelines from extending their reach statewide.

“By taking greater control, we can make better use of smarter appliances, smarter policy and resources in our own homes to get us to that better energy pathway,” he said.

The forum was created to explore energy issues facing the state and ways residents can maximize the economic, environmental and public health benefits of clean energy.

Janet Milkman, executive director of the nonprofit incubator Marion Institute, talked about local opportunities to save energy and money. She praised New Bedford for its “progressive” solar initiatives. “It’s really an amazing measure by the city that’s going to save residents millions of dollars and reduce greenhouse gases,” she said.

Milkman also cheered the 23-town electricity aggregation program in southeastern Massachusetts, which allows communities to buy electricity in bulk at a cheaper rate. Dartmouth is part of the program, which is the third largest in the country, Milkman said.

The Marion Institute oversees the SouthCoast Energy Challenge, an outreach program about energy efficiency targeted to low- to moderate-income homeowners and renters, mainly in New Bedford.

Throughout the hour-long discussion, panelists stressed the need to scale back use of natural gas in favor of other energy producers.

Claire Miller, lead community organizer of Toxics Action Center, said “there is a lot of money to be made” from fracking — or high-pressure gas extraction — in Pennsylvania and beyond, and a big push to pump that gas into different markets.

“There are a lot of proposals for new gas infrastructure in New England,” she said.

Shattuck said the country has become “over-dependent and “over-reliant” on natural gas. He said an investigation by Attorney General Maura Healey found the region has “no need for a gas pipeline” stretching to Canada.

During the winter of 2013-2014, a period of bitterly cold weather dubbed the “polar vortex,” gas prices spiked.

“This was one of the big justifications initially for boosters of the natural gas pipeline who were saying it was a simple supply and demand problem,” Shattuck said. “It turns out the issue wasn’t one of supply and demand but poor planning.”

Gas power plants in the region had not planned for the “over-reliance” and were unable to get the fuel they needed, according to Shattuck.

“In subsequent years, rules were put in place that require power plants to make sure they have the fuel they need on the coldest days of the year,” Shattuck said.

Roger Cabral leads SouthCoast Neighbors United, a coalition of local towns opposed to a liquefied natural gas storage and manufacturing facility proposed for Acushnet. The plan calls for two tanks at 6.8 billion cubic feet each, 13 times bigger than the 45-year-old tanks on site now and six times bigger than the famous “Rainbow Swash” storage tank off I-93 in Boston.

Cabral said the project would run 24-inch gas lines from the existing Algonquin pipeline in East Freetown through roads and yards close to homes and schools. The project would clear 150 acres of a 250-acre site in what the state Department of Environmental Protection says would be one of the largest proposed wetland alterations in the history of Massachusetts.

Cabral said the danger of pipeline ruptures and lower property values are among neighbors’ concerns.

“We’re making a lot of noise, trying to get the people who could approve this to see that Acushnet is not just some place in the wilderness, that there are people living in the shadow of what they’re proposing,” Cabral said.

Dartmouth is one of several towns included in SouthCoast Neighbors United.

The Wednesday night event was sparsely attended, but organizers are planning additional energy discussions, including one set for September.

Sponsors included Leadership SouthCoast, Marion Institute, Toxics Action Center, Acadia Center and SouthCoast Media Group, publisher of The Chronicle and The Standard-Times.

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